Weekend Roundtable: Bad Romance

Valentine’s Day is the time to celebrate love in all its magnificent splendor. However, since we’re a bunch of cynics around here, let’s do the opposite of that. This week’s Roundtable is dedicated to movies about divorce, break-ups, and other stories where love simply does not win in the end.

Shannon Nutt

There’s only one correct answer for this week’s topic and it’s 1989’s ‘The War of the Roses‘, the dark comedy directed by Danny DeVito and starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in their third – and best – on-screen pairing. Oliver and Barbara Rose “meet cute” (as Roger Ebert used to put it), marry, and seem to have the perfect life… until Barbara just can’t take it anymore. As she puts it to Oliver in the film, “When I watch you eat, when I see you sleep, I just want to smash your face in.”

The Roses file for divorce, but instead of parting amicably, Oliver decides that they’ll literally divide their house up. Both of them have to stay in marked and defined areas. Big mistake. In addition to directing, DeVito also plays Oliver’s attorney, and he puts it best when he says, “There’s no winning here, only degrees of losing.” If you haven’t seen this American classic about love gone wrong, check it out. It’s available on Blu-ray as part of Fox’s Filmmaker Signature Series.

Mike Attebery

Woody Allen has made a lot of films about love, and while they seldom end happily for those involved, ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors‘ is an extreme example of two of the worst possible romantic outcomes. One affair (a literal affair) that burns almost white hot, ends with the man (Martin Landau) having his lover (Angelica Huston) murdered. The other ends with a nebbishy documentary filmmaker (Allen) seeing the woman of his dreams end up in the arms of his mortal enemy (Alan Alda), a producer of slick television garbage. The evil and conniving end up happy. The tortured and driven end up alone. Or dead. Isn’t that always the way?

Brian Hoss

Still poignant nearly 40 years later, ‘Kramer vs. Kramer‘ is not only a tale of love gone wrong, but adds the huge complication of a child custody battle. Superbly cast, the players are all ultimately sympathetic, but at the same time reinforce the idea that a rift between married parents can only bring multiple losers. As a drama, the events are reasonable but also uncomfortable. Divorce is such a normal part of life, most attempts to bring it to theaters would make for a lot of empty seats.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

I keep thinking back to that moment in ‘(500) Days of Summer‘ when Tom realizes that he’s done it. The co-worker he’d been fawning over – Summer, played by the appropriate dreamy Zooey Deschanel – is in his bedroom and revealing her most closely guarded secrets. His mind is reeling at the certainty that she’s telling him things that perhaps no one else has ever heard, silently celebrating to the point that he’s not paying the least bit of attention to her. Summer feels something so rare and unique that she’s tearing down her barriers to let someone in, and Tom is selfishly giving himself a high five.

As the disclaimer at the start of the film notes, this is a story of boy meets girl, but it’s not a love story. It couldn’t be. To Tom, Summer isn’t a person; she’s an ideal. She’s a concept. She’s a thing to attain. She’s a fantasy totem whose continued presence is validation to Tom that he’s the man he wants to be. He’s caught completely off-guard when Summer calls the whole thing off. After all, his memories of them together are uniformly idyllic and blissful. That’s because Tom saw what he wanted to see and willfully ignored the rest. He’s enthralled with the idea of being in love, but woefully unable to put anyone else’s feelings, thoughts or opinions above his own. Tom isn’t actually in a place in his life where he deserves it. That’s not to say that Summer bears no responsibility in the collapse of the relationship, but Tom is the wrecking ball that sent it crumbling into ruin.

‘(500) Days of Summer’ doesn’t end with the two of them overcoming their differences and walking hand-in-hand towards a sunny future. Tom and Summer shouldn’t be together, and any happy ending for them as a couple would be unearned. Instead, the movie ends with Tom learning from his mistakes and making a sincere effort to better himself – not just to be a better boyfriend but to be a better person, full stop. The final question, when another lovely lady catches his eye, is if Tom is truly in a place for a substantial relationship or if there’s some chance of history repeating itself. It’s an ending that’s hopeful but still somewhat uncertain, just as it should be.

Luke Hickman

Of the many films I’ve seen at the Sundance Film Festival, one of my very favorites is ‘(500) Days of Summer‘. The Press & Industry screening filled up before I could get a seat, so I spent the remainder of the week attempting to get into a public screening of the highly buzzed romantic comedy. It wasn’t until the final showing of the festival that I finally got in, and it was totally worth all the effort and time that I put into it. I’m not typically a fan of romantic comedies, but those that are told from the perspective of the heartbroken or overly-ambitious male seem to satisfy me a lot more than those from the female perspective. As I’d hoped, ‘(500)’ delivered the goods and ended up being my favorite romance-centric movie. Although Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) don’t end up together in the end, it’s fitting. Had they wound up with a happily ever after, then it wouldn’t be half the film it is.

