On-screen romance and the real deal: It’s a fine line

In "Revolutionary Road," the couple's dissolving marriage pushes them to near-savagery.
(Francois Duhamel / Dreamworks)

If you’re looking for a sympathetic ear, or worse, sage relationship advice from romantic comedies, well, they’re just not that into you.

It seems that the ideas commonly put forth by such movies -- a singular soul mate; deception in the name of desire; flashy, eloquent declarations of love -- can lead many to unrealistic expectations for their own love lives, say researchers in Scotland.

“We have this idea that out of 6 1/2 billion people, we’re somehow going to meet our predestined soul mate, who happens to live in the same neighborhood or work in the same place. I love how that always happens,” says psychologist Bjarne M. Holmes, of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, about a common film plot point. But in real life “people sometimes spend 10 years going through a series of relationships that, if they had put time and energy into, might have actually gone somewhere instead of having this prior idea of what they’re expecting.”

In the study, recently published in the journal Communication Quarterly, Holmes and fellow researcher Kimberly Johnson selected 40 top-grossing romantic comedies released from 1995 to 2005 -- including such titles as “What Women Want” and “You’ve Got Mail” -- and analyzed their content, cataloging each scene of romantic action such as gift-giving, kissing, declarations of love, weddings, involvement with exes and even acts of deception in the pursuit of love.

“What we found is that some of these same themes that our relationship counselor colleagues tell us they hear over and over seem to be perpetuated,” he says. Though he was careful to note this doesn’t in itself determine whether the genre is causing destructive behavior found in real relationships, or is reflecting it, or both.

Holmes’ ongoing research also includes a study of nearly 300 college students that establishes a correlation between the preference for such entertainments and the students’ curdled concepts about love.

“We’re basically finding that people who prefer romantic comedies are more likely to buy into notions of predestined soul mates, [to believe] that men and women are very different in relationships -- which, if you go into 30 years of study in relationship science, that’s usually not the case -- and that it’s a good idea to try to read your partner’s mind” rather than communicate, Holmes said by phone from Scotland.

Indeed, lay the blueprint for most rom-coms upon current Hollywood offerings and you’ll find variations of “Girl Meets Boy, Girl Hates Boy, Girl Goes Through Growth Experience and Realizes She Loves Boy” all over them. The Renée Zellweger vehicle “New in Town,” the ensemble jaunt “He’s Just Not That Into You” and this weekend’s “Confessions of a Shopaholic” fit the schematics like fashionistas caught wearing identical outfits.

“New in Town” and “Shopaholic” are rooted in the school of “deception is the path to true love,” which in the real world might cause concern among relationship counselors. Yet the fantasy of “once it’s broken, trust grows back stronger” permeates the romantic genre, as Holmes and Johnson found in their content analysis (in “While You Were Sleeping,” “Mr. Deeds” and many others).

“He’s Just Not That Into You” seems more evolved in that it depicts ties built on lies as easily undone, but it also purports that there are relationship rules that all men follow. Once women learn them, it declares, they’ll figure men out, eliminating the need for pesky communication. These man-laws are spelled out by Justin Long’s character, a kind of Yoda for the hook-up set.

Certainly, most audiences acknowledge the stories in romantic comedies are flights of fancy. But film historian David Thomson says, well, yes, movies do influence us. “How can we not assume that the works we produce for ourselves, the stories we tell each other, are going to affect us in some way? I grew up thinking you really have to fall in love with someone and marry them and it will last forever and you’ll be happy. None of these things is true.

“I think the comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, some of them stand up among our best films. But there was a kind of code of family life that has probably been very destructive because it’s left a lot of people feeling, ‘My family didn’t work out that way.’ It’s a lot to live up to.”

Exactly, says Holmes. “The average American sees more examples of relationships in popular media than in their own lives.” The popular mainstream media, he says, have a focused and narrow scope of what relationships are supposed to be, of who is supposed to do and say what, and how marriage should be defined.

“The mind is not very good at distinguishing between information from reality and from different media. So when we build our belief structures, we tend to mesh those together. There’s a lot of science that shows that if you watch a lot of the local evening news, you’re more likely to overestimate the crime rate in your neighborhood.”

Not everyone is convinced. Laurie Puhn, a family and divorce mediator-lawyer and author of “Instant Persuasion: How to Change Your Words to Change Your Life,” says while the content analysis might apply to adolescents and others who are “less self-aware” than normal, “What I find about people who come in for family mediation is that they’re not deluded; they don’t think, ‘He should be able to read my mind.’ They just don’t know how to express what they’re thinking.”

But to that point, the researchers’ content analysis also found that marriage is often depicted as long-suffering, with no hope of release: the Guantanamo Bays of love. Puhn and Thomson cite the brutally post-euphoric “Revolutionary Road” as an antidote to the disease of the fluffy rom-com. In it, the couple’s dissolving marriage pushes them to near-savagery.

“These other movies are out there to show us about having to do the work of marriage,” Puhn says.

Yes, but hard-truth movies draw far smaller audiences than romantic comedy fairy tales. They’re just not as fun.

Even the experts confessed to their fondness for the love fantasy genre. “Let’s not undervalue the dream of making that come true,” says film critic and USC adjunct professor Leonard Maltin. “It’s truer than ever that most people who go to movies are buying escape, not reality, and Hollywood is only too happy to feed that.”