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Something New: A Modern Romantic Comedy

Flowers fall dreamily before us in a soft focus shower of white and yellow petals. As their images come into focus, the rush of flower buds dissipates to reveal a brightly lit, picturesque scene: a garden wedding. Many romantic comedies end with a wedding. “Something New,” a 2006 focus feature film directed by Sanaa Hamri, begins with one. Kenya McQueen, a beautiful black woman, stands surrounded by family and friends in a beaded-bodiced gown with full skirt and flowing train, topped by a tiara. A handsome black groom stands beside her and the wedding party looks on at them lovingly. The scene seems classic and perfect. Suddenly, a deafening siren begins to screech and the wedding party runs away in a chaotic stampede, leaving a confused Kenya standing alone and perturbed. The siren transforms into the annoying scream of an alarm clock, which Kenya briskly turns off as she sits up in bed. It is Valentines Day and she is alone. Thus we are introduced to our protagonist, Kenya McQueen, not through a wedding, but through the dream of one.

“Something New,” follows the familiar Hollywood Romantic Comedy structure as it journeys through the conventions of each of the five movements: first encounter, flirtation, obstacles, separation, and finally, coming together. “The King and the Chorus Girl,“ It Happened One Night,” and “An Affair to Remember,“ are examples of past romantic comedies that follow this structure. Keeping with common romantic comedy mythology, “Something New” is set in the present, in a middle to upper-class urban milieu, in this case Los Angeles. Kenya McQueen is an updated version of the rich heiress icon present in several classic romantic comedies. A no-nonsense type along the lines of Tracy Lord Haven, Kenya comes from a family of academics instead of having her wealth bestowed on her. Her shopaholic mother proudly boasts that her doctor father is the Head of Neurosurgery, her brother graduated at the top of his law school class, and Kenya herself is an upwardly mobile career woman on the verge of making partner at her accounting firm.

Though Kenya is indeed a career woman, I would not characterize this film as a ‘career woman comedy.’ In career woman comedies of the 1940s, female power is treated as a problem, her professional position is viewed as masculine, and her male counterpart ultimately teaches her to substitute her ‘unnatural’ empowered behavior with her ‘natural’ femininity as she assumes a more passive position (Glitre 29-30). In this instance, Kenya’s love interest does challenge her to live a less work-focused life, but Kenya’s position in the workforce is ultimately elevated by the end of the story. In addition, although the relationship transforms her, it does not encourage her to take a passive stance in life or love as she ultimately pursues the man who initially pursued her.

In the beginning, Kenya exhibits a competitive and disciplined temperament. Her dialogue is simple and straightforward and she feels comfortable relying on statistics, even when it comes to romance. “Even if 42.4% of [black women] never get married that still means 56.7% of us will and that’s a substantially greater percentage,” she optimistically tells her single girlfriends at their Valentine’s Day dinner. She is a woman who can clearly list the things she will and will not do and the things she does and does not want. Though sometimes at odds with her mother, she has nonetheless internalized some of the conservative woman’s characteristics. Her neutrally colored apartment is a testament to that. “My mother says that bright colors are for children and whores,” Kenya states plainly. Kenya is a woman whose life lacks color as well as romantic love, although love is something for which she visibly yearns.

Kenya has some help in her introduction to love. Leah, a friend from work, sets Kenya up on a blind date with Brian Kelly, a man she describes as tall, hot, newly single, architect, and really smart. Unlike “The More the Merrier” where a single character acts as the matchmaker, the advice of several characters brings these romantics together over the course of the story. Leah is the initiator, but as soon as Kenya meets Brian at Magic Johnson‘s Starbucks, Kenya is sure that Leah has gotten it all wrong. In her list of attributes, Leah remembered that Brian was tall, hot, and newly single, but she forgot to mention that he was also white.

The first encounter of the romantics can only be characterized as awkward. Upon being introduced to Brian, Kenya does a visible double take followed by an uncomfortable silence between the two. Brian realizes that he isn’t what she expected. As they search for a table, Kenya’s uneasiness at being seen with a white guy in the black-owned Starbucks is almost tangible. We can’t help but laugh at her interaction with a few black patrons as she tries to reassert her Blackness. The humiliation is sealed when Brian calls her out for trying to make sure everyone knows that she is “still down.” Kenya ends the date early, citing work for her hasty retreat.

