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It Could Have Been a Wonderful Life

Romantic comedies may be unrealistic fantasies, but you still feel like hugging your spouse afterward.

Imagine you are a therapist conducting a premarital counseling program. Couple number one comes in. She lives in L.A. and works the street as a prostitute wearing bright plastic clothes. He's one of America's top business entrepreneurs with a private jet with which he flies regularly to San Francisco to attend the opera. They say they are deeply in love and want your advice, though they assure you that they are going to be very happy together.

Okay, case number two. He's a divorced, cynical big-city newspaper writer with a reputation for hating women. She's a sweet, small-town gal, twenty years his junior, but who has trouble asserting her will and has had to end several relationships traumatically because she couldn't tell the men that she really didn't love them. In fact, she has broken off this relationship once already. By the way, they are deeply in love and are sure it's going to work out.

You are beginning to suspect this is not going to be a good day. Couple number three comes in. You recognize her. She is one of America's top movie stars, on the covers of dozens of magazines and gossip rags. Her life consists of international shopping sprees with famous friends, vacations on exotic islands, and multi-month-long on-location shoots all the while hounded by paparazzi. He's a British owner of a struggling, small travel bookshop in London. He's shy, passive, has a few close friends, and little ambition. You guessed it: They are madly in love and believe they will get on famously.

If you were a halfway decent counselor, you would do your best to prevent all three marriages. But this isn't real life, it's reel life, and here the rules are different. The above three match-ups come from romantic comedies starring Julia Roberts: (1) Pretty Woman, (2) Runaway Bride, and (3) Notting Hill. With matches this crossed, we should cheer all the heartier when she doesn't get the man in My Best Friend's Wedding.

Our culture takes many of its cues from movies. These modern myths on celluloid do more than entertain us, they help spread what the culture thinks is important, how we do things, what we should look like, and so on. And one of the most loved genres of films is the romantic comedy.

Many call our high-divorce society "anti-marriage," but you won't get that from our boy-meets-girl movies. Instead of anti-marriage messages, we learn that there is someone special out there just for you. No matter how mismatched you two are, love will overcome all differences. If you begin a relationship with mad, passionate love, the marriage will have no problems and you will be happy forever after. In fact, according to these movies, our fulfillment—no matter how rich, how successful, how accomplished we may otherwise be—depends on us finding and bonding with our soulmates. If we don't, well, that's the subject of a recent romantic comedy, called Family Man.

Another name for it might have been It Could Have Been a Wonderful Life, where Mr. Potter discovers that he could have been George Bailey. Nicolas Cage stars as Jack Campbell, the president of a small, prestigious investment banking firm. He is rich, single, and dedicated to making more money. Clarence's heavenly counterpart, "Cash," is an urban black man whom Jack meets after the man/angel pulls a gun in a store Jack is in. (Now, I never said this is a great movie.) Suffice it to say, Jack makes the mistake of telling the disguised angel that there is nothing he needs, that his life is perfect just the way it is. And with that, Jack wakes up the next morning in a very different world. Instead of his Manhattan high-rise condo, Jack resides in a very middle class, very suburban New Jersey home. Instead of being an investment banker, he finds that he is the manager of a tire store. And instead of being single, he finds he's married and shares his bed with Kate (Tea Leoni) and his home with two kids.

Not that Kate is a complete stranger. An old college sweetheart, Kate had pleaded with Jack thirteen years earlier not to go to London for an internship. In this timeline, instead of breaking up with her, Jack abandoned his London opportunity and began life with Kate. Now their daily routines are composed of changing diapers, feeding kids, getting kids to daycare and school, working, picking kids up, feeding them again, bowling with friends, writing bills, keeping to a tight budget, and going to bed exhausted. Not exactly the Manhattan high life.

In shock, Jack slowly catches on but stays depressed. He misses the self-esteem from being at the top and all the toys that went with it: nice suits, nice food, a Ferrari, beautiful girlfriends. But the daily routine keeps coming and eventually Jack discovers something. He finds that even with poopy diapers and bowling shirts, his new life is better than his old one. Love is better than goodies. Connection is better than isolation. And being in love is better than romancing.

Of course he must go back to his old life, and you can guess what he does after that. Family Man is not a great movie. It is your average romantic comedy. But before we decide whether or not to be entertained by it, let's pause and consider that our culture still tells myths about the wonders of marriage. Not that they are realistic, not that we should model our lives and loves from their examples, not that marriage counselors should be fooled by their improbabilities. But here is a movie that says a good marriage is more important than having all the riches in the world, more important than maximizing our vocational potential. That sounds "pro-marriage" to me. And for that we can be grateful.

Michael G. Maudlin is the executive editor of Marriage Partnership, Christian Parenting Today, and Books & Culture.

Marriage and the Blockbuster

How does marriage fare in the top-grossing movies of all time?
  • Titanic. The whole point of the story is escaping from a fiance.
  • Star Wars. No married main characters except Luke's uncle and aunt who get toasted early on.
  • Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace. Ditto. Single princess, single Jedis, single senator. Who has time for marriage?
  • ET. Single mom raises kids and alien.
  • Jurassic Park. Single head paleontologist loves dinosaurs; ambivalent about kids and marriage.
  • Forrest Gump. A very long court ship, marriage at long last; wife dies.
  • Lion King. Good parental marriage, though husband dies; promising courtship for next generation.
  • Return of the Jedi. Han and Leah declare love but not engagement—troubling family revelations add complications.
  • Independence Day. Good presidential marriage, though First Lady dies.
  • Sixth Sense. Dead psychologist thinks he's still married.
  • Empire Strikes Back. Would you marry Yoda?

Moral of the movies: If you have a good marriage, one of you will die by the end of the movie. If you want an exciting, adventuresome, dramatic life, stay single. But if you want someone to accompany you to the cineplex, get married. —MGM

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Love; Marriage; Relationships
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 2001
Posted September 30, 2008

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