Like it or not, Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. Unless you work in the greeting card, boxed chocolate, flower, or candle-lit dinner industry, that usually means it’s time for stress and panic. Other than those precious few in functional relationships (and if so, congrats), February 14 is an annual winter reminder of the inadequacies of your relationship or the lack thereof. It’s also a time of year when rom-coms reign supreme and that’s just salt on the wound for the lonely sad sacks out there seeking a cinematic escape. While we could recommend a collection of delightfully romantic romps to celebrate the big day with your beloved, instead we’re going to offer a Valentine’s viewing guide for the lonely. After all, they need a little more help getting through the holiday, now don’t they?
So, what could the lonely movie-watcher use on V-day? Well, a comedy would sure help. Those folks need a laugh. How about a cynically unromantic comedy? You know, movies that find laughs in the absurdity of relationships and make single-dom feel a like a relief. There are quite a few of these anti-romantic comedies, but we’re going to limit the recommendations to a top five. This handful of oddball anti-rom-coms are the perfect way to waste away a lonely Valentine’s Day. They’re cynical, insightful, and in some cases even a little romantic for those unopposed to hope. Hey, it’s a better way to spend the day than crying while going through your Smiths record collection again, right? At least this way there’s a little laughter to lighten the load.
5) They Came Together (2014)
First up, total absurdity. Made by Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain and his gang of famous friends, The Came Together gleefully rips apart every single stupid rom-com cliché. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler star as a typically mismatched pair (he works in corporate candy, she’s an indie candy store owner in danger) that Wain puts through the usual rom-com motions exaggerated to the point of insanity. Like Wet Hot, it falls somewhere between vicious pisstake and gentle genre homage, heightened by absurdist extremes. The movie is a fantastic way to revel in the absolute absurdity of rom-com fantasies and also serves up some piping hot doses of Michael Shannon comedy (always a good thing).
4) The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder’s multi-Oscar winning masterpiece is frequently included in lists of the finest romantic comedies, as well it should be. However, that’s mostly due to the fact that things end well in a wonderfully subtle romantic moment. Before then we’re treated to the bleakly funny life of Jack Lemon’s Manhattan drone who advances his way up the corporate latter by renting out his apartment for his bosses to take the mistresses. Things get really rough when his secret love and his most loathsome boss start using his place for their affair (and I haven’t even gotten to the suicide attempt yet). A harshly cynical portrayal of urban isolation and heartbreak that might wrap up with smiles but goes through the ringer of Wilder’s distinct brand of comedic misanthropy to get there.
3) Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
No list of movie about sadsacks failing at romance would be complete without a little Charlie Kaufman. Teaming up with whimsical visual genius Michel Gondry, Kaufman delivers a tragic love story in reverse. Thanks to a gentle sci-fi romantic-memory-erasing premise, the film starts in a place of desolate heartbreak before backtracking through the happier days of a dysfunctional relationship. Visually stunning and whimsically funny with a harshly cynical core, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is one of the sneakiest attacks on the idiocy of romanticism ever made. It ends on a note that seems positive, but is really a metaphor for the lies we need to tell ourselves to think any relationship could possibly work. Good stuff Mr. Kaufman. I hope you’re happy occasionally.
2) Modern Romance (1981)
Albert Brooks’ brilliant sophomore effort as writer/director/star is one of the most ironically titled movies of all time. It’s not a warm-hearted rom-com, but a bitterly funny exploration of how neurotic obsession can be easily confused as love. Brooks stars as a broken man for whom irrational jealously and love are one and the same. Hysterically funny, painfully honest, and romantic in only the most fucked up ways possible, Modern Romance is a deeply underrated masterpiece of anti-rom-com awkwardness. Want to know how twisted this love story truly is? Albert Brooks was contacted by none other than Stanley Kubrick after the film’s release and the master filmmaker told Brooks that he’d always wanted to make a movie about jealously, but now didn’t think there was a point because Brooks covered the material so perfectly. When the man behind Eyes Wide Shut tells you that you’ve made the perfect rom-com, it’s safe to say you delivered something perversely twisted.
The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
No, I’m not referring to the horrendous Ben Stiller remake from the 2000s. Please don’t make the mistake of seeing that pathetic effort instead. Nope I’m talking about the 1972 masterpiece by the genius that is Elaine May. A young Charles Grodin (just as surreal to see as it sounds) stars as a lonely New Yorker so desperate for a relationship that he marries the first girl to show him any attention (Jeannie Berlin, Oscar nominated for the role and deservingly so). While driving down to Miami for the honeymoon, Grodin realizes that he’s made a horrible mistake. After meeting a young Cybill Shepherd on the beach, he spends the rest of his honeymoon ditching his wife to seduce the new girl.
A dark comedy about horrible behaviour, The Hearkbreak kid channels the miserably awkward humor of Larry David decades before he was allowed in show businesses. It’s hilarious from start to finish, yet in a harshly cynical way that disturbs beneath the laughs. May’s film is about that distinct brand of neurosis that makes people believe there’s always someone better and that any brand of love is some sort of emotional trap. It’s a bitterly comedic masterpiece with a final moment so perfect that it just might top the similarly melancholic anti-romantic ending to The Graduate (not coincidentally directed by May’s long time comedy partner Mike Nichols). In fact, The Graduate and The Heartbreak Kid are a pitch perfect bleak comedy double bill waiting to happen and May’s unfairly forgotten effort might be even funnier and more insightful than Nichols’ iconic masterpiece.
There you go lonely hearts. Those five flicks should help you survive roughly 10 hours of Valentine’s Day this year. The rest is up to you. Be strong.