It’s All About Chemistry: Exploring The Best & Worst Cinematic Relationships

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Platonic chemistry between members of the same sex is in some cases so strong that it actually outshines the movie’s proper romance. The relationship between Brad Pitt’s Rusty Ryan and Catharine Zeta Jones’ Isabel Lahiri in Ocean’s Twelve – lukewarm at best. The relationship between Brad Pitt’s Rusty Ryan and George Clooney’s Danny Ocean – one of the main selling points of the whole Ocean’s franchise. Everyone is pleased for Jon Favreau’s Mikey in Swingers when he finally finds a girl and makes it stick (and even more pleased that it turned out to be Heather Graham), but nothing was ever going to compare to Mikey’s relationship with Vince Vaughn’s touchingly affectionate Trent.

For all of these friendships, exactly as it was with the romances, the feeling is not created through anything specific being said or done but through conjuring that exact same mysterious place between them in which some equation (that one is completely legitimate) simply seems to work and which makes them a pleasure to watch.

But whereas comedy is probably romance’s least hard-working replacement when it comes to creating chemistry, this is absolutely by no means the rule; this invisible place is just as effectively created by tension. Matt Damon and Robin Williams’ relationship in Good Will Hunting begins from mutual apprehension – even dislike. The atmosphere of some of Martin Scorsese’s earlier classics, such as Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, is a long, dark way from the likes of Stir Crazy, yet feature among the grit and conflict Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in one of the best remembered on-screen relationships in cinema history.

The strength of the bond that develops between Johnny Depp’s Joseph Pistone and Al Pacino’s Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco comes almost entirely from the fact that ‘Donnie’ really (like, really) should not be friends with Lefty. And whatever it is that is created between Christoph Waltz’s revoltingly wonderful Colonel Hans Landa and whichever poor person is onscreen with him at any given moment in Inglourious Basterds is so nerve-wrackingly powerful that it has to be included here purely because it feels like the equivalent of chucking some substances together and then waiting for the explosion to go off. If that’s not a type of chemistry then I don’t know what is.

Christian Bale;Amy Adams;Bradley Cooper

But despite the hugely diverse range of interactions, we are beginning to be able to see a developing theme – a sort of something that just might start to give a bit of identity to that invisible ‘place’ between characters we’ve been talking about. If there is one thing that might be able to define whatever it is that is happening under the surface, it’s that there seems to be an unspoken sense that the people involved have a certain position in each other’s lives that is somehow unique to just them. And what is crucial about this in chemistry is that the nature of the connection doesn’t seem to matter; romance, friendship, partnership, enemies – all of these types of relationship can create a sort of intimacy that, whether permanently or temporarily, somehow excludes other people around them.

It is as if there is between these people a small, subtle, private world that only they are sharing – and it is perhaps this ‘world’ that we are perceiving when we notice chemistry in any form. American Hustle won six ensemble awards specifically for the cast’s performance as a collection of individuals most of whom didn’t like each other. It probably didn’t hurt that it would be difficult to find a set of more attractive people – slight weight gain and questionable 70s hair dos aside – in one place at one time without something serious happening to the space-time continuum, but this only reinforces the point that chemistry is not to do with the actors’ looks; between them the cast demonstrated perfectly the sort of dynamics that come from people having an exclusive role in each other’s lives, for better or worse.

Throughout Breaking Bad, viewers clung desperately to the hope that everything would work out not just for Walter and Jesse, but between them. What was most poignant about their relationship was the toxic, awkward and manipulative thing that it became while all the time each was hopelessly essential to the world of the other. Theirs truly was the real chemistry (I’m not even sorry any more) of that show.