Josh Zyber

As painful as it can be to watch a couple break apart, the exquisite Merchant-Ivory period piece ‘The Remains of the Day‘ delivers even more heartbreak with the story of a love that never comes together in the first place. Just two years after playing the flamboyant serial killer Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins is remarkably restrained as the rigid, uptight English butler Mr. Stevens, a man so emotionally repressed that he simply cannot bring himself to admit his feelings to the woman he secretly pines for (Emma Thompson) despite spending decades working by her side. Their story aches with missed opportunities and unrequited love.

Honestly, I’ve never warmed to any of the other films by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, most of which feel like handsomely-mounted literary illustrations burdened by rigid formalism and coldly aloof storytelling. ‘The Remains of the Day’ achieves what their other movies don’t for me – an engrossing and emotionally involving story that takes on a life of its own.

What are some of your favorite unromantic movies? Tell us in the Comments.


  1. merlich

    I’m rather fond of “Ruthless People” (1986), in which a spoiled housewife played by Bette Midler is kidnapped for ransom to the absolute delight of her husband (Danny DeVito). She ultimately conspires with the kidnappers to get even with him. Very funny.

  2. Paris, Texas, The reunion between Travis and Jane proves that Harry Dean Stanton is one of the greatest actors of all-time. That monologue kills me every time.

    Chasing Amy, the movie that showed that Kevin Smith wasn’t all about fart and dick hokes….at least a little bit of the time.

    Mrs. Doubtfire, one of the first hollywood films I remember seeing that didn’t have a pat Hollywood ending. Robin Williams and Sall Field were still divorced in the end, and life went on.

    The Butterfly Effect, Kutcher realizes that to save the girl he loves he has to give her up and be a stranger to her. People scoff at that movie to this day, I still feel the same way about it as when I saw it at 18 years old…fucking great.

  3. Csm101

    Revolutionary Road- The Titanic cruise is over and now marriage gets ugly and unpleasant.
    Gone Girl- way over the top but there’s some real and relatable stuff in it.
    Love Stinks- on a lighter note, I don’t know if this would hold up for me today, but when I saw it in theaters, it made me laugh.

  4. Bolo

    ‘Her’ – A funny and sad sci-fi movie that manages to have great insight into how people relate to technology, while also being a solidly acted and poignant relationship film.

    ‘Brokeback Mountain’ – This one is really heartbreaking. A pretty great movie about how there are other factors in a relationship beyond just how two people feel about each other.

    ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’ – Some really good coming-of-age drama in this one.

    ‘The Shape of Things’ (2003) – This one almost falls more into that zone of ‘Audition’-type horror movie. I’ve seen it a couple of times and I’m not sure if it’s even more painful knowing the ending is coming than when I first saw it. The climax is still one of the most uncomfortable I’ve ever seen put on film. The cast in the film is made up of actors who also played the roles in the play on stage. I find all of their performances are projected a bit too much, like they haven’t adapted their performances to the film medium. That holds the film back a bit, but still, the film creeps me out and stays with me for days after watching it.

  5. Deaditelord

    Although perhaps stretching the category a little bit, my choice would be Takashi Miike’s horrifying Audition. Here we have a widowed man who finds the woman of his dreams when he starts dating a “shy” girl named Asami. Their dates are the stuff of magic and during a romantic seaside getaway he proclaims his love for her. Then we find out what’s really in that trash bag and it all goes to hell in the worst way imaginable…

    To say that love does not triumph in the end would be a massive understatement. However, as a cautionary tale to scare the living shit out of teenage boys (and grown men) and have them swearing off dating for the rest of their lives, Audition is in a class of its own, leaving lightweights like Fatal Attraction in its wake. Just the thought of those acupuncture needles and piano wire makes me cringe.

  6. Jon

    “Closer” is a brutal movie where every character is basically a miserable misanthrope hell bent on sabotaging any happiness in their lives. Clive Owen, in particular, is absolutely brilliant. felt like I needed a shower after this one.

  7. William Henley

    Going to get dark and go with Life Is Beautiful. Love is shown throughout the movie, but not everyone makes it through to the end.

    In a way, Fiddler on the Roof is one. You are throwing love against religious tradition and and against the Soviet revolution. As a result, one daughter moves away to the far parts of the world to follow her love, but looses her family as a result, and another daughter is disowned by her father, mother and sisters for marrying outside of the faith. So while the three oldest girls all ended up with their men, two of the three paid extremely high prices of being cut off from their family.

  8. EM

    I dislike Valentine’s Day, and in the anti–Valentine’s-Day spirit I like to watch “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown”. Sally pursues Linus. Linus pursues his teacher Miss Othmar. Violet pursues her teacher. Lucy pursues Schroeder. Charlie Brown hopes to be pursued by the little red-haired girl. And none of these pursuits are successful. Oddly for Peanuts, the sole victor in the games of affection is good ol’ Charlie Brown, whose victory is a Pyrrhic one: Having failed to receive even one valentine in the classroom exchange (he even brought a briefcase to stuff his nonexistent valentines in), he inspires so much guilt that some of the girls give him a used valentine one of them had received; much to Schroeder’s indignant consternation, Charlie Brown is overjoyed by this secondhand token of shamefaced pity.

    As for feature films, there are many good candidates, but you needn’t go any further than Casablanca, a film chock-full of earnest romance but short on “happily ever after”.

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