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Denouement: Getting Weepy at the Movies

The Projector

Denouement: Getting Weepy at the Movies

Universal Pictures

Many years ago, I was in a long-term volatile relationship filled with endless ups and downs. After one particularly painful 24-hour stretch -- one in which my girlfriend and I broke up and got back together again -- we went to a movie. It was a romantic comedy-drama about a middle-aged married couple who are starting to have serious doubts about their commitment to one another. It looks like the two of them aren't going to work it out, but at the last minute they make up and everybody's happy. After everything I'd gone through with my girlfriend, the movie's themes about love and fidelity hit me incredibly hard. I had never before -- or since -- cried as hard as I did at the end of that movie.

The film was "The Story of Us." Yes, that Bruce Willis-Michelle Pfeiffer movie that was critically savaged. Hell, even I knew the movie wasn't good while I was watching it. But it moved me deeply. That happens sometimes.

One of the interesting things about reaching my 30s is coming to terms with the fact that I'm a movie crier. Not all the time, and even then it's not huge buckets of tears and uncontrollable sobbing. Mostly, it's just a welling-up that happens. But it does happen. I'm not sure why people -- OK, men -- are so afraid to admit that.

I bring this up because I noticed twice in the last week that I got weepy at movies. One of them, "Fireflies in the Garden," wasn't surprising: It's a melodrama tied to a character's tragic death. But the other was "Footloose." I got a bit teary-eyed at both for the same reason: My grandmother died last week, which has put me into a reflective mood about family and mortality. Both films touch on those themes, and I found myself responding to both in a way I probably wouldn't normally. And it's not like I liked either film: They're extremely flawed. But there's an argument to be made that if you're moved that much by what's on screen, isn't the movie doing its job?

It's one of the really fun discussions about movies: what touches us. There's a reason why studios want to make sure their films have happy endings. If you walk out of the theater happy that the guy and girl ended up together, or if you're glad that the hero got revenge on the people who did him wrong, or if you're cheered up because the underdog wins the big game, it puts you in a good mood. And who doesn't want to feel good? People can get cynical about happy endings, but the truth is we all go to movies because we want to get some sort of emotional response from what we're watching. Whether it's the visceral thrills of "Drive" or the worldly cynicism of "The Ides of March," movies help us tap into feelings and emotions.

But sometimes movies can tap into those sensations simply because they come around at the right moment. On any other day, I probably would have just found "The Story of Us" completely silly and hokey. But not on the day I saw it. God, it destroyed me. (Thinking about it 12 years later, I'm still struck by two conflicting thoughts: That movie wasn't very good, and, wow, did it make me cry.) I'm a film critic, so I have to separate those responses, but normal people don't, and they probably don't need to.

It reminds me of the conversations I've had with folks about "50/50." I told them it didn't do much for me, and they've mentioned that they were really touched because they've had friends or loved ones who have had cancer. The movie worked for them because they recognized something in their own lives up there on the screen. Are they more "correct" than I am about whether the movie "works"? I don't think that's the point. Instead, we should all remember that films aren't just these things we watch like cold, unfeeling robots. They're made by human beings for human beings, and our individual responses to things matter. So, the next time a bad movie makes you weepy, don't beat yourself up. It happens to the best of us.