Romantic comedies, or romcoms as they are also known, tend to be so… mainstream. In many ways, they are the safest of all story formats, not least because the audience knows how the story will end. We can anticipate both comic and dramatic bumps in the road. Twists and turns will not curb the true nature of the central characters, and will not prevent their arriving in each other’s arms. Girl meets boy, often in circumstances that are less than ideal. Obstacles get in the way, often from the very outset. Attraction flourishes haltingly, the possibility of love is hinted at, more accidents happen. The boy and girl part, then chance upon each other again. More obstacles are overcome, sometimes culminating with a heroic last gasp gamble, most often by the boy, though sometimes by the girl. And all ends as it should. Ho hum. Would it be possible to write a genuinely alternative romantic comedy, one where the characters are so set against both romance and comedy that we might believe their story is romantic, funny, and real also? The kind of real as understood by those who only ever watch a romcom in order to please their (sentimental) other half? Could a romcom be a story so grounded in a recognizably uneasy, compromise-laden and barrier-littered reality that the viewer genuinely despairs at the chances of the would-be lovers forming the forebode (or forbidden) union? And which still prompts some laughs along the way? I do not know. But here is a study for an opening scene (and a bit) aiming to introduce a quintessentially alternative character to the genre. Forget men that still live at home with their parents, or are about to marry someone else, or who suffer under a gypsy curse that prevents them ever finding love. Marcus Bolton could never be the subject of a light-hearted romantic adventure (and one set at Christmas too, for added Scroogeability). Or could he?
The camera opens on a still photograph, a close-up of a beautiful and smiling woman. It is snowing. The camera pulls back and pans down, revealing that the woman’s face is plastered on a billboard twelve feet high, above a busy street in an outlying district of New York. She advertises washing powder. The camera continues to pan down to show a man, Marcus, in a shabby brown business suit, and brown overcoat, walking away from the camera and toward the billboard. It is cold; he flicks up the collar of his coat to keep his neck warm, though the front of his coat is not buttoned. We follow Marcus as he makes his way across town during his morning commute.
Marcus (v.o.): Love is like Santa Claus. (beat) There’s no such thing. (beat) Love is the perfect ideal for a consumer world. Money can’t buy love. Love makes the world go round. All you need is love, plus the car with the satnav and the cupholders, and the moisturizing face cream with the anti-wrinkle agent X, and the detergent that washes brilliant white. That’s all you need. And Santa, who delivers them to your home. For free. (beat) In a world that wants to receive, love is giving. It’s all giving and giving and giving. That’s why it’s so great. People love to receive. Love is like a credit card that you never need to settle. You get what you want and… somebody who loves you pays the bill. That’s how you know it’s true love. You give what you want, when you want. You receive what you want, whenever you want it, and sometimes more. And you never worry about balancing the books, because it’s true love, without limits, and not book-keeping. True lovers don’t need to keep count.
Marcus steps down to the subway station.
Marcus (v.o.): Santa Claus gives, and all he wants in return is some milk and cookies. This fat guy in a red coat hands out 200 hundred million video game consoles in an evening, and all he wants is milk and cookies in return. A billion gallons of milk worldwide. That’s a lot of dairy. But it’s no wonder he overeats. Santa obviously suffers from depression; eating must be his only source of comfort. All that stress he creates for himself, spending the whole year making toys, keeping lists of where everyone lives, making all those deliveries in just one evening, and what does he get in return? A glass of milk and cheap store-bought cookies. And then what does he get to look forward to? The exact same thing next year. He doesn’t even get to look forward to retirement. We’re gonna work that fat guy until his great big jolly heart gives out, clogged full of cholesterol and processed chocolate chips. And then where will we be? Contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve because we’re unloved and alone, whilst watching Will Ferrell play Santa Claus in a film on TV because watching Will Ferrell play Santa Claus is better than dealing with real life. Real life sucks. If you want real life, look out the window. That’s why they invented television, to save us from the misery of looking out of the window. Great big plasma screen high definition televisions with three dimensional pictures and stereo sound and the memory that records your favourite shows – the kind of gift you really want for Christmas. And then they put romantic comedies on that screen. Now that’s true love.
Marcus gets on to the subway. He stands back and lets others rush to grab a seat. As he turns, he sees a pretty young woman get on further down the carriage. She shuffles her way between people, looking for space to stand.
Marcus (v.o.): Take a look at that woman. She’s pretty. Ten men are going to fall in love with her today. They’ll see her, not know a thing about her, and fall in love with her. Ten grown men, inventing reasons why this pretty girl is not just pretty but also really kind, and caring and wonderful, and will be a great lay and a really good mother, all at the same time. All because she’s got straight teeth and long eyelashes and the kind of flawless skin that doesn’t need the anti-wrinkle moisturizer (pause) yet. Ten men living a fantasy based on this girl’s looks. Yeah, I know, 80% of statistics are made up. Trust me, I know about these things. And not one of those ten men actually knows a thing about that girl.
The woman is slightly jostled by a male commuter, who then tries to strike up a conversation. At a distance, it seems like she is politely trying to humour the man, without encouraging him.
Marcus (v.o.): First impressions. People do that. Delude themselves. Get a stupid erroneous first impression and spend the next decade trying to persuade themselves that the first impression was right and that every impression afterwards was wrong. That’s love. That’s why it’s so powerful. It’s so powerful that nine of those ten men are going to end up jacking off whilst thinking about that woman.
Marcus turns to the camera and talks.
Marcus: The tenth guy would do the same, but instead he’ll think about her whilst making love to his wife.
Because Marcus spoke aloud, he grabs the attention of another passenger standing alongside him.
Other Passenger: What’s that?
Marcus: I’m just saying 80% of statistics are made up. This is my stop – good day!
