Failure to Launch was one of the high points of the neo-screwball revival of the mid-2000s – a collection of films that, in retrospect, feel like the silver age of the 1990s romcom. By this stage, it was harder to believe in the grand romantic dreams of the 90s – the cultural climate had changed – so writers and directors adopted new strategies to keep romance alive as a cinematic subject. Sometimes they opted for a zany screwball vibe, as if they could rejuvenate the romcom by accelerating it. Sometimes they treated romance itself as an experiment, or turned their attention to the mechanics of romance (especially the mechanics of wedding planning) with a more dispassionate eye. Failure to Launch takes both those tendencies to their logical conclusion, throwing in peak Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey.
Like most of the neo-screwball films from this period, the film revolves around a romantic professional. In this case, however, it’s not a wedding planner, or a wedding convenor, or anything to do with weddings, but a professional interventionist – Paula, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, who makes a living by pretending to fall in love with thirty-something men who haven’t moved out of home. Her service, she argues, is providing these men with the romantic impetus to leave the family nest, although she meets her match with Tripp, a perennial bachelor, played by Matthew McConaughey. Tripp’s parents Al and Sue, played by Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates, hire Paula because they’re convinced he will never move out. They warn her, ahead of time, that he’s a special case – and that she needs to bring her A-game.
Part of what’s unusual about watching Failure to Launch in the present is that it never even suggests that living at home might be an economic decision. In that sense, it’s thoroughly pre-GFC in its style and sensibility, even if it occasionally hints that a different situation might be on the horizon. Screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember go out of their way to dissociate living at home from any one economic situation in the way they characterise Tripp’s friends, all of whom live with parents. One of them works at Kinko’s, another operates his own tech company, and Tripp is in between – he brokers boats for rich people and often passes them off as his own whenever he’s romancing women. In both his personal and professional life, he’s a squatter by choice, and doesn’t seem to have any inclination to buy his own property.
Still, it’s notable that all Tripp’s friends live with their parents – there’s a vague sense that this might eventually become a generational phenomenon, rather than a romcom quirk. To mitigate against that downwardly mobile future, Failure to Launch insists, time and again, that living at home is a psychological phenomenon, rather than an economic situation. In fact, this is the essence of Paula’s job – to psychologise each client’s motivations for living with their parents, and tailor their romance accordingly. She quickly decides that Tripp’s decision to remain at home is a defence mechanism, and signals underlying trust issues. Time and again, Tripp’s romances end abruptly when his dates discover that he lives with his parents, but Paula argues that Tripp wants it this way, so long as he gets to sleep with them first. As the film proceeds, we go deeper, and learn that Tripp’s inability to move out stems from a past trauma, just as Paula started her career after her first love refused to leave home as well.
This all creates a modern spin on what Stanley Cavell described as the screwball comedy of remarriage. In classic screwball films, a couple typically separated and then reunited for a more authentic (and American) marriage, driven by personal connection rather than arcane institutions. In Failure to Launch, we see this trope operating on two distinct levels. First, Paula romances Tripp as part of her job, only to discover (almost too late) that she has genuinely fallen in love with him. Second, Tripp’s parents, Al and Sue, look forward to a new lease on life, and a remarriage of their own, as retirees, when Tripp eventually moves out. More broadly, Failure to Launch traffics in the screwball obsession with packing as many people (and voices) into as small a space as possible, and often recalls The More The Merrier, George Stevens’ comedy about the housing shortage during World War II. While the housing crisis of the Great Recession hasn’t quite emerged here, there’s a prescient fascination with all the ingenious ways people can live together under the same roof. Tripp might still live with his parents, but they run a pretty tight ship, dodging and weaving around each other in the opening breakfast scene, while talking with the dexterous cross-purposes of classic screwball.
