Have you ever watched a romantic movie and at the end, when one character declares their love to the other, instead of swooning, you cringed and covered your eyes?
I have. Just the other day.
The movie? The Proposal.
Yes, the Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds film, circa 2009.
Actually, I first saw it years ago, and had vaguely negative feelings about it. But, I think that first viewing was on a plane or something, and I didn’t give it my full attention. So I thought I’d give it another shot.
In the film, big-time New York book editor and closet Canadian, Margaret (Bullock), is being deported and hence booted out of her beloved job. So, she claims to her boss that she’s engaged to her long-suffering assistant and aspiring editor, Andrew (Reynolds), so she can stay in her job and in the U.S.
I don’t hate the premise. True, her ‘proposal’ (see? from the title?) seems manipulative, but it’s made clear Andrew’s career would be over if she was deported, so the fake marriage helps him, too.
In fact, I was excited at the possibilities! Will he see her in a new light, now that they’re stuck together? Does he secretly already love her?? There was so much potential!
So what went wrong?
The problem with The Proposal
The problem is, this movie is more com-rom than rom-com. It’s a lot of Sandy being silly, without much attempt at romance.
Yes, they share a bedroom. Yes, she falls off his boat and he has to save her. Yes, she confides in him about her tragic backstory. Yes, they accidentally collide and end up naked and entangled on the floor. Yes, they even kiss at one point – when forced to – but they only look awkward afterwards, not filled with longing.
My point is, couldn’t all those things happen between platonic friends in the same situation?
Yes, I think they could.
To make a movie romantic, you need a little more than cute encounters, shared secrets, and accidental nudity.
You need ‘the look’.
‘The look’ in Dirty Dancing
Take Dirty Dancing. As I hope most of you know, this movie is about Baby, who fills in as dreamy Johnny’s dance partner while summering at a Catskills resort. Johnny and Baby train together, but during most of their rehearsal time, Johnny seems a little annoyed at Baby – it’s not clear that he has romantic feelings for her (though it’s pretty obvious she has a crush on him).
No, we only find out he’s attracted to her during this moment, after the performance, when he ogles her while she’s changing in the back seat of his car:
Why is this moment important? Because the next time we see the two alone together is when Baby visits his cabin and propositions him. And it might have seemed a bit more like convenience, and less like love, if he’d suddenly agreed to this, when he’d mostly treated her like an annoying kid up to that point.
‘The look’ in 10 Things I Hate About You
‘The look’ functions a bit differently in the teen romance 10 Things I Hate About You. Patrick (Heath Ledger) has been paid to date Kat (Julia Stiles) – so he’s not, on the surface, a sympathetic character we’d root for.
What if he never showed feelings for her, but only revealed he really liked her when his scheme was found out? The audience would be just as skeptical as Kat about his true intentions.
So, showing how Patrick feels about her is crucial to keeping the viewer on his side, and making the romance credible.
That’s why we need moments like this, when he reluctantly arrives at a concert, set on staging a run-in with Kat:
In this case, he’s not ogling her, he’s just showing that he likes her. So, we know it’s not all about the money, and can happily root for him.
‘The look’ in Clueless
Clueless features Cher (Alicia Silverstone) as a spoilt but good-hearted Beverly Hills teen who – while she’s not matchmaking and doing makeovers – trades barbs with her ex-step-brother, Josh.
These two are ‘brother-and-sister-types’, and early in the movie it’s not at all clear that they’re destined for each other. Plus, Josh doesn’t get a voiceover like Cher does, so how does the audience figure out that he’s interested in her?
Using ‘the look’, of course! We get this long close-up of Josh when he eyes Cher preparing to leave for a party:
Whoa! That’s a big ‘look’! But, it’s doing a lot of heavy lifting, since this is the only real moment when we’re shown how he feels.
Imagine if we hadn’t had that moment. Imagine if, at the end of the movie, he made that sudden pass at Cher, without ever previously giving a sign of how he felt. Imagine! It would have seemed weird, incongruent, and very ‘cringe’.
There are different types of romance stories. In many, the romantic duo makes no secret of their feelings, and we don’t need ‘the look’ to set expectations.
But, some of the best romances involve pairs that aren’t ‘together’ and are pining from a distance. In those cases, we often need ‘the look’ to assure us that romance is in the air, so we’re not shocked when one of them suddenly declares ‘I love you’ and launches a passionate kiss.
Sadly, I was shocked when I watched The Proposal. I knew it was a romance, of course, but I still needed to be shown the love.
If everything the couple says and does could be the words and actions of platonic friends, the movie needs to add some element of romance, like ‘the look’, to pave the way to that romantic climax.
The closest thing we get to ‘the look’ in the Proposal is this, when Andrew is watching Margaret silly-dance:
Yeah, he smirks for a second, but I read that as a surprised smirk, not a “wow, she’s really amazing and I just now realize I’m falling for her” smirk. (And her head’s kind of in the way, anyway.)
So when Andrew follows Margaret from Alaska to New York and storms their editorial office, panting(!), then declares that he loves her, it’s… uncomfortable. For him. For her. For love! Love does not look or act the way he looked and acted the whole way through that movie. To me, he just seemed like her (possibly gay) assistant.
Beyond setting expectations, ensuring the audience feels the romance is crucial to generating romantic tension. After all, you can add all the pull you want (conflict), if there’s nothing holding on to the other end (love), you have no tension, and the story is flaccid and pointless.
And it’s just disappointing! There are so few good romance movies in this world! What a shame to ruin what could have been a fine story by forgetting to include a simple romantic ‘look’.