The other passenger looks bemused as Marcus leaves the subway train amidst a pushy, impatient crowd. After he walks through the ticket barrier, he passes a man in a Santa Claus outfit, ringing a bell and collecting money for charity. Marcus steps out of frame, then steps back, and puts a few coins in Santa’s tin.
Man in Santa Claus Outfit: Merry Christmas to you!
Marcus: Peace on Earth, Captain Nick.
Marcus raises his right hand to his brow, his fingers in the shape of a peace sign, and gives the Santa a mock salute. He talks to camera for the rest of his journey into work.
Marcus: Don’t get me wrong. I just hate carrying loose change. I calculate it’s cheaper to give it away then fix the holes it makes in your pocket lining. (beat) What was I talking about? (beat) Oh yeah, love. The thing about love is that everybody wants to be on the receiving end. They all want to receive a lot, and give a little, whilst imagining they give a lot. It’s basic economics. Buy low, sell high. Get the bigger, better deal. Trade up. Get a good return on your investment. That kind of thing.
Marcus has climbed up the subway steps and is walking along a street in Manhattan. The snow is blowing into his face, reddening it and making him squint. The flakes glisten as they melt upon his cheeks and brow.
Marcus: Internet dating sites? eBay for lonely people and those wanting more sexual partners. Speed dating? Window shopping for those with time to kill, panic buying for the rest. Singles cruises? High-pressure business conventions on a boat. It’s the capitalism of love. Love loves a free market and the free market loves love. And there’s nothing people love more in a capitalist system than a crazy communist who is easy to exploit because he doesn’t know how the free market works. Like the guy who spends 39.99 on the book that explains how to get rich. You get rich by selling the book, not buying it, dummy. Like Santa Claus, a guy who gives away billions of dollars of perfume and electronics, and drinks a vat of cow juice in return. Santa’s a commie – why do you think he wears red? Like lovers. Lovers with big red bleeding hearts. The kind of lovers that people dream about loving them, kidding themselves that when they finally find ‘the one’ then they’ll start to give as much as they get. Yeah, capitalist lovers all love a communist lovesick fool. In every outstanding business deal, one party has to be the sucker. That’s love for you.
Marcus walks into his office building. He gets into the elevator.
Marcus: So you’re still listening? Good. In situations like these, people don’t want to hear what I’ve got to say. When it comes to love, people mostly want to hear that they’re Meg Ryan and they are about to meet their very own George Clooney, or that they’re Will Smith and they’re about to meet their very own J-Lo, or some fantasy like that. You’re not J-Lo and you’re not George Clooney. Even George Clooney isn’t George Clooney. He’s just some hack actor who did nothing for the longest time, then got cast as a nice, smiley, caring doctor on TV and he’s been playing that nice smiley caring doctor ever since. Except sometimes he’s not a doctor, but you get my point. Most women want a nice caring smiling doctor. Doctors make lots of money and they know about anatomy and they make the sick well and they swore the Hippocratic oath so they’re good honest people. Actors aren’t good honest people. They spend their whole life lying, telling you lies that will make you feel good for a little while but miserable in the long run. Lies like you can find love, and that drinking the right brand of coffee makes you happy, when really it just makes you tense and gives you sleepless nights. Love also makes you tense and gives you sleepless nights, but coffee stains your teeth too. But what do you drink in the morning after you had a sleepless night, spent worrying about having love, or not having love, or whether you can trust your love? Coffee, that’s what you drink. And nobody wants a lover with dark rings under their eyes, or coffee stains on their teeth, so you’ve blown it just by wanting it so bad.
Marcus walks out of the elevator, down a corridor leading to the door of his office.
Marcus: Okay, I don’t actually know George Clooney, so maybe he’s an okay guy, but you take my point. I don’t know Meg Ryan either, but they cast her because she’s pretty, but not so pretty that people can’t relate to her. Or she was pretty, before she started getting too old for those parts and the plastic surgery destroyed her natural wholesome look. Sarah Jessica Parker is the same except she was never that pretty even when she was young. Beauty that you can afford; that’s what the market wants. But even the best brands become unfashionable over time. Now the only people who relate to Meg Ryan are older women who’ve also had facelifts. And I don’t want to imagine who relates to Sarah Jessica Parker. So by now you must be thinking: “Why the hell am I listening to this guy?” Because it’s best to get my advice sooner, instead of later, that’s why.
Marcus closes the door on his office. It reads “Marcus Bolton: Marriage and Relationship Counselor”.
Interior of a seedy grungy bar, where alternative rock music is playing in the background (“Video Killed the Radio Star” as covered by The Presidents of the United States of America). Marcus is sat at the bar, then turns and talks to the camera. The music is loud, so he shouts to make himself heard.
Marcus: You see? I told you not to trust first impressions. What did you think I was, a lawyer or something? The owner of a publishing company? Give me a break. What kind of cliché would that be? And who says I shouldn’t come to this punk bar on an evening? I’m middle-aged, not dead. And who says teenagers should have all the fun? They’re too young to appreciate it anyway. I’m not married and I don’t have kids, so I can enjoy an evening without relying on a TV or a babysitter. Youth is wasted on the young-at-heart. (pause) See that girl from earlier?
Marcus points the camera towards someone serving drinks from behind the bar. She is the same pretty young woman seen on the subway. She is made up in heavy goth make-up and incongruously wears a pointed red Christmas hat.
Marcus: She doesn’t wear all that make-up at college, but on an evening she dresses up, or dresses down, depending on your point of view, because life’s easier that way. She’s not pitching to the mass market, which is tough luck for those ten guys who feel in love with her. Her marketing is aimed at a niche. And trust me, she isn’t the falling-in-love type anyways. Too busy studying and working to pay her bills. No time for romance. Smart girl.