It would appear that a happy ending has become the default setting for romantic films, but is really the best kind of ending?
*Spoiler warning! This post discusses endings from films across the years and so contains important plot points for numerous films*
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” the famous line delivered from Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine. One of the most emotionally weighted characters Hollywood has ever given us, but strangely one of the most realistic too. He appears initially to be cynical a man who is only interested in himself and his actions are based entirely upon his own interests, but as we learn he actually cares more for the one he loves, to the point of realising he must let her go. It presents us with one of the most heartbreaking endings in cinematic history, but it gives us one of the most realistic.
I should make it very clear at this point that I’m not a complete cynic as the title may suggest. I believe it was Blur that once sang the lyric “I’m a professional cynic but my heart’s not in it” which is precisely the point. I don’t think every film should have a bitter, spriting crushing ending like The Mist or The Exorcist. I’m still a child at heart and so I much prefer it when certain types of film do have a happy ending. It’s not like I sit down to watch a Winnie the Pooh film, enjoy the various adventures and mishaps that occur but then remain unsatisfied unless the film ends with Tigger and Piglet being shot at dawn having been convicted of war crimes. I just think happy endings are not always realistic. They are the glossy ideal conclusion but not always the most believable.
What we must consider is that a happy ending as an element of narrative has become common in the romantic film genre. It has become something of the standard. If a romantic film does not feature a happy ending, particularly if it’s a romantic comedy, then it is often deemed as negative or miserable. And is this really warranted? When I think back to some of the romantic films I have seen in recent years that do feature a happy ending can I honestly say that they all deserve one? Of course not. I am a firm believer that if certain characters existed in real life they would not get their happy ending. For example the main character in 500 Days of Summer, yes admittedly we see him get his heart broken by Summer and him having to move on with life, but then in walks a pretty young lady named Autumn. And with a sly look at the camera we know he is has been given his second chance at love. What a load of nonsense. After all of his whining and behaving like a school boy having a tantrum I don’t think he deserves a second chance so soon. I think he needs to move away from the city, take some thinking time, grow up a bit, start eating olives even if he doesn’t like them, possibly consider becoming a monk or a priest, and then attempt love again.
I think the main perpetrator in this annoying movement of making happy endings that shouldn’t exists is films like Sex & the City where we see these awful portrayals of human beings behaving in a way that is utterly repellent and yet they are still happy. We’re meant to believe that these people are real, and yet they are written to be such shallow and painfully consumerist arseholes that talk about nothing other than sex, shoes and themselves. I honestly don’t think people like this exist in real life and if they do they then they cannot be happy. If they go through life thinking they are above everyone else and consistently obsessing over their appearance then they cannot possibly live a happy life. If you want to see a realistic take on the self obsessed, consumerist caricatures that feature in S&C then I would draw your attention to Blue Jasmine in which we see how people actually look at these cretinous monsters and what would actually happen to them in real life should they behave the way they do on screen.
Sex & the City for many, including myself, can’t even be classed as a romantic comedy. It is not funny in the slightest, due to the fact it draws humour from gruesome stereotypes, and when the main characters measure love based on how much money men spend on them I hardly think you can call it romantic. This is a prime example of a film that does not deserve a happy ending. If we have to believe these self centred cretins who essentially set back feminism several years actually exist then we need to see a conclusion for them that is just.
I’m not being bitter and I’m certainly not suggesting that happy endings should not exist, but I think films should show a more realistic outcome for characters. If the films are to be believable then they need to have some glimmer of truth in them. It seems that films don’t like showing the truth that not everything lasts forever, instead they decide to show almost every relationship being successful and everyone being happy no matter how much they fuck up. In reality love is certainly not an easy experience, it is tempestuous at the best of times, and more often than we like to admit it does not end well. Sometimes relationships have a nice clean break that leaves the two parties in tact and then other times it goes up in flames completely and burns either side in the process. Having been in a long term relationship that ended a couple of months back I understand now that love can be a rather troublesome experience that does not always end in an easy way, and I think it’s something that should be seen more often in films.
