by Eimhear O’Toole
‘I’m being such a loser right now, I swear to Jesus,’ I messaged the group chat. Nobody replied – because it was 9pm on a Saturday, and they were all in bars or restaurants or pre-drinking in someone’s kitchen. I was home alone, with laryngitis and a face like a slapped arse. ‘Like, this is so pathetic. It’s Saturday night and I’m in bed. Tragic.’
That was in early March, 2020.
I’ve spent the 70-something intervening Saturday nights at home, mostly alone, wearing a minty facepack or towelling turban or big fluffy socks. Only I haven’t minded too much. Because I’ve had romcoms to keep me company.
I’ve always loved chick flicks. The cityscapes. The style. The soundtracks – whether it’s Harry Connick Jr on piano, or one-hit wonders from 2003 playing bouncy guitar riffs.
When I was a kid, I rented Mean Girls so many times that the surly teenage cashier in our local XtraVision (now a laundromat) finally asked me why I didn’t just buy my own copy. I scurried out with a face as red as Lindsay Lohan’s shirt on the chunky VHS case.
As teenagers, my friends and I gleaned dubious life lessons from The Notebook and (500) Days of Summer and Clueless. Like, if a boy is into you, he’ll build you a house. When it comes to love, never take no for an answer. It’s fine to make out with your kinda-stepbrother, if he has Paul Rudd’s bone structure.
When I got older and – ironically – closer to the adulthood I’d spent years fetishizing, romcoms stopped seeming aspirational. They started to represent escapism.
I’d squeeze in flying visits to Nora Ephron’s New York between A-Level revision sessions. The house would still smell of roast chicken on a Sunday evening as my mum and I watched Hugh Grant Hugh Grant-ing around Notting Hill – a final salve before another week of work. Hungover, I dozed through Pretty Woman and Bridget Jones’ many diaries, in friends’ beds in Dublin and Manchester and Barcelona. I streamed Love Actually when I was homesick in September, and my Christmas flight back to Ireland seemed too far away.
My favourites are from the golden age: late nineties and early noughties releases, with outfits that are fashionable on TikTok and mobiles that are huge black bricks or gem-encrusted flip-phones.
I don’t mind if they’re formulaic – predictable, even, with hackneyed storylines and stock characters. I love that there are no variants. No surprises. Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal will always kiss to ‘Auld Lang Syne’; Anne Hathaway will always toss her phone into the same Parisian fountain. I don’t worry about spoilers, because you can’t spoil something you’ve been watching for fifteen years.
They aren’t always smart, or sharp, or cynical. But that doesn’t bother me, because neither am I.
This year, I’ve mainlined these movies for the same reason I turn to buttery white toast and mugs of tea when I’m sick, or sad: they’re comforting, and warm, and they make me feel better.
I’m terrified by anyone who currently chooses films with titles like Plague or The Bug or Last One Standing, to assess how inadvertently prophetic they are. I couldn’t be less interested in realism. The times we’re living through could be described, charitably, as ‘a bit realistic’. I’m not loving it, to be honest. Realism, now, is holding my breath to give someone a one-armed hug, and postponing flights for a fourth time, and watching as blethering politicians glibly make crap decisions that’ll see another chunk of my twenties slide away like a melting ice lolly off a wooden stick. Why would anyone want an extra dose of realism on their TV screen?
I want to watch something that’s frothy and fizzy and fun. Rolling in the (literal) hay with a paint-covered Heath Ledger looks infinitely better than being twenty-seven and trying to pick a potential bubble buddy based on four photos and a performatively laconic bio. Spontaneous trips to the diner with Lana Condor and Noah Centineo are more appealing than setting up an OpenTable booking for a flat white, a week before you think you might be thirsty.
So, I keep wrapping my brain in a big downy duvet and sending it on holiday. It always comes back rejuvenated.
Romantic comedies aren’t always smart, or sharp, or cynical. But that doesn’t bother me, because neither am I.
Spending entire evenings lying in front of my laptop works wonders for my physical wellbeing, in ways I never thought it would. When I’m watching a romantic comedy, I don’t scroll and swipe until my eyes itch. I don’t read stats that leave my heart pounding. I don’t stare myopically at my own face, wondering whether a plastic surgeon would recommend I get Botox. I’m slack-jawed and sated and something resembling happy.
By the time Patrick Swayze hoists Jennifer Grey above his head in the lake, I’ve stopped grinding my teeth. I watch Sandra Bullock strut around in that tiny blue dress and feel my breathing even out. Reaching my hand into the bowl of popcorn balanced on my Slanket-covered stomach, while Meryl Streep and Steve Martin make midnight chocolate croissants, is the closest I’ve come to meditation since I deleted Headspace in a fit of rage. When Ben Stiller eats peanuts off a stinking sidewalk, and when Reese Witherspoon bends and snaps in the salon, I’m not worrying about anything. I’m not even thinking. My out of office is on. I have left the building.
And because I’m not thinking, I can focus on feeling things.
This year, I’ve donned numbness like a protective shell. I’ve had to. Feeling hopeful or optimistic was beginning to seem foolish, like repeatedly stepping onto the same trapdoor as it collapses under you again and again. Grief has become something I could easily sink in; anger threatens to burn me up, if I acknowledge it at all. The movies I watch are so familiar that they act as an emotional blueprint, letting me muscle-memory my way back to the feelings I haven’t trusted myself to improvise in a while.
I weep into my hair as Amanda Seyfried sings ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, then pull myself together in time to clap along to ‘Super Trouper’. I squirm through the pottery scene in Ghost, remembering what it’s like to feel as though someone’s kneading your insides like dough. I’m downright smug every time I see Julia Roberts’ big gorgeous grin and feel my own bitten lips spread automatically. Still got it, I think, as my eyes start prickling to the opening bars of Counting Crows’ Colorblind. It’s like testing out a dodgy ankle and realising I can manage more steps than I could yesterday.
Safe in front of my screen, I let happiness and heartbreak and rage wash over me – as pacifying as the warm water of a hotel pool, or a bath bomb. Afterwards, when the credits roll, I feel nothing but clean relief.
It turns out, my mind isn’t broken after all. It just needed a bit of a break.
When I was younger, I’d watch romantic comedies under a flowery duvet in my parents’ house and ache for things that seemed light years out of reach. A double bed to starfish across. A big city – a real one, where you were always guaranteed to be more than twenty minutes away from a field of cows. Drinking wine. Enjoying wine, even. A group of girlfriends with whom to discuss boyfriends over brunch. Carrying a pumpkin through Manhattan, or a watermelon in the Catskills. Dressing up as a slutty mouse.
I wondered what my life would look like when it got louder and less lonely. Because it had to, right?
I think about what I’d tell that fifteen-year-old now, as I walk the same streets she stomped around, listening to The Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’ on her iPod Nano, and get splashed by the same bus she took to school in 2008.
I’d decide tell her to chill out.
That things will get more exciting and sparkly than she can imagine right now. That things will get worse – but that there’ll always be rubber dinghies of joy and calm to cling to when they do.
Mostly, I’d tell her that, sometimes, you just need to be patient, and trust that it’ll get better. That, sometimes, the only way out is through, and that the only way through is feeding your brain some candyfloss and letting what has to happen, happen. That some things take time, and that she should enjoy where she is now, and relax. And maybe stick on You’ve Got Mail in the meantime.