I’m a recent convert to fandom for the show How I Met Your Mother, and as has been our increasingly common habit lately, my wife and I watched the new episode this past Monday evening. It was pretty good, and it actually hit a couple of my personal wheelhouses, but it also committed a narrative transgression which swung a wrecking ball through my suspension of disbelief, and I find myself still mentally obsessing over it days later. I overthink, therefore I blog.
So the premise was that Ted suffers the indignity of seeing the story of how he was left at the altar transformed into a major motion picture, which not only parades painful memories of his for all to see, but also twists the details of the story to make the Ted-analogue character into a horrible toad of a person, the analogue of the woman who broke his heart into an angelic victim who finds romantic redemption with another man, and the man who broke Ted and his fiancée up into a square-jawed knight in shining armor. Because, of course, the other man is the author of the screenplay and thus tells the story from his own perspective, vilifying Ted in the process. Rubbing salt in these wounds is the fact that everyone loves the movie, including the girl Ted is currently in the tentative early stages of dating.
This is a premise that I find endlessly fascinating, and I mean that in a good way. I love writing and I love breaking down the writing process, and I’ve been known to take real events in my life and try to perform the proper alchemy that turns them into fiction, changing the elements that need changing to make for a better story. That must be true of all writers, and all writers think they do so in ways that still retain a grain of truth, and never in a manner that’s so self-serving as to be part auto-hagiography, part vengeance-against-all-my-foes. The movie in HIMYM (entitled “The Wedding Bride”) is an intentional exaggeration and that’s not what I have a problem with. HIMYM is a comedy, “The Wedding Bride” is a parody, all’s fair.
The movie analogues were a bit hit-or-miss. Chris Kattan, one of the most annoying SNL alums ever, as the boo-hiss version of Ted? That was genius. Malin Akerman, aka the worst actress from the Watchmen movie, as Ted’s ex-fiancee? Not terribly entertaining in itself, but not bad as part of the overall meta-joke of recasting the girl in the story as a victimized damsel in distress, since Akerman is kind of blandly pretty and virtually personality-free. I thought the biggest misstep was casting those two and then a complete unknown as the pretty-boy heroic analogue for the engagement wrecker who wrote the screenplay. I know guest stars on sitcoms don’t come cheap and/or easy, but HIMYM seems to have some pull. They couldn’t have gotten, I don’t know, Daniel Craig or Sam Worthington or something? (NOTE: Insatiable curiosity led me to bust some Google-fu and I guess the pretty-boy is very well known to fans of Sex and the City? So not a complete unknown, but not a widely known, I’ll still argue.)
But, again, I really do have a huge soft spot for metafiction, stories about stories and especially stories about where stories come from. HIMYM actually is capable of some fairly deft narrative complexity itself, with its nested flashback structures and whatnot, and at first I had ridiculously optimistic hopes that the story would end up being about perspective and the way audiences project themselves into stories they over-identify with. Because Ted recognized the name of the screenwriter when the credits for the movie began, he was automatically expecting it to be about him, and the plot was loosely based on his bizarre love-triangle experience, but it also wasn’t about him, because the liberties taken were so extreme. The episode repeatedly made the point that when people said “Oh that Jed (the Ted-analogue) is such a jerk!” Ted was personally hurt as if they had said it about him. But they were (almost) always saying that in response to pure fabrications on-screen, things Ted himself had never done, things the screenwriter had embellished way beyond the pale. Ted couldn’t distance himself, and that says a lot about Ted, fair enough, but I was hoping for a third-act Rashomon-esque swerve in which Ted’s friends saw the movie and realized just how much it was a piece of fiction and how Ted was being a wee bit oversensitive and selective in seeing it as personal persecution. Alas, it was not to be. (And maybe that many layers is a bit much for 22 minutes of sitcom.) But that didn’t destroy my suspension of disbelief.
The HIMYM writers for some reason decided that it wasn’t enough that Ted be humiliated by knowing the movie exists, because he happened to end up seeing it on a date, nor for it to be enough that his date really liked the movie. They took it a step too far by asserting that, in their fictional universe, “The Wedding Bride” was the fifth highest grossing movie of all time. Which, you know, ha ha, I get jokes, but they played that fairly straight as a plot point; Ted and his budding romance end up on a double date at one point wherein the other couple loudly proclaims their love for “The Wedding Bride” and their plans to see it again in the theater. At which Ted loses it and tells them all that the movie sucks, and they are all dumb for liking it.
OK, here’s the thing: no romantic comedy will ever be in the top 20 of highest grossing movies of all time. EVER. That is not how the world works. I am going to climb up on my soapbox (which is actually a shipping crate for Dungeons and Dragons manuals) and explain how it is. I gots to represent my people! The highest grossing movies of all time? They are nerdy genre flicks! They are fantasy and sci-fi and based on comic books! Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Star Wars, those are the box office champs. The lone exception is of course Titanic, but even that movie has more than a few genre-riffic trappings (mega special effects, a high-action escape sequence, Billy Zane). There’s just something to the epic pageantry that gives a movie something for everyone and a high rewatchability factor. Rom-coms serve their purpose in the multiplex ecosystem, but it is not to be all things to all people.
And yeah, again, the joke is that Ted is in hell because he can’t get away from the movie, which symbolizes how he can’t get away from the past until he lets it go, but another joke is that “The Wedding Bride” is a terrible movie. The title in and of itself gives that away, and call me a smug elitist all you want but I back Ted up 100%: most rom-coms do suck, and if your favorite movie of all time is a rom-com (unless it’s for a valid sentimental reason like being what you saw on your first date with your soulmate or something) then yeah, you are empirically dumb. QED, MF’ers. I’m fine with a comedy giving me a ridiculous premise and milking it for laughs, but don’t give me two totally contradictory premises and try to milk them both. I’ll leave that metaphor alone before it gets too gross, but the point stands. I’m disappointed in the writers for trying to have it both ways, for essentially putting forward an egregiously terrible example of an inherently terrible genre and then asserting that everyone except the person secretly maligned by it would adore it. Come on, HIMYM. You’re better than that.