Already I have mentioned Casablanca at the start of this post, which I believe to be one of the best endings a film has ever given to the audience. The wartime context makes it all the more emotional as we see Blaine risking everything to get the woman he loves to safety with the man she loves. It’s not just a well written ending but it’s also an important ending because of the statement it is making. It is an ending that chooses to ignore how naturally selfish humans can be and instead chooses to show what a human would do if they love someone enough. If this was an ending written by a modern film maker we would see Blaine shooting Isla’s new man in order to get on the plane with her and keep her to himself. And if Michael Bay got his hands on it I’m sure there would be an explosion or two thrown in.
Thankfully it is not just older filmmakers who have a firmer grasp on reality, there are fortunately modern films that choose to show a more realistic ending in their work. About two years ago cinema goers had the pleasure of seeing Spike Jonze’s latest triumph Her starring Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams. For the most part this film is very upbeat as we see the main character, Theodore, developing a relationship with his operating system, Samantha. Although it is meant to be set in the future it is written in a way that makes it relatable in some senses. We see the main character falling in love just purely through speech. All visual aesthetics becomes unimportant because the OS doesn’t have a physical form, their connection is built purely through speaking. This leads to the relationship’s eventual end as we see the OS attempt unsuccessfully to add a physical element through the use of a surrogate lover, and Theodore seeing how there are complications that come with an artificial girlfriend. It is not the most positive of endings but I think it is realistic because it shows how as humans it is our actions that build the path we follow, and all consequences are a result of what we do. Theodore invested a lot in to the relationship and withdrew himself from many people so when it ends there is still some positivity in seeing him strengthening his connection with this friend, played by Amy Adams.
It’s going to be a controversial point but I’d argue that one of the finest romantic comedy writers is still Woody Allen. He’s not a person many people like; I think too many people have been brainwashed in to thinking they don’t like his films because they don’t like the Woody Allen they read about in the Daily Mail. Personally I think he is a complex man and I do not condone any of the actions he has been accused of by any means, but I haven’t let this prevent me from enjoying his contributions to cinema. Particularly for this topic I believe Allen’s contributions are most admirable. As a comedic writer his back catalogue is unparalleled and he has given us some of the most impressive romantic comedies, the majority of which have realistic endings.
Firstly consider Annie Hall, arguably Allen’s most well known film. It tells the story of comedian Alvy Singer’s relationship with the titular character, from the initial stage of young romantics through to the inevitable breakup. I don’t think that’s a bad way to end a film, two grown ups accepting that their relationship is no longer working (I draw your attention to Alvy’s dead shark analogy) and that’s the mature thing to do. It is admirable of a writer to approach love with at least a shred of maturity and accepting that not everything lasts forever. It’s more realistic to show Alvy and Annie parting ways as friends than try to convince us they could stay together for a happy ending. In fact I’d say that’s one of my favourite moments of film, seeing the montage of Annie and Alvy together before Alvy speaks of how grateful he is to had had Annie in his life and how he still sees her as a fantastic person.
Furthermore I think it’s clear from Allen’s body of work that he is capable of mastering the obscure comedic elements that we all love but then balances them with absolute sincerity when approaching love as a topic. Films like like Midnight in Paris which again ends with a break up of sorts but again it is one that the audience has to see as logical. It is a grown man accepting that the woman he is with is no longer a nice person and so he cannot stay with her. It is an ending that leaves us full of uncertainty because we don’t fully known what is going to happen to Gil after leaving Inez and deciding to move to Paris, but we know that he has done the right thing. The image of a man sitting alone in Paris staring blankly without knowing what his future will hold is a sad image, but it would have been so much sadder if he had stayed with Inez.
To summarise I suppose what I want from the ending of a romance film, because it is a genre I care greatly about, is for it to be realistic. If the characters have behaved like idiots but still get the person they want, that’s inappropriate. It is their own behaviour that brings them to their conclusions, so for a writer to suggest (much like we see constantly throughout the series Friends) that a character can act like an absolute arsehole and just generally annoy everyone but then still end up with the person they want for a happy ending, doesn’t quite sit well with me.