Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I Figured Out the Problem With Romantic Comedies

I had an epiphany.

So I was watching "Letters to Juliet" the other night (don't ask), and thought to myself, that was a pretty decent little romantic comedy. Well, except that it didn't really have any comedy in it. Still, it had all the earmarks of the typical American romantic comedy - a female lead, an implausible story with soap opera twists, the unrealistic depiction of new love in bloom, some snarky banter, and a happy ending. And then I thought to myself, that really doesn't seem to cover a lot. Ideally, romantic comedies should require only two things - that they be concerned with a romantic relationship, and that they be funny. But there are a lot of films out there that are funny and romantic, and yet aren't considered romantic comedies, and a bunch that don't but get lumped in with those films regardless.

What about Adam Sandler movies? Or Judd Apatow movies? Or that one where Ricky Gervais lied a lot? They're considered just plain comedies. "Date Night" was about a married couple's relationship - but no, that wasn't romantic enough because Tina Fey and Steve Carrell's characters were already married. How about "500 Days of Summer"? No happy ending, at least not a conventional one. The marketing campaign even took the position that it was not a "love story." "Take Me Home Tonight"? "Easy A"? All about love troubles, but they have to be called sex comedies because there weren't conventional romances in those either. Okay, how about animated films like "Tangled" and "Shrek Forever After"? There was lots of fluffy, love-dovey business in those. But they were made for kids. And animated! An animated film can't be a romantic comedy. What about the upcoming "Bad Teacher" with Cameron Diaz? That one stars a woman and the plot will revolve around her character's attempts to woo Justin Timberlake's. A friend of mine remarked that it couldn't be a rom-com because it looked too funny. Too funny?!

See what I'm getting at here? The term romantic comedy has had its meaning so warped over the years, that in the mainstream culture it only refers to one very specific kind of romantic comedy, the very mild, very safe, and very niche films made to only appeal to a certain demographic of wedding-obsessed women. At some point they got conflated with female-friendly feel-good films and lighter romantic dramas (see "Letters to Juliet"), resulting in this insane mindset that a romantic comedy can't be daring or innovative or too different from the accepted norm. And when we all complain about romantic comedies, we're actually talking about a very narrow category of films. From what I can tell, movies that have both romance and comedy have been proliferating nicely in recent years, and many are actually quite watchable. It's the ones starring Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez, and Katherine Heigl, and follow the same idiotic formula of tired farce and selfish self-absorption, the "rom-coms," that have hit the rocks. It's gotten to the point where I wince every time a good actress like Kristen Bell, Anne Hathaway, or Amy Adams gets roped into one of these. Even the most dependable vets of the genre like Meryl Streep and Drew Barrymore have been showing signs of increasing strain.

How did romantic comedies end up in such a sorry state? This used to be the genre of Hebpurn and Tracy, Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. My guess is that it happened when the studios execs somehow got it into their heads that the term "romantic comedy" was a term that should only apply to films aimed at older women, and started marketing them as such. When was the last time you saw a romantic comedy presented as really sexy? Or edgy? Not lately, because that's not how these films are sold to that audience. And then Hollywood started making films to match those marketing tactics, so the whole thing turned into an ouroboros of self-affirming idiocy. The better actors all abandoned ship as a result, leaving us with leading ladies who couldn't sell a punchline to save their lives.

If a film like "Enchanted" or "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" does well with general audiences, then the assumption is that it's not a romantic comedy. It can't be, because the modern romantic comedy isn't designed for wider appeal. Men have been conditioned to wince at the mere mention of them. Other problematic presumptions feed into this, like the idea that romantic films with prominent female headliners can only appeal to women (unless they also feature male comedians to balance them out), and that the humor in a romantic film has to be very tame and predictable. Oh, every female lead has to be some variation of an insecure emotional basket-case in order to be sympathetic. I'm not saying that all the current "rom-com" romantic comedies are bad - sometimes the formula works with the right people involved - but the good ones are getting awfully rare.

So the whole romantic comedy situation really isn't as dire off as we've been lead to believe. A lot of the trouble is that the genre has been horribly misrepresented and its reputation had taken some bad hits. This summer we're getting "Bridesmaids," "Crazy Stupid Love," "Bad Teacher," "Larry Crowne," "Midnight in Paris," and a couple of others that are gaining buzz, but nobody is going to call any of them romantic comedies in a hurry, even though that's exactly what they are. That moniker is now reserved for the likes of "Something Borrowed," the universally panned Kate Hudson wedding film that came out last week.

Fellow movie-lovers, this stinks. The romantic comedy does not deserve this ignoble fate. It must be saved from permanent association with the pastel insipidity of wedding wars and matchmaking mishaps. So I'm taking the term back, for Ernst Lubitsch and Leo McCarey and William Wyler and George Cukor.

Down with the rom-coms. Long live the romantic comedy.
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