Son of RomCom Myopia

Son of RomCom Myopia August 16, 2012

Apropos of the discussion of romances that end with a clinch, not a child, I thought I’d share an excerpt from io9’s review of The Odd Life of Timothy Green.  This is the recently released film where two childless parents write down all the qualities they’d like their kid to have, bury the list in the backyard, and have a magical 10 year old sprout up.

Watching The Odd Life of Timothy Green, I kept being reminded of Ruby Sparks, which only just came out a few weeks ago. In both movies, the lonely protagonist(s) write down their fantasies and dreams of a perfect girlfriend or a perfect child. And then, through magic that’s left vague, the lover or child of your dreams appears out of thin air — and everything that was written down about him or her comes true, exactly as it was written.

The difference between the two films is that Ruby Sparks embraces the creepiness of its premise, and dives into the ways that having your fantasies come true could be problematic. (Even though we’re apparently supposed to love and admire Calvin, the control-freak novelist in Ruby Sparks.) But meanwhile, even though we see plenty of instances where Timothy’s parents use Timothy for their selfish wish-fulfillment, the movie mostly gives them a pass. And the result is both saccharine and kind of dull.

In fact, a lot of the tropes in Timothy Green are sort of romantic comedy tropes, only here they’ve been turned into stories about parenting. The world is full of hundreds of romcoms where the love interest is a mannequin or an imaginary lover brought to life, or the male lead has some totally implausible secret. But this is a somewhat rarer movie where, instead of a man finding his ideal woman through a contrived set of circumstances, it’s about a married couple finding their ideal child. The whole notion of turning the romcom format into a movie about parenting is somewhat weird and ill-fitting.

…Most of our fairytales and fantasies are wish fulfillment of one sort or another — something magical and improbable to set us free from all the dead ends we’ve gotten ourselves stuck in. Either that, or there’s an element of confronting some terrible darkness that’s a metaphor for real-life evil. But what sort of fantasy is Timothy Green really? It’s not just a wish-fulfillment about a childless couple getting to have a child, because they don’t get a baby, and a lot of the most “magical” stuff in the film is about how Timothy somehow “fixes” all his parents’ problems with their careers or families.

So actually, it’s hard not to suspect that the gnawing anxiety at the heart of The Odd Life of Timothy Green isn’t about loneliness or childlessness at all — rather, it’s about feeling like a failure. Or fearing that you might not actually be special after all, you’re just another ordinary grown-up: compromises, regrets and all. The wish-fulfillment comes from the notion that a magic child-saint could show up and prove to the world that you’re somebody, after all. This is a fable for disappointed and insecure thirty-somethings everywhere.

Read the whole thing

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  • It would be interesting to explore the salvific, reconciling role of children in Peter Hedges’ films: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Pieces of April, the screenplay for About a Boy. In an NPR interview on the weekend, he named Harold & Maude the film that has influenced him most, and I thought, OH, well, of course then. I like all of these films for different reasons, none of them being that they offer realistic models of relationships or parenting, by any means—in fact, I think they are testimonials the the deep strain of loneliness and longing that entered society when we gleefully tossed away the notion that there WERE realistic models, and when parents and children formally exchanged roles in life as in Freaky Friday.

  • math_geek

    Since this whole conversation started with a musical by a guy named Stephen, I think we should look at Pippin for a more “realistic” but not (for me) less “inspiring” take on romance and children. I could swear at times that Stephen Schwartz is a secret Catholic, given Pippin, Godspell, and Working.

    • leahlibresco

      I worked costume crew for Pippin in college and I am not enamored of it. So I would love a guest post from you on the show, if you’re ever up for it, but I just spend too much time hating Pippin (the character) to comment well on Pippin (the play).

      I do agree that the ending (temptation to choose self-annihilation because it is an act of self-creation, over being part of someone else’s creation) has a lot of Christian themes.

      • math_geek

        I really do love the show. I think Pippin being unbearably annoying is part of the point. His own insistence that he’s special and different (and therefore better than everyone else) is totally aggravating. I can definitely identify with that mistake. “Something completely fulfilling!” UGH.

        I will definitely have to think about writing a guest post. I’m not a natural writer, so that would be quite a challenge for me (and not something I could do this month even, given current obligations). Still, it’s an honor to be asked, and a hard thing worth doing is always a gift.

        • leahlibresco

          If you can’t do it this month, put a little reminder in your calendar that you want to do it next month. I’d quite like to have it!

  • Ah! You’re finally on the Catholic channel. Congrats! If you need anything — moral support, prayers, funny cat videos — let any of us know.

    + JMJ +
    Pray for me, a sinner.

  • deiseach

    “The whole notion of turning the romcom format into a movie about parenting is somewhat weird and ill-fitting.”

    But is it the “rom-com format”? There are folktales and fairytales all over the world where barren parents have a child through magic; Tom Thumb, Thumbelina, the Japanese tale of Momotaro (Little Peach) and all the legends in Indian mythology, e.g. in the “Ramayana” Sita being the daughter of the Earth Goddess and adopted by the king, and in the “Mahabharata”, Draupadi and her brother born out of the fire when King Drupada performed the fire-sacrifice.

    In all these tales, the parents aren’t anyone special or haven’t done anything special (er, except the king performing the religious rite of the fire-sacrifice, I suppose) to get the magical child and the child goes out and performs extraordinary deeds, then returns home where they all live happily ever after. I don’t know if you could call that parental wish-fulfilment; it seems that instead of killing giants and ogres and bringing home treasure, Timothy “fixes” all his parents’ problems with their careers or families” (which is the more realistic element for a modern fairy tale, I imagine).

    There’s a good point about the expectations of parents being a burden on the child and trying to live vicariously and either re-live your glory days or attain the success you never did (the stage mother, the former athletic star dad), but this doesn’t sound like the film to explore it. I’m all for holding movies responsible for living up to the promises they make, but really, this sounds like breaking a butterfly on a wheel.