Like a lot of people, I learned about relationships at a young age by watching movies and TV shows. Only now in my adult life do I realize how much influence Cheers and Woody Allen and L.A. Story had on me: They helped to create a sense that love was this melancholy thing that rarely lasted, no matter how hard you tried. Before I was in any relationships myself, this warped impression of romance was imprinted on my brain. For a long time after, I was following a self-fulfilling prophecy: Sam and Diane didn't end up together, Woody rarely got the girl, so what chance did I have?
Whether it's Casablanca or Sleepless in Seattle, films tell us about how relationships work. Most of them either promise that love can fix everything or celebrate unrequited love as the purest, most powerful emotion of all. No matter how the story ends, it's not a lot of help as dating advice.
This weekend, we get The Lucky One and Think Like a Man. From different angles, both are ostensibly going after the date-night crowd, and they're prime examples of how terrible Hollywood is at offering a how-to guide to relationships. Forget searching for your true love: After watching these two films, you may want to give up on talking to people altogether.
The Lucky One, as you probably know, is the most recent movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book. He's basically got two plots: Old people fall in love (Nights in Rodanthe, Message in a Bottle) or young people fall in love (The Notebook, Dear John). The Lucky One is in the latter category. The Male Young Person is a former Marine (Zac Efron) who while in Iraq found a photograph of a beautiful woman that he believes kept him safe during battle. When he gets home, he decides he has to find this Female Young Person. Because this is a Sparks movie, the guy's obsession isn't creepy like it would be if it happened in real life. It's Zac Efron: He's dreamy.
Just like all romantics do, Efron journeys on foot to find this woman, played by Taylor Schilling. But once he tracks her down, he feels too weird about why he's come to see her, so he tells some lies and ends up working alongside her at her kennel. And so the idiot plot goes into effect and we sit around waiting for her to figure out what we in the audience already know: The photo of her had been carried by her brother, a Marine, who died in Iraq.
People who eat up stuff like The Lucky One will say that it's harmless, sappy fun and that you shouldn't take it too seriously. Which would be fine if The Lucky One didn't take everything it does very seriously. Efron and Schilling don't simply fall in love—they are joined together by fate. This is what happens in Sparks's movies.
Romantic dramas have always depended on destiny and coincidence; if Ilsa doesn't happen to walk into Rick's cafe that night, Casablanca is a movie about a solitary guy who cracks wise and looks good in a suit. But movies like The Lucky One try to elevate their stakes by making it seem like these plot points are the harmonies of the cosmos. Trust me, nothing cosmic goes on in The Lucky One: It's simply a story about The Nicest Guy Ever courting The Nicest Gal Ever while hiding The Dumbest Secret Ever from her. In the world of The Lucky One, love doesn't just mean never having to say you're sorry—really, it means never having to do anything. Fate will take care of it all. (Still, as a helpful hint, you definitely want to make nice with the woman's adorable son. It shows how sensitive you are.)
So you think to yourself, "Screw movies like The Lucky One. I'm not falling for those moldy romantic cliches. I want a film that explores the cynical underside of dating in the 21st century." What a strange thing to think to yourself! But you are in luck, because that's precisely what Think Like a Man is offering. Where The Lucky One is all about old-school sappiness, Think Like a Man is the sort of sourness that's meant to be the antidote.
Think Like a Man is based on a book as well: Steve Harvey's Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. I haven't read Harvey's nonfiction advice book, but after seeing the movie I don't need to, because Harvey helpfully shows up on camera to recite passages directly to the audience. Essentially, Harvey's philosophy is that women need to realize that men are dogs. Once women have figured this out, they can use Harvey's book to beat them at their own game. So the film follows a bunch of young ladies as they read his book and conquer the men in their lives, who in turn read his book secretly so they can figure out how to get back at them.
OK, sure, Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, and Albert Brooks all had a field day with gender differences. But knowing banter between the sexes has given way to depictions of open warfare. In Failure to Launch, Sarah Jessica Parker was hired to get Matthew McConaughey to fall in love with her so that he'd move out of his parents' place. In The Ugly Truth Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl spend the entire movie bickering at each other to convince us that, deep down inside, they're in love. To find your soul mate in this day and age, it helps if you can't stand or trust the person. Otherwise, you're just a sucker.
So where The Lucky One tells us that people are basically decent and nice—except for your ex-husband, who's a total jerk all the time—Think Like a Man argues that the dating world is made up entirely of horrible human beings. Over at Jezebel, author Chloe Angyal argued this week that modern-day romantic comedies teach women the false lesson that love can help transform a misogynist into a gentleman. I don't think that's entirely right. The hip, "sassy" contemporary rom-com basically lets everybody in the theater know that his or her date has a secret agenda and that the only way to keep her or him in line is by manipulating or outsmarting the other party. True love doesn't redeem anyone, because true love doesn't exist. You fool (or wear down) your significant other until he or she submits.
(You may have noticed I'm only talking about opposite-sex relationships in movies. As far as mainstream Hollywood films are concerned, gay relationships—if they appear at all—are usually portrayed as either being "adorable" or "bitchy." Very progressive of them.)
I'm not under any delusion that romantic movies from my younger years were much better than what we've got now. Now happily married for almost six years, I see few movies that capture the complexity of a real relationship. So I'm not that annoyed that romantic movies like The Lucky One and Think Like a Man are somehow "inaccurate." They're movies. But I'm depressed by how bleak a portrait they paint. If you go to both this weekend, you'll learn that your love will last only if fate wants it to last. Good luck! But if your relationship does fizzle, don't worry: It was your manipulative partner's fault. Love is a battlefield? Hollywood love looks more like a suicide mission.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch. Top image by Jim Cooke.