Paula’s two main strategies for “treating” Tripp also exacerbate this screwball atmosphere. On the one hand, she always refrains from having sex with her clients, since this (supposedly) induces them to move out faster. This creates the same sensuous austerity as the Hays Code, which was introduced to curb the eroticism of sound cinema, but just accelerated the rise of screwball as so many strategies for suggesting what couldn’t be shown. Put bluntly, withholding sex makes conversation more sexually charged, as occurs in the great screwball films. At the same time, Paula instructs Al and Sue to make things more difficult for Tripp at home. This means giving him more responsibilities (such as forcing him to do his own laundry) but at a broader level it involves amping up the screwy cacophony – boxing him in with so much chaotic sound and cross-conversations that he’s unable to hear himself speak or think.
This all produces a sublime sense of romance as performance – or as layers of performance upon performance. On their first date, Paula engages in a double performance. She pretends to be genuinely interested in Tripp, but she also pretends to be a prospective boat buyer when the owner of the lavish yacht where they’re having the date turns up unexpectedly. At the heart of this double performance, Paula quotes The Philadelphia Story, and even tells Tripp about the film after the fact. With this little detail, Dey suggests that Failure to Launch, like High Society is a (more distant) sequel to Katherine Hepburn’s iconic screwball performance.
That sense of romance as performance leads on to a larger sense of the plasticity and malleability of the voice itself, especially when the action centres on Paula’s relationship with her roommate Kit, played by Zooey Deschanel. Paula and Kit are so different in appearance and sensibility that they’re always talking at cross-purpose, communicating across manic planes of sound. But Kit is also associated with the mockingbird that sits outside her window, and imitates any sound it hears in real time, becoming a parodic echo chamber for every conversation. When this mockingbird finally ventures inside, it zooms off every surface, gathering all the manic energy of the film into its wake, while cementing Kit’s own romance.
As occurs in so many classic screwball films, this fixation with the voice gives way to a continuum between human and animal life too. Paula’s second date with Tripp seems to coincide with her dog being put down, but we quickly learn she’s friends with the veterinarian, and doesn’t even know the dog – it’s just that “emotional day,” as she terms it, “is so critical.” This is the one point where any of the human characters are in charge of animals, since things quickly turn antagonistic from hereon out, as Dey stages a series of standoffs between human mouths and animal mouths. Tripp gets bitten by a chipmunk, sung to by a dolphin, and bitten again by a herbivorous lizard that laughs at the camera when it recognises its mistake. When Kit starts dating Tripp’s friend Ace, played by Justin Bartha, they almost kill the mockingbird, meaning Ace has to do mouth-to-mouth (or mouth-to-beak) on it, and gets a peck on the nose for good measure. During all these scenes, the gap between human and animal voices start to break down, dissolving the human voice into so much indiscriminate and intractable noise.
This fixation with the animal world, and the animal voice, forms part of what Cavell described as the pastoral interludes of screwball comedies. During these interludes, he argued, the main couple would typically retreat into the New England woods, and discover their inner animal selves, in order to remarry with more authenticity when they returned to civilisation. These interludes were therefore iterations of a much older pastoral trope whereby urban issues could only be fixed, or understood, by way of a picaresque excursion into the natural world. In Failure to Launch, these pastoral interludes are as hyperactive as the animals they produce – mountain biking through forest trails, surfing with dolphins, paint ball. Most of the film takes place in New Orleans, although it’s set in a more nebulous “Oxford” on the Gulf of Mexico – a flat expanse of sea and sky that permits much faster and cleaner trajectories than we find in the rugged wilds of New England. Indeed, these trajectories are so fast that they often seem likely to clear the ground altogether – given the title, Cape Canaveral never feels too far away.
As a result Failure to Launch is remarkably buoyant, carrying itself with such pace that Tripp (and Paula) always seem on the verge of lifting off. That energy is especially clear in the female characters, who appropriate the phallic energy of the men in increasingly screwy ways, culminating with Kit’s search for the right pistol to shoot down the mockingbird. At first she considers a rifle, then she turns to a BB gun provided by Ace, who she romances as they lie on her bed together – not by having sex, but lining up the best shot for the mockingbird as it sits outside her window. It’s at this moment that we discover her real name is Katherine, in another echo of The Philadelphia Story, while the entire mockingbird subplot also harkens back to Harper Lee, parodying the well-meaning “serious” South of her classic novel. In its place, Dey provides a picaresque South, a zany world where people are too busy negotiating the bizarre space between men and women to have time for racial discrimination or hatred.
