According to Shakespeare, "love comforteth like sunshine after rain." Although, Shakespeare was of two minds on the concept of love, since it's also at the heart of the conflicts in many of his' plays, leading to deceit, poison, murder, suicide and a good deal of "woe" in some cases. Affection, libido, love, sexual gratification, etc., etc., are connected to complex & powerful emotions (especially when someone thinks they're experience the "true" kind) that sometimes words on a page have trouble expressing in fullness.
So it's no surprise that films might have problems with the concepts as well. However, there are some movies that are so Godawfully bad at depicting relationships, you wonder if the writer has ever kissed another human being? So what is the worst depiction of a romance you've seen depicted in a movie? And which Romance tropes piss you off?
The topic is a bit more complex than it might seem on the surface, since it also gets into romance cliches & tropes, how women are depicted in film, as well as issues of race. For example, I believe I remember reading an interview with John Cho and Kal Penn (of 'Harold & Kumar') who pointed out that almost never do Asian male characters have love interests in movies. And more often than not, if an Asian female character is the main love interest, she's being fought over by a white guy and an Asian guy, with the white guy ending up with the girl.
Back in 2002, the American Film Institute (AFI) put together "100 Years....100 Passions", which listed what they consider the top 100 love stories in American cinema. You can see the entire list by clicking on the link above, but here are the Top 15 films....
1. Casablanca (1942)
2. Gone with the Wind (1939)
3. West Side Story (1961)
4. Roman Holiday (1953)
5. An Affair to Remember (1957)
6. The Way We Were (1973)
7. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
8. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
9. Love Story (1970)
10. City Lights (1931)
11. Annie Hall (1977)
12. My Fair Lady (1964)
13. Out of Africa (1985)
14. The African Queen (1951)
15. Wuthering Heights (1939)
As I've documented in the past, every film & TV show employs a certain amount of tried & true cliches, conventions, formulas, and stereotypes to create a story. In a good film these type of things are usually forgiven, since the audience doesn't really notice 'em. However, in bad films they stand out like a sore thumb.
For example, Hollywood will hardly ever cast a "nerdy" girl for lead in a romantic comedy, even if the part calls for an unattractive, nerdy girl. So what you end up with is "Hollywood Homely," in which they cast a stunning actress and "ugly" her up by making her wear glasses & putting her hair up in a pony-tail. Thus setting up the five-minute makeover montage in the film.
Almost all romance stories use tropes common to Fairy Tales. For example...
- The Unnoticed Girl - The beautiful girl who no one recognizes as beautiful until someone gives her a makeover (see also "Beauty = Goodness").
- Love At First Sight - It takes only a brief encounter for the characters to know fate wants them to be together, and they should devote every bit of their life to making the relationship happen.
- Forces Attempting To Keep True Love Apart - The Evil Stepmother (aka Lady Tremaine) & her two brats play this role for Cinderella, but in modern stories this could be a jealous ex, a rival who wants to steal the significant other away, etc.
- "Love Hurts" - This is usually toned down in most modern romantic comedies, but a common element in a lot of fairy tales is the female character undergoing abuse because of her beauty or love for a prince. Most modern stories achieve this by showing the female character's life at the beginning as either miserable because of her job, her social position, or (like Cinderella) the way she's treated by her family. The love story then either serves to break the character from the cycle or exacerbates it, and the abuse gets worse before it gets better.
"Damsel In Distress" and "Stalking = Love"
Another element connected to that last bullet-point, which comes up from time to time, is the "Damsel in Distress." However, one big problem of some works that use this trope is that the female character ends up having no depth at all except as an object to be coveted.
A big example of this is Bella in Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series.
Ever since this book series (and then the films) reached pop-culture critical mass, the series has come under criticism for being centered around what has been called anywhere from a subservient to abusive relationship. I've had a fan of "Twilight" explain the series to me as a sexless, teen version of Romance novels. Her argument was that Bella connects with female readers because women can relate to the awkwardness the character feels about herself.
However, the flip side of that is the depiction of Bella in both the books & the films is that of an idiot who only exists to be fought over by Vampires & Werewolves. If you leave aside the sparkling, playing of baseball in thunderstorms and other things that have been the source of many jokes for a second, and just judge the story of "Twilight" on its own terms, the romance plot is HORRIBLE.
As a character, Bella is constantly miserable & needy, requiring constant reassurance from the men in her life, and she's indecisive between two men who are willing to do anything for her. As she straddles between risking her life for a high school crush (Edward, who basically stalks her) and being anti-social, she feels sorry for herself whenever one of her boyfriends isn't around. She has no drive, and no higher goals in life
And because Bella is such a vacuous character with no agency, there's no reason for either of the two men in the story to connect emotionally to and fight over her, except only as an object to possess for the purposes of the story. Even Bella's wedding (in 'Breaking Dawn') is not really about her, since she's only marrying Edward to have sex with him, and even then she has to beg him to do it.
"Pulling The Girl's Pigtails"
This is basically when any relationship in a film is based on the characters treating each other like crap for most of the film, only to realize in the final minutes that they're soul mates. A classic example of this trope is a movie from the mid '90s called 'Reality Bites,' which starred Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and Ben Stiller. It was a Generation X comedy about twenty-somethings realizing they weren't kids anymore.
The film is largely centered around the love triangle between Ryder, Hawke, and Stiller. Hawke's character doesn't have a steady job, is a total asshole to everyone around him, and insults Ryder's character throughout most of the movie. However, by the end of the movie, for no particularly good reason, we're told that Ryder & Hawke should be together.
Usually in most movies with love triangles, the writers will offer up some sort of flaw that disqualifies one of the suitors in the audience's eyes. The only disqualifying quality offered up in 'Reality Bites' is that Ben Stiller's character is a successful television executive (i.e. that means he's sold out). And that is a bigger negative than Hawke's character being a miserable, out of work asshole.
"Characters Who Don't Deserve Love"
From the A.V. Club:
You know the ones: You can't stand them, and yet you (or your significant other) insist on trying to enjoy their life stories. But so many characters in rom-coms not only don't deserve love, they would actually inspire serious annoyance/borderline hatred in real-life situations.
Renée Zellweger, 'Bridget Jones’s Diary' (2001)
As romantic comedies come to lean more and more on the twin beams of predictable formula (obnoxious people meet each other, hate each other, then come to appreciate each other) and ridiculous gimmicks (as said people are kept apart by outsized misunderstandings and contrivance), it’s apparently becoming necessary for each new rom-com to distinguish itself by making its characters progressively broader and more cartoony. Which tends to leave audiences without much stake in the proceedings as they wait for the bad behavior of some shrill, irritating caricature to be rewarded with ultimate happiness. Case in point: Renée Zellweger as the title character in Bridget Jones’s Diary, the story of a crude, foul-mouthed, dim-witted, judgmental, childishly petty girl-woman who manages to win the love of multiple men even though she pretty much lives to write horrible things about them in her titular diary. This is a lady who saddles the people around her with mental epithets like “prematurely middle-aged prick” and “fat-ass old bag”; even the man who loves her has to admit “You tend to let whatever’s in your head come out of your mouth without much consideration of the consequences.” Which is an acute problem, since she’s mostly thinking things like “Jesus fuck, my ass is as big as Brazil, but I need a shag anyway.”