There are few words more chilling to me than the words ‘romantic comedy.’ It’s not that the genre is in it of itself bad – hello, Groundhog’s Day – or that it’s a little gratuitously cynical to be against love, laughter, joy. But over the years, the genre has become saturated with some of my least favorite tropes in commercial storytelling – Eastern egg palettes, cancer-infused plot lines, Cameron Diaz. While there is no single one person responsible for this decline (Nicholas Sparks! Nicholas Sparks! Nicholas Sparks!), I’d like to take a bold controversial stand in the name of definitive ranking justice, and nominate one person: Nicholas Sparks, Nicholas Sparks, Nicholas Sparks.
Most people know Sparks for The Notebook, but his reach is far more insidious than that: Safe Haven, A Walk To Remember, and six other pieces of crap my dentist won’t stop recommending to me. After watching all of them, I’m confident of two things: (1)I’m going to die of leukemia and (2)Nicholas Sparks is the worst. It’s not just that he’s a hack – there are plenty of other genre filmmakers out there who play into the same banal formulas. It’s that his storylines act out some of the most twisted, antiquated fantasies American culture has about sex and romance. In order of tremendous importance, they are:
- Great tragedy leads to great sex.
Dying? Dead? On your way to dying? Sad for you, but it’ll do wonders for your love life. You’ll never have to worry about what happens when ‘romance ages’ or ‘people change’ when your partner is a crumbling corpse on the bathroom floor.
- It takes about twenty seconds to fall in love.
Forget all those dated truisms about “getting to know someone” before you “fall in love with them.” This is the digital age, Grandma! All it takes it one quick stare at Ryan Gosling before you know the two of you will spend the rest of your lives together in a slave plantation house.
- Channing Tatum looks good in cargo shirts.
They’re khaki. And loose-fitting. NSFno-one.
- All women are (super hot, but no hips) victims.
Whether victims of domestic violence (Safe Haven), or of Alzheimer’s (The Notebook), all rich white women are in need of saving by all rich white men. Preferably lonely artisans with yoga-shopped abs. Tortured war histories recommended, not required.
- Middle-class men make great laborers AND great partners.
Sure, rich guys are smart, comfortable, and sophisticated. But guys who have to work middle-class jobs for a living? How CRAZY sexy is that?
Now to be fair, Nicholas Sparks isn’t the only novelist out there who spits out this sputum. All of his formulas are grounded in deeply American algebra which is founded in deeply profitable math. But as the face of the modern rom-com, a wildly successful multimillionaire, and a lunatic criminal who supports the Homo-caust, all gloves are off. Here is the ranking you haven’t been waiting for, of movies you’ll never want to see, displayed proudly, for the next 16-24 hours.
8. Message in a Bottle
Grade: Well, there’s a Natalie Imbruglia song attached
Thanks to Paul Newman, Robin Wright, and Kevin Costner, Message in a Bottle is saved from absolute infamy thanks to mild-to-moderate acting. The first of Nicholas Sparks’ films, the story showcases some of Sparks’ favorite themes – white people, letters – and somehow manages to compress it into a totally functional plot. Wright plays a journalist who finds Costner’s messages written to his dead wife in a bottle on the beach. She tracks him down, falls in love with him, and proceeds to publish the letters without his consent. Her total breach of privacy and lack of respect for the dead is totally cool because LOVE GUYS and everyone dies anyway.
7. Dear John
Grade: Not The Notebook
For all Nicholas Sparks claims to love romance, he seems to really hate sex. Whether in Dear John, or everything else, his characters’ sex lives are routinely interrupted by war and/or terminal illness. In Dear John, Channing Tatum plays a discriminated-against army man (is that even a thing?) who is sent to war and forced to leave his girlfriend of two weeks – I’m sorry, his soulmate of a lifetime (Amanda Seyfried) – behind. Channing Tatum loves surfing, Amanda Seyfried loves autistic people, everyone loves God. The two share quite possibly one of the most boring, e-harmony of a romances I’ve ever witnessed on screen, heightened only by the fact that Channing Tatum could potentially die, which he doesn’t even do.