This female absorption of male energy also comes with a pointed parody of the key romcom tropes as so many steps in masculine self-realisation. Paula engineers an emotional moment, bonds with Tripp’s friends, lets him teach her something, and finally meets his parents (for the second time), but all so that he eventually develops the self-esteem needed to move out of home. It’s like watching a Carrie Bradshaw experiment to determine how much of the romcom genre is just about helping dudes to mature – a deconstruction of the romcom as a male-centric exercise in which women only exist to help men-children come into their own. This prospect is funniest and most provocative in the third act, which starts to glimpse a more fluid space between living at home and moving out, along with an overlap between the two screwball generations, reflected in the funky 00s reworkings of Bacharach standards that comprise the score. In the best moment, Tripp returns home to find his father completely naked, in his old bedroom, dancing around to Dr. Dre’s “Nothin’ But a G Thang” – and he’s gobsmacked that his parents’ comedy of remarriage has (for the moment) overtaken his own.
Of course, this also leaves the film in a figurative bind – what are Gen Xers to do when they’re not yet married, but their parents are ready to remarry? That’s an even harder question to answer given the film’s refusal to acknowledge that staying at home might be an economic necessity. In response, Astle and Ember turn to one of the most enduring solutions of the great screwball comedies – media. In classic screwball, the main couple remarried and remediated at the same time, usually through the newspaper industry, which provided them with a forum to imagine their romance in a looser and more expansive way. Newspapers are old hat by the time we arrive at Failure to Launch, so the screenwriters instead focus on social media, and an inchoate prediction of Instagram, in order to bring the two characters together.
Interestingly, this final sequence plays out as an exhaustion of physical space – or of screwball as an exercise in physical space. In order to force Paula and Tripp to reconcile, their friends act as so many surrogates for the director and screenwriters, tying up Tripp and trapping him in a closet, and then locking Paula in the same room and waiting to see what happens. At one level, this is the most constrained space in the entire film – the logical conclusion of all the cacophonous conjunctions between Tripp and his parents. But it’s also the most porous space, since Tripp’s friends clutter this room with webcams, meaning that they can watch what happens – and the two lovers can perform their romance – from every possible angle.
At first, only Tripp’s friends watch what ensues, in a local coffee shop. However, as more people crowd around the computer, they broadcast it on the wall of the café, until people start spilling in from the street: “I usually don’t like reality TV shows but this is so emotional!” Now the romance is explicitly framed as an experiment within the film, as Dey cuts to a series of strangers offering their opinions, not unlike the interview sequences in the first series of Sex and the City. In effect, Tripp moves out of home and into social media, anticipating a world where real estate has been deflected into the cultural capital of likes and clicks. Watching it, I felt a mercurial shift from classic romcoms to silver age romcoms – a shift from 90s couples who measured their romance against romcom metrics, to 00s couples who measured their romance against social media metrics. In the end, Failure to Launch is a spiritual sequel to Notting Hill, since here, as there, we never see the duo again outside this final mediation.
There is one final scene when Tripp and Paula sail off into the sunset, as the errant dolphin from earlier in the film arrives and clicks a note of approval. There’s also a series of short scenes during the credit sequence that depicts the other main characters in vivid and harmonious interactions with animals – birdwatching in a swamp, handling a monkey in the Amazon. But by this stage these moments no longer feel quite real, or quite in the realm of cinema. They’re more like Instagram stories, moments of mediated authenticity – and the film’s oddly melancholy conclusion, for all its zaniness, is that this is the world that awaits the next generation that moves out of home, the generation on the verge of the Great Recession.