Thursday ∗ 27 Feb 2014

not everyone can make a rom-com: a realization from watching Starting Over Again

There is standard that Star Cinema has set when it comes to the romantic-comedy as a genre, and it’s a standard that has since re-set the formula for the effective rom-com, where effectivity is proven by both a movie’s creation of it’s own cult following and box office success.

The list of directors is not a long one: Cathy Garcia-Molina (One More Chance, the Laida and Miggy trilogy, most every Toni Gonzaga rom-com) was responsible for reimagining this genre to take cognisance of contemporary times. Bb. Joyce Bernal has to be credited with having kicked-off this genre as we know it via the Judy Ann Santos-Piolo Pascual movies she directed [Til There Was You (2003), Don’t Give Up On Us (2006)] and later on the more mature conversations that were in Paano Kita Iibigin (2007) and For The First Time (2008). I tend to think it is Jose Javier Reyes though who set the stage for this genre, where May Minamahal (1993) was so ahead of its time and his early 2000 rom-coms dealt the heavier bigger topics of stereotypes and age, the fleeting and unstable [Narinig Mo Na Ba Ang L8est? (2001), 9 Mornings (2001), Kung Ako Na Lang Sana, (2003)], like no rom-com has since.

The more famous rom-coms of our times though are Garcia-Molina’s, and it is for good reason: she has taken that happy ending and reconfigured it for us, where it’s not all red roses and running off into the sunset, as it is about love stories that allow us to continue writing the stories in our heads because it remains interesting. Garcia-Molina reworked the formula of the rom-com by giving us love stories that are ours: neither boring nor expected, with every love different, each romance unique. In her rom-coms, contexts for characters are clear and believable — they have families and friends, they speak in a language that’s our vernacular, they live in a particular place and time, the map of their city is clear — and one can’t help but feel like we know these characters.

poster via Star Cinema.

Through the years I have come to expect of Star Cinema films this world that is real, where characters are complex, and the ensemble is always so in sync and is as important to the story as everything else. Here, there is wit and banter, there are conversations that work because relationships beyond the romantic one are real.

Such is the failure of Starting Over Again — so obviously not a Garcia-Molina film. Neither is it a Bernal or Reyes one.  And this became clear to me so many minutes into it, when it decided to start off with a college student’s infatuation with her history teacher, and how the teacher fell in love with student (for reasons that are not explained). It would then prove to be a flashback, to when this romance started; how it unraveled is revealed via flashbacks throughout the film, while we are watching the story of the present unfold.

And the present sucks for sure. Ginny (Toni Gonzaga) was the infatuated college student who had run after her history teacher Marco (Piolo Pascual) in the past, and who encouraged him to follow his dream of becoming a chef. In the present Ginny’s life is about working with friends she’s had since college, and building a career as an architect, after taking her Masters Degree in Spain where her mother lives. She is driven and confident, looks like the empowered woman that we imagine she would be.

Ginny sees Marco for the first time. via Star Cinema.

Except that she encounters two things from her past: one is Marco, now a chef wanting to build his own restaurant with his fiancee, and for reasons that are not explained, his partners in the business hire Ginny’s company to do the job; and two, is a letter from Marco, written four years ago, but sent only in the present, where he promises Ginny he will wait for her and love her no matter how long it takes.

The moment this crisis became clear, my thought bubble was: WTF is that website that allows us to send letters later? And why would any guy — let alone a teacher who we trust would be more intelligent than the run-of-the-mill object of affection — use it at all if what he wants is to make a promise? For someone who (we find out later) ran in the rain after a taxi and was absolutely lost and confused upon getting his marriage proposal turned down, why couldn’t this guy make the promise when it was urgently needed? I mean you know, send it later in the week, the month!

That decision to send this letter four years later, even as we are made to believe that Marco is intelligent teacher, confident and sincere, was the downfall of this character, where we are not told exactly why he made all his decisions. not why he fell in love with a student, not why he left teaching for culinary school, not why he stopped going to culinary school, not why there was a need to sell his Sta. Ana ancestral home.

Ginny and Marco. via Star Cinema.

This Marco was as cardboard as a male character in any movie could come, and it didn’t help that in order for him to make a decision between the two women, there had to be some freak accident that will make him weigh the importance of one over the other. It was certainly a waste of Piolo’s talent, as it was a waste of energy, watching this character go through the motions of being in a romantic-comedy.

But Marco is not the only off-putting character here; the whole ensemble is as well. For example, there are the two guys who were in culinary school with Marco, and who became his partners in the business; guys who knew Ginny, too and who decided to hire her for their new restaurant, for reasons that are not explained properly. Too: why was this barkada not allowed their day in the sun? It was such a waste of Joross Gambao, whose timing is impeccable and who, in every other movie where he is part of the ensemble, steals the limelight and is voice of humorous reason. The same might be said for every other barkada that Star Cinema’s rom-coms have had: they are always an integral part of the story, and provide become the enduring friendships that can be depended on for the protagonists. Even Ginny’s friends in this instance were one-dimensional, save for the friend Wella (Beauty Gonzales) who was living elsewhere, but would come visit at the most opportune time.

Ginny taking the PNR. photo via Star Cinema website.

That is, when Ginny has spiralled down to the bottom of the barrel, and had made herself believe that the past actually did matter, and there’s nothing more beautiful than second chances. But of course once the kilig and the gigil run out, this proves to be no fairy tale: Ginny and Marco have moved on with their lives, no matter the lack of closure on their relationship. This whole second chances narrative was doomed from the beginning.

There are two great things about this narrative. One is Gonzaga who is at her best here, doing the more serious female protagonist in the rom-com with the chutzpah we have come to love her for. And without the silliness and the slapstick, Gonzaga proves that she’s got the acting chops really, she just needs to be given the right material. Her Ginny is the every Pinay who regrets having missed the one who got away, and who, faced with the possibility of a second chance, believes it can and will happen by merely creating the circumstances for it. That moment Ginny read Marco’s letter from four years ago; the manner in which her nervousness and excitement about meeting him again was revealed via the fixing of her bra straps and making sure she had no wedgie; the running around the city to meet up with him even as it was obvious he was giving her the runaround. These were comedic for sure, complete with crazed twisting and turning in her bed upon seeing that letter, but Gonzaga was able to balance the comedy with a sincerity, where one could not but feel for Ginny and her grand attempt at being forgiven by the boy she ran away from.

By the time she was in that drinking scene with Wella, it was clear that Gonzaga the actress — and Ginny as the stereotypical rom-com character she plays — had grown up. She was now not limited to tears and anger, playing unbelievable policewoman or telling the US Embassy Official she loved to become a pig before she forgave him. She was drunk and dirty, she didn’t want to get out of bed; she had gotten into bed with a man who has a fiancee. And that scene was fantastic: with both Gonzaga and Gonzales doing it the way we all have: via self-deprecation and laughter, which turns into truth and tears. It was brilliant.

The other great thing about this was that it reconfigured the happy ending by leaving Ginny be, by herself but productive, career woman running in the streets of the city in stilettos. I wish it had the heart to end with that. Because ending with Luis and Vhong and Sam and Paul was an injustice to the kind of work Gonzaga put into this character, and this movie. Where she had proven herself an actress beyond the silliness and the comedy, and yet we put her in an ending that is still exactly and only that.

Not everyone can make a rom-com, yes? Even fewer knows a good ending when they see one.

“Starting Over Again” is a Star Cinema production directed by Olivia Lamasan and written by Carmi Raymundo. It was released in cinemas on February 12 2014. 

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