6. The Notebook
Grade: The Notebook
It may seem a little gratuitous to put The Notebook so high up on this list, given that the story features an actual story, and Ryan Gosling is hot. I’ve known many smart, wonderful people who love this movie, and are otherwise functional in their daily lives. Still, The Notebook grossed over $115.6 million worldwide, which makes its reach frighteningly extensive, while the fantasies that undergird its narrative remain deeply, deeply, f’d up. Ryan Gosling wins over Rachel McAdams because he stalks her and threatens suicide – qualities we’re supposed to find charming, not criminal. McAdams and Gosling are supposed to be separated by an enormous class divide, even though she’s rich, and he’s middle-class/owns a slave plantation house. The Notebook further portrays Alzheimer’s as sweet and domesticating, instead of showcasing it for what it really is – destructive and scary. No one really tenderly expresses love in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s – mostly they just yell at you about the paper, then eat your dessert (my case).
5. Nights in Rodanthe
Grade: Richard Gere
This movie is the kind of thing you watch during menopause. Middle-aged singles (Richard Gere, Diane Lane) rediscover love with each other at some Victorian B & B in the Outer Banks. Gere reveals that he’s spent too much of his life building his medical career (the horror!) and not enough time building intimate connections with his son and family. Gere falls in love with Lane, Lane falls in love with Gere, she rides a horse, he dies in a mudslide, it’s hilarious.
4. A Walk to Remember
To be honest, it’s a little unfair to keep A Walk to Remember on this list, because it’s very, very good. Mandy Moore plays a sassy right-wing Conservative in overalls and a turtleneck sweater and god what else do you need to know. Shane West is a bad boy from the upper-middle-class side of the tracks who’s forced to star in a play with her after nearly murdering a fellow student. At first, Shane is resistant to Moore’s charms, but is eventually seduced by her bangs/the fact that she’s a virgin. Moore doesn’t change at all, but thanks to her/all women’s emotional labor, West goes through a radical transformation. Hooray! And like in all of his books, Sparks wants to show us that “opposites attract” – even though these are all rich white people who fall in love with other rich white people, then die.
3. The Lucky One
Grade: It swept the Teen Choice Awards
Veteran with PTSD stalks woman seduces woman trauma cured story ends world over. [Here’s the plot recreated with review quotes, in case you’re into that. -Vince]
2. The Last Song
Grade: This makes The Fault in Our Stars look like The Movie Of Our Century
There’s only one thing that Nicholas Sparks likes more than love and ships, and that’s children – and leukemia. Starring Hannah Montana and Liam Hemsworth, The Last Song tells the story of two star crossed lovers – one’s a volleyball player, the other a PIANO – who despite their tremendous differences, still manage to cross boundaries, climb mountains, and make it to first base. More often than not, Sparks turns to cancer because it’s a quick fix way to add dramatic tension to a story entirely lacking in it. No chemistry between the actors? No nuance in the script? Fear not: a creeping case of leukemia has come to metastasize its way through the nothingness!!!!!!
[Vince’s note: I also recreated the plot of this one with reviews, probably my all-time favorite installment of this feature.]
1. Safe Haven
Grade: Actively evil
Burnsy eloquently wrote about Safe Haven in his ‘Worst Movies of 2013’ ranking, describing it as: “two really good-looking people who aren’t very good at acting and are trying their hardest to pretend that this movie isn’t a shoddy remake of Sleeping with the Enemy .” The story of a woman who escapes her abusive husband only to fall into the arms of a kind, patriarchal shop owner, Safe Haven has to be one of the most exploitative movies about domestic violence I’ve ever seen (and I’ve watched a lot of Lifetime my friends). Julianne Hough is a DV victim who, upon her first and only attempt at leaving her husband (normally, it takes many), scores a beautiful house (cause that happens), a well-paying job (cause that happens), and a hot boyfriend (ok sometimes that happens). Then, she later fights her abuser to the best of her crappy ability, only to be saved by her strong, paternalistic boyfriend (Josh Duhamel). There’s also a whole ghost subplot involved which is embarrassing for me to even talk about. It’s a bad movie that’s quite seriously a scary story; the brightest burning star in the expanding Nicholas Sparks universe.