A few days later Kenya and her best friend Cheryl attend Leah’s engagement party. Cheryl trots off to flirt with the caterer, leaving Kenya on her own. Kenya explores the majestic backyard and raves to Leah’s mother about the landscaping. When Leah’s mother learns that Kenya has recently bought her first home, she graciously decides to introduce Kenya to their “landscape architect.” Much to Kenya’s dismay, she is met with Brian’s familiar face.

As Kathrina Glitre reminds us, when dealing with the realm of Romantic Comedy, “we have the sense of the benevolent world, in which destiny (rather than fate) may play a magical part and coincidence has positive results” (Glitre 10). Thus, the audience is delighted to see Brian reappear on the scene. Though the meeting may seem unfortunate and undesirable to Kenya and Brian, we as the omniscient audience know that their meeting must lead us toward their eventual union and will provide comedic and dramatic fodder along the way. As we saw in “Private Lives,” the romantics are not always pleased when coincidence brings them together again. But unlike the classic duo of Amanda and Elyot, this contemporary pair does not yet share a history and their second meeting is not hateful; it is simply doubly awkward. “Business is business,” Brian tells Kenya rationally. “If you‘re ever ready, call me.” And she does. Though we don‘t actually witness this invitation, when we see Brian’s huge orange truck barreling down an LA street, juxtaposed with the image of Kenya wearing beige, sitting on a beige couch in her beige apartment as she types on her laptop, we know that the colorful, free-spirited Brian, is on his way to her, as he inevitably must be. A former ad-man, Brian has rejected corporate America in favor of his love for plants.

The conceit of “Something New” is Kenya’s garden, though her small forest of dried brown shrubbery can hardly be characterized as a garden when Brian first sees it. The garden brings Brian to Kenya’s doorstep and yet also serves as a reminder that he is in a profession that makers him financially inferior to her and theoretically ineligible (in addition to the problem of race). This conceit works well as it separates the lovers, yet brings them together. The conceit in past romantic comedies have functioned similarly such as in “Lover Come Back” where their rivalry of ad agencies incites their initial loathing as well as the inevitable seduction.

The romantics in “Something New” begin getting to know one another when Brian shows up to look at Kenya’s garden for the first time. Brian’s easy way of talking is in contrast with Kenya’s more measured tone. When she sees Brian’s golden retriever standing at the door with him, she quickly blocks the way, saying, “Oh no. I don’t do dogs.” Without missing a beat Brian retorts, “Neither do I. We’re just good friends.” Thus begins the flirtation movement of this romantic comedy. As Kenya hires him as her landscaper and they begin to get to know one another, Brian keeps up his string of double entendres and continues to be characterized by his cleverness and wit. Although Kenya is professionally, his superior, Brian is linguistically hers. Intellectually, they are equals and thus well paired. One night, Kenya invites Brian inside for take out after he’s worked in her garden all day. The two strike up layered dialogue:

Brian: …So I take it you don’t do white guys. Kenya: I just happen to prefer black men. It’s not a prejudice; it’s a preference. Brian: Sure. Its your preference to be prejudiced. Kenya: What about you? Brian: Women are women. Some are poison some are sweet. Kenya: Ever date a black girl? Brian: All kinds of girls. Kenya: So you’re a player. Brian: No, I’m just a landscaper. I take hard earth and make things grow.

Although this exchange is not expressed in the fast paced repartee of Tracy and Dexter Haven, it is nonetheless engaging and insightful. Brian continues his use of double entendre to draw Kenya in and also confirms the metaphor of Kenya and her love life as the garden. Through out the film, as the garden begins to bloom, so does Kenya. After losing a coin toss, Kenya agrees to go hiking with Brian and the two enter the forest, both literally, and in the Shakespearean sense. Here, the film makes use of the romantic melodrama convention of height, to separate the romantics from the rest of the world. Like the lovers climbing upward in “Private Lives,” or looking toward the Empire State Building in “An Affair to Remember,” Kenya and Brian forget the potential judgment of society on their relationship. As the huddle under a tree to escape a sudden rain shower on they mountaintop, they share their first kiss. That night, the couple passionately consummates the relationship.

