27 April 2012
Friends with Kids
When Harry Met Sally set the blueprint for the contemporary romantic comedy more than 20 years ago. The film tells the story of two friends (played by Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal) who meet on and off down the years, becoming close but reluctant to take things to the next level. Their never-quite-platonic relationship raises a question that has echoed through many similar comedies since: can men and women be friends without sex?
A glance at some recent cinema releases, however, shows that the question seems to be changing. No Strings Attached saw Adam (Ashton Kutcher), still hurting from a recent breakup, arrive at a casual arrangement with his commitment-phobic friend Emma (Natalie Portman). “Can you have sex,” asks the film’s trailer, “without love getting in the way?” Suspiciously similar comedy Friends With Benefits flipped the gender roles: Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is emotionally unavailable, while his friend Jamie (Mila Kunis) is emotionally damaged. “We’ve got to stop buying into this Hollywood cliché of true love,” she insists, and the two swear (on an iPhone Bible app) to keep their feelings out of the equation.
Now, Friends with Kids (released in UK cinemas 29 June) is taking this line of thought yet another step further. The comedy focuses on a group of six young New Yorkers: two married couples just starting out as parents, and platonic friends Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt). Having witnessed second-hand the death of romance when babies arrive, Jason and Julie are cynical about family life. As the film’s poster puts it: “Love. Happiness. Kids. Pick two.”
Both of them, however, want children. And so they decide that, in order to bypass the messiness of negotiating parenthood while also keeping a relationship alive, they’ll do things a little differently. “We really want to have a kid,“ Jason points out, “so let’s share all of the responsibility and just skip over the whole marriage thing.” They will divide parenting duties, continue to date other people, and so avoid the negative aspects of child-rearing. Or at least, that’s the idea.
Of course, things don’t quite work out that way and, inevitably, emotions complicate their convenient arrangement. As with the couples at the centre of No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits, Julie and Jason find that life simply cannot be compartmentalised in the way they’d like it to be. Despite starting with a boundary-pushing premise, these films spring few surprises when it comes to conclusions. Though this is partly just obedience to Hollywood formula, there’s also something more fundamental at work. Having sex, or having a child together, are not just experiences to be enjoyed and then set aside so that individuals can go their separate ways. We aren’t made to live like that, and there are consequences when we ignore the design.
These comedies, and others like them, question whether conventional ways of doing relationships are really working out. They propose alternatives which appear attractive because the diagnosis of the problem is partially correct: relationships are hard, and painful, and often fall far short of the romantic ideal we’re promised. To people damaged and disappointed by their experiences of intimacy, avoiding it altogether looks like a wise move. In a culture which urges us to be consumers first and foremost, becoming relational consumers is the next logical step. We take the parts which suit us here and now, leaving the rest.
In 1975, psychoanalyst Herbert Hendin concluded that “in this society, caring deeply for anyone is becoming synonymous with losing”. His observation now rings more true than ever. And as long as our understanding of love is based purely on positive emotion and experience, then ‘success’ in relationships is measured by how little we risk and how little we give.
The answer to our struggle with human intimacy is neither to give up on it – as attempted by the new breed of romantic comedies – nor to idolize it, as the genre conventionally has. Instead, it’s to model relationships on the kind of sacrificial commitment shown by Jesus. After all, we can no longer treat the business of love so lightly if it’s true that God has loved us despite the staggering cost.