I figured, what's the harm? I read and write for a living, and at the end of the week, I'm not really craving deep intellectual content. I had the same attitude going into this last week of the year. I was hoping to shut off my brain, head to a little hut in the desert somewhere, read popular fiction and rent feel-good movies.
Not surprisingly, the British press sank its teeth into the story. "Have Hollywood's romantic comedies stolen our hearts?" asked a headline in the Daily Telegraph. "Slushy movies bad for lovers," screamed the Daily Record. The Daily Mail wrung its hands over what it called the "Notting Hill effect."
But what exactly is the "Notting Hill" effect? Does it have anything to do with Hugh Grant on Curson Avenue in Hollywood? No, frankly, it's much worse.
According to a few enterprising social scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, romantic comedies can raise unrealistic romantic expectations among fans and may therefore set them up for personal failure and a lifetime of disappointment.
I called up Bjarne Holmes, the lead researcher on the project at the university's Family and Personal Relationships Laboratory, to ask him if he wasn't severely underestimating the intelligence of the moviegoing audience. "Oh no," he responded. "Audiences are able to see that movies are not reality. We know this. But there's a little emerging evidence that it still has an impact on our emotional lives."
Holmes isn't arguing that contemporary romantic comedies invented today's outlandish expectations of romantic love. "Such fantasies have been around since antiquity," he says. But that's part of the point. Until recent times, marriage was more a matter of joining families and property than it was about love. Romantic myths, Holmes said, arose in a time when people longed for a personal connection to the lucky fools with whom they would share their short, brutish lives.
Today, however, argued Holmes, when we have the great good fortune to marry for true love, we don't need all those overwrought narratives about finding your soul mates. "The myths have outlived their usefulness," he said.
But here's where he loses me. Now that we don't need fanciful stories about meeting our Princess Charming, Holmes said we need narratives about how to get along with each other. Can you imagine how entertaining a movie that would make? Maybe one starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Aniston learning how to tolerate one another's personal hygiene rituals.
Still, after sifting through 200 of the top-grossing romantic comedies to come out of the Big Six Hollywood studios between 1995 and 2005, Holmes and his colleagues found some interesting common denominators: In the movies, new relationships are portrayed both as exciting, as most tend to be, and offering the intimacy that usually takes years to develop in real life. Past transgressions are easily forgiven. (You cheated on me with the mailman? Big deal! I still love you; let's live happily ever after!) And finally, older, more committed relationships are frequently portrayed in a negative light, with couples bickering and backbiting. More often than not, married couples are depicted as long-suffering.
All this does make sense, I guess. But I'm still not certain that it's going to change my DVD rental schedule for the remainder of the holidays. I asked Holmes whether watching movies that depicted casual, meaningless sex would be better for my love life than romantic comedies, but he wouldn't bite.
In the end, however, Holmes loosened up and tacitly gave me approval to shut off my brain for the rest of the year without further endangering my romantic life. He admitted that he too liked the occasional ridiculous romantic comedy.
"As skeptical as I have to be as a scientist," he confessed, "I'll watch these movies and go awww."
Heck, if they're good enough for the guy who's warning us about them, they're good enough for me. Let's see what's on pay per view.