In this age where censorship does not preclude on screen sexual relationships, many contemporary romantic comedies involve the romantics sleeping together during this wooing stage, before true love has been professed. Such is the case in “Something New” and incidentally, the fun, play, and adventure found in a comedy like “It Happened One Night,” is not really present. Instead, the bedroom is a place where the couple fosters intimacy that is sexual as well as personal. For example, Brian sits at Kenya’s feet while she lays in her bed and tells her, “I know you’re sensitive about color. So we’ll keep this as our little secret.” The camera pans down to reveal that he is painting her toe nails red. The color is a symbol of Kenya’s transformation to becoming more open, though the double meaning of Brian’s statement is not lost on her. The couple does experience life outside of the bedroom as well in a charming ‘getting to know you’ montage.

However, the social pressure the couple receives proves to be too much of a strain and they eventually break up. During this separation, Kenya’s brother introduces her to his mentor Mark, who has every characteristic that Kenya listed for her “Ideal Black Man” in the beginning of the story. When Brian shows up to tell Kenya that he loves her after all, she rejects him because she’s thinks she’s found a relationship that makes more sense. Her girlfriend confidantes affirm her decision. However, when Mark alludes to marriage, Kenya begins to realize that her dream of what the rest of her life could look like, has forever been transformed. When she ends her relationship with Mark, she again consults her confidantes and we find a situation similar to “The King and the Chorus Girl.” Dorothy’s confidantes, the count and the duchess, initially disapproved of her continuing a real relationship with Alfred. However, in the end, they affirm what seems to be love. Likewise, Kenya’s best friend Cheryl reminds her that the bond she’s formed with Brian is irreplaceable. After some further soul searching, Kenya seeks Brian out, and the two are reunited.

Something New makes use of what Glitre calls the ‘odd couple’ plot which “combines internal and external conflicts, raising issues around social conformity, particularly in relation to hierarchies of class or (more recently) racial difference” (19). Kenya’s brother Nelson serves as the voice of the world and reminds the audience of these societal expectations. He first refuses to acknowledge Brian due to social status as he scornfully refers to Brian as “the help.” He goes on to accuse Kenya of “skiing the slopes,” “sneaking off to the O.C.” and “sleeping with the enemy” in an effort to berate her for her racial transgression. Due to the Production Code, classic romantic comedies did not deal with race, but class was certainly an issue in Depression-era films. It was dealt with more progressively in some cases than in others. For example, The Philadelphia Story, the remarriage of the upper-class romantics, “reinforces established class divisions and reinstates the class based ideology that both George and Mike are attempting in their own ways to challenge” (Beach 123).

On the other end of the spectrum, when reporter Peter and heiress Ellen end up together in “It Happened One Night,” their romantic union “overcame class barriers and thus demonstrated their fundamental artificiality” (Beach 125). “Something New” falls into the latter category as it re-evaluates the status quo of both race and class. Brian helps Kenya to live a more free spirited existence and Kenya helps Brian become more aware of racial issues. They are able to mutually love and grow together and see beyond race as a barrier to their love. “Dreams change,” she tells Brian. “You’re the one I want.”

Noticeably absent from this story, is a theme common to many classic and contemporary romantic comedies: the theme of deception. Perhaps intentional deception was not actively a part of any characters’ actions because Kenya was unknowingly self-deceived. She thought she knew exactly what she wanted but discovered the potential of something very different. The last image of the film is evidence of Kenya’s transformation. The wedding scene is very similar to her dream that began the film. The only things different in the set up are the bride and groom. Brian stands by her side instead of her idealized black man and Kenya’s elegant wedding costume has changed to a free flowing gown, worn with her hair down. Kenya is still a woman actively pursing what she wants, but she is open to allowing life to change her dreams.

Bibliography

Beach, Christopher. Class, Language, and American Film Comedy. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Glitre, Kathrina. Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union, 1934-1965. United Kingdom: Manchester UP, 2006.

Film Romantic Comedy Hollywood


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