Since the dawn of the movie industry, romantic comedies have been telling us one thing time and time again: The nice guy always wins in the end. Sure, the silly female will make her silly female mistakes — falling for and receiving neglect from the popular jock, the bad boy, the hot jerk — but in the end, the meek guy best friend will become the champion of her heart. Sounds romantic, right? Sounds like another triumphant case of Nice Guy Gets the Girl.
That other sound you hear is me vomiting.
This idealistic construct is, for the most part, all well and good for movies in the same way alien invasions are — it makes for a on-screen story but a much less appealing reality, unless actually living Invasion of the Body Snatchers is your idea of a good time. Sure, during last summer’s Friends with Benefits we all rooted for Jamie to dump her flighty doctor boyfriend before he inevitably broke her heart the way pal Dylan never would. But where the Nice Guy is a great and frequent character for the screen, it doesn’t translate so well into reality when guys begin to see their friendships with women as countdowns to the Hollywood promise of getting laid.
The trouble with the Nice Guy — or Michael Cera Syndrome, as it’s sometimes known — is that it establishes an unrealistic expectation: Listen to a girl bitch and moan long enough and she’ll have to spread her legs for you eventually.
That is until she pulls an Andie Walsh on you and rides off with the Blane to your Ducky a la Pretty in Pink. And that’s when a guy might start to say, “But I cared about her feelings.” The implication being that caring about someone else is not the fundamental element of friendship, but a token used to redeem reciprocal feelings and guaranteed intimacy. One too many Nice Guy movies has created this delusion, when what guys really need is to be told once and for all: She’s just not that into you.
To remedy this real-life predicament, movies bend over backward to ensure that their female protagonist’s disposable boyfriends are jerks while the best guy friend is a pillar of virtue, as in 2009’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Our main man Michael Cera plays the only character he knows, sweet and wounded Nick, and spends much of the movie pining for manic pixie dream girl-esque Norah — who is, of course, still struggling with her feelings for some older jerk who just wants to use Norah for her lofty connections to the music industry. The writers make it easy for us to cheer for Nick, to hope that Norah wakes up and realizes that he’s the right one for her, because her boyfriend is such an insufferable ass.
There’s an inherent condescension to the Nice Guy Syndrome, the perception that the guy friend knows what’s best for the object of his affections in an “oh, honey” sort of way, accompanied by a pat on the head and a knowing smirk.
While that kind of logic works in a universe that wraps itself up in two hours or less, the real-life applications of it fall far short of the sort of expectations such movies establish. Most girls don’t take so kindly to being told whom they should or should not date. And the second someone tries to throw a little realism into the mix, an audience with years of “Nice Guys Finish First” conditioning will cry foul.
Case in point, (500) Days of Summer is an incredibly honest movie that has a great reputation for all the wrong reasons. Men and women alike held protagonist Tom close to their hearts, making him the martyr for every overlooked Nice Guy there ever was. But while Summer might not be the patron saint of good etiquette after inviting Tom to her engagement party, there is nothing inherently wrong with the fact that she broke up with him and found someone who made her happier.
This is the reality against which Hollywood has made us all turn a blind eye. This is the dose of bitter truth more moviegoers need to taste in order to separate fantasy and reality. Sure, Tom loved Summer, but she never loved him. And unlike what most other romantic comedies have taught us, she was never obligated to.