Friday, June 20, 2008

Romantic Comedies Are for Boys Too

This week, the AFI released a new top 100 list. This time, instead of 100 "Great" films or films from an ur-genre (comedy, horror) they went with 10 films in 10 genres/subgenres. You can see the 10 lists here:

One of the genres in question was Romantic Comedy. I mentioned to my wife that I wasn't happy with their top choice. She responded "Of course not, you hate romantic comedies." I want to set the record straight. I love romantic comedies. To explain why I love them, but my wife assumes I don't, involves a bit of history.

The romantic comedy almost always existed, but the most popular version of it was born with Frank Capra's 1934 screwball romantic comedy film It Happened One Night. Back then, romantic comedies were not women's pictures - women's pictures were melodramatic weepies like Now, Voyager or Stella Dallas. No, it was believed that both men and women were interested in watching an attractive couple engage in a game of wits and forge a lasting relationship, usually with some slapstick along the way. Many of my favorite films of all time, directed by masters such as George Cukor, Preston Sturges, and Howard Hawks, come from this 20 year era of romantic comedy bliss.

The second era of romantic comedies I don't have much use for, although my wife loves them. They star people like Rock Hudson and Doris Day, not Cary Grant and Irenne Dunne, and dominated the 50s and the 60s. I don't know much about them - the only one I've seen is Pillow Talk - so I'll see if I can get Mrs. Moviesetal to weigh in.

Like everything else in Hollywood, the old romantic comedy was swept way in the late 60s and 70s in favor of a leaner, meaner version. Thus the Woody Allen (or Jewish) style romantic comedy was born, and we were treated to neurotic New York liberals who couldn't get together, not because of the Production Code, but because they weren't sure what their shrink would say. Again, many of my favorite films of all time, such as Manhattan and The Purple Rose of Cairo, come from this era of romantic comedy; once again, romantic comedies weren't just for women.

If you're under the age of 30 and not a classic film geek, we probably haven't any gotten to anything you'd consider a romantic comedy yet. I call this era the Nora Ephron era; bland leading men like Tom Hanks and Richard Gere team up with Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts to shit all over us with completely predictable exercises where some nonsensical conflict delays the inevitable wedding for 100 minutes before we're treated to matrimony. This is the era of Sleepless in Seattle, Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, etc and the British Hugh Grant offshoot of Notting Hill, Bridget Jones' Diary, etc. A.O. Scott has thoroughly destroyed this era of the genre in his review of 27 Dresses.

Like many men, who have long been trained to loathe them, I hate this era,. Thus, my wife believes I hate romantic comedies. But I actually love them; I just hate this fourth era of them. I guess I'm not alone. Let's look, finally, at the AFI List

1 City Lights 1931
2 Annie Hall 1977
3 It Happened One Night 1934
4 Roman Holiday 1953
5 The Philadelphia Story 1940
6 When Harry Met Sally... 1989
7 Adam's Rib 1949
8 Moonstruck 1987
9 Harold and Maude 1971
10 Sleepless in Seattle 1993

I am Film Ignorant about City Lights and Harold and Maude, but I see the breakdown like this:

1.Screwball Era: 4/10 (Night, Holiday, Story, Rib) The 20 year era produces 40% of the films
2.The Pillow Talk Era: 0/10. The AFI feels the same way I do.
3.The Neurotic Era: 2.5/10. (Annie Hall, Moonstruck, and When Harry)
4.The Ephron Era: 1.5/10 (Sleepless and Met Sally)
5.None of the Above: 2/10 (Lights and Harold and Maude)

Although the AFI always shortchanges recent films, I think there's more to it than that. I think the Ephron era just sucks, and nearly got shut-out of the whole thing. Ditto, of course, for Pillow Talk and its brethren.

I would like to add one final note. I am currently excited about the romantic comedy era. The Ephron era is dead, financially. In 2007, its top moneymakers were #47. PS, I love You and #52. Music and Lyrics. And sitting right there at #14, with almost $150 million, is Knocked Up. That's right, Knocked Up is a romantic comedy - it's just a guy-based one, and not in a Made of Honor kind of way. The three best romantic comedies of the last 5 years, in fact, all come from Judd Apatow: Knocked Up, The 40-Year Old Virgin, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

So maybe, just maybe, we're crawling out of the Ephron era. Sure 27 Dresses made a bit more than Sarah Marshall...but remember, Katherine Heigl made the jump to A-lister in an Apatow film. Also, Forgetting Sarah Marshall didn't suck. If there's any any justice in this world, we'll be able to look back on the last 5 years and next 15 as the Apatow era. And romantic comedies can be, like they were for most of their history, for everybody.


hilizzle said...

I don't have much to add about the Hudson-Day era of rom-coms - I'm no expert. I will say that as terrible and formulaic as they are, they can also be highly enjoyable. They also perpetuated the repartee and sexual innuendo of the earlier generation, which kind of dissolved a bit in later rom-com years (except, of course, for Woody Allen). You kind of just have to enjoy them as a guilty pleasure. Although my favorite Hudson-Day style movie is actually Peyton Reed's "Down With Love," which is less than 10 (5?) years old...

I think you oversimplified in your analysis, too. "Nora Ephron" style might be a good way to simply categorize the latest iteration of rom-coms (before Apatow), but it really doesn't give credit to the neuroses involved in the most successful Ephron flicks. Ephron was a key collaborator in WHMS, which is of course more in the Woody Allen style, New Yorkers with Neuroses category. And while Sleepless in Seattle is the godfather of all new-style, predictable, happy-ending rom-coms, it's about a woman who falls in love with a man she hears on a late-night radio call-in show; gives up her current relationship and life; and stalks him across the country until she ultimately meets him and wins him over at the end of the movie. That is nothing if not neurotic.

Lastly, and in the same vein, I feel you did Bridget Jones a disservice. Women the world over fell in love with her as the antihero of rom-coms - she was not beautiful, she was not smooth, she had terrible taste in men, she was sabatoging her own career. You do not want to be Bridget Jones. But, you are Bridget Jones. Every woman can relate to the insecurities, the failures big and small, the poor choices in relationships, the friends who like to swear. Sure, she ends up with the guy - but along the way, she ends up with the wrong guy, twice, and screws up almost every aspect of her life. You really don't know if she'll win out with the formula.

BJ2 is another story entirely...

Graham said...

i guess a better narrative would be one that didn't define all the periods so sharply - the day-hudson era is its own era, but it's also the pathetic degeneration of the screwball era. and the ephron era started off respectable with her collaboration with reiner and sleepless in seattle - ie started off as similiar to, just slightly worse than, the allen-dominated era, and then it too succumbed to an inevitable decline.

or maybe i'm just infected with the language of naturalism

as for Bridget Jones, I'm inclined to think the stuff you point out is mostly superficial, but I will agree that it feels more real than something like Notting Hill. And of course, there were plenty of other crapfests I could have used instead

Cinexcellence said...

I skimmed through their list recently; wasn't too impressed. Seems like the typical AFