I think we can all agree that Valentine’s Day is the worst, a ginned-up sham of a “holiday” that makes the lonely feel lonelier and the coupled-up stressed to impress.
The only good thing about it is that cinnamon hearts, the only candy worth eating, are widely available. (I would like to know whose palms Big Easter has greased to allow the proliferation of Cadbury mini-eggs all year long when glorious spicy-sweet declarations of love can only be found for two weeks starting Feb. 1.)
But just because Valentine’s Day is kind of dumb doesn’t mean we can’t use the occasion to celebrate love in the name of a third-century martyr who was also the patron saint of beekeepers and epilepsy.
I’m no cynic when it comes to rom-coms — no one who has watched Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock spar in Two Weeks’ Notice as many times as I have can claim to be — but here I offer a handful of Valentine’s viewing options that fall outside the romantic-comedy mould.
Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant in the romantic comedy "Two Weeks Notice." (Barry Wetcher / The Associated Press files)
Ask people on the street for a quintessential Valentine’s Day TV episode and eight out of 10 will choo-choo-choose The Simpson’s Season 4 classic I Love Lisa (streaming on Disney+). Who can forget the moment Ralph Wiggum’s heart literally breaks?
However, the workplace sitcom 30 Rock (streaming on Crave) had a string of great Valentine’s shows over its six seasons; Season 4, Episode 13 is a favourite. Liz Lemon (played by show creator/star Tina Fey) renounces the holiday — which she has renamed Anna Howard Shaw Day in honour of a suffragette’s birthday — by scheduling a root canal. “I will spend half the day in twilight sleep and then I will go home and watch the Lifetime original movie My Stepson Is My Cyber-Husband,” she tells her boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). “You truly are the Picasso of loneliness,” he responds.
Like much of 30 Rock, it illustrates the real love story of the series, the mentor-mentee relationship between Liz and Jack. Plus, it includes guest stars Jason Sudeikis, Jon Hamm and Jon Bon Jovi, and features an anaesthesia-addled Liz trying to make out with a ficus.
For some reason, actor Mark Duplass has starred in more than his share of unconventional love stories. (Check out the quirky Safety Not Guaranteed, rentable on Google Play Movies, iTunes and elsewhere, in which he plays a man who claims he can time travel; Aubrey Plaza is the intern journalist tasked with checking out his story. It is very sweet.)
Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass in "Safety Not Guaranteed". (Alliance Films)
Duplass co-wrote and co-stars in the Netflix movie Paddleton. The love between two men here isn’t romantic, it’s platonic, but the unlikely comedy is no lunkheaded bromance. It’s complicated, messy, inconvenient and inspiring.
Michael (Duplass) and Andy (Ray Romano) are neighbours and misfits, oddballs out-of-step with the world who have found a prickly but steady ally in each other. When Michael is diagnosed with a terminal disease, he turns to Andy to help him through it. Warning: tears will be jerked.
I have a massive soft spot for Music & Lyrics, the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore rom-com (wait a minute — do I have a Hugh Grant thing?) featuring songs by the late great Adam Schlesinger (who died of COVID in 2020). But, for a more realistic look at the way shared artistic creativity creates sparks, check out Once, the Irish film starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova on which the stage musical was based. (It can be purchased or rented from Apple TV, Google Play Movies, Microsoft Store and more.)
Forget even the modest razzle-dazzle of the theatrical show: this is an entirely naturalistic outing that only earns the term “musical” because there’s so much music in it. Christopher Orr of the Atlantic really nails the charms of a rom-com that contains no real jokes and nothing beyond a kiss on the cheek: “In an era when Hollywood has largely lost the ability to distinguish between romance and sex, Once is the rare film that recognizes that love is no less love for being held in check, it is merely a different kind of love.”
Finally, no discussion of unconventional rom-coms would be complete without a mention of Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply (available on Google Play Movies, iTunes and elsewhere.) Often glibly described as the thinking person’s Ghost, it’s a beautiful, funny story about undying love and moving on, and it features a dreamy Alan Rickman soulfully, but not at all cheesily playing the cello. I originally saw it with a friend at the old Cinema 3 (now the Gargoyle) on Ellice and there were audible shuddery sobs throughout (not just my own).
Happy watching! And Happy Anna Howard Shaw Day to us all!
What’s your favourite rom-com, conventional or otherwise? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.