I use the terms in the title of this post a little loosely. It should really be titled something like "seriousness vs. light heartedness" or "endings where the guy and the girl don't get together vs. endings where they do get together" but I thought being more succinct would be a good thing. A recent conversation with my wife prompted me to start thinking about why we as viewers react a certain way to movies. She claims that I only like movies where The Guy and The Girl don't get together, and I claim that she dismisses any movie where they don't as being not worth the time. I certainly don't have anything against happy or "fairy tale" endings, when I think they work within the context of the movie. In fact, when I think it works, I love it just as much as anything.
But I also love when there's some ambiguity in the ending. At the end of the great romance movie Before Sunrise, for instance, Jesse and Celine don't have a fairy tale ending, but they also don't have one where they necessarily don't end up together. I love the scene in the sequel, Before Sunset, where Jesse talks about the scenario (via the book he wrote about the first movie's happenings), where the two lovers part but pledge to meet again in the same spot 6 months from then. He says essentially that we fill in the blanks with whatever type of person we are, a romantic will believe they got together again (as I believed before seeing Sunset), a cynic will think that they don't, and someone in between will simply not be sure. And in my recent viewing of 5 Centimeters Per Second, there's the grayness of the ending where you think about why he stops to try and see her again, and why she walks away. I loved that ending, but it wasn't because "they don't end up together", it was because of the character motivations and what it meant to each of them to see the other one again after so long. Alvy doesn't end up with Annie Hall, but they don't have to. Alvy appreciates the time in his life that Annie occupied and has moved on, and so should we.
Some movies like that just leave us with a piece, or a taste, of love. In Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times, the first section ends up with the two young loves holding hands with nervous smiles on their faces. It was a perfect piece of cinema. Cameron Crowe's great Say Anything ends with John Cusack putting his arm around Ione Skye as they apprehensively wait for whatever they'll face in their new life of love together (a remarkably mature ending for a debut from Crowe, as is the whole movie). In Casablanca, everyone knows Rick and Ilsa don't end up with one another (the movie's so famous, most people can quote the scenes even if they've never seen the movie before), but that doesn't tarnish the great lost romance that they had, or Rick's noble sacrifice in the end. What happened after Harry met Sally? Well, they had an iconic New Years Eve, to the delight of romantics like me. James and Emily in Adventureland have a wonderfully romantic (and funny and heartfelt) culmination of their relationship at the end of my favorite film of last year. These are incredibly romantic movies, I think, and some of my favorite romance movies.
But then we have the chick flicks. The leads always end up together after some bullshit incident that threatens to derail their romance in the third act. These movies are safe and comforting for many people, and can be perfectly enjoyable when done right. But since they're simply formulas made over and over again with mostly interchangeable lead actors, I don't really think of them as romantic or as "romance" movies, and they rarely evoke any sort of passion out of me as a viewer. I understand their value in the same way I understand the value of McDonald's, you go in each time knowing precisely what you're gonna get and it doesn't matter who the lead actor (or Mickey D's location) is, you're gonna get exactly what you've already had in the past, that's why you're coming back for more. But as art, they nearly always fail to move me in any significant way. And that's what I'm looking for, some artistic payoff for my emotional investment.
It's been a little difficult for me to answer some of my wife's questions about why I react the way I do to certain movies, simply because I never really thought extensively about how we all respond to the art that we expose ourselves to. I think a lot about what our responses are, and whether I agree or disagree with your response and what our interpretation are, etc. But I don't think much about why I instinctively am drawn to things more serious minded than not. But I think that last line of the previous paragraph is the heart of it. I need to feel that payoff, it just doesn't have to be in the form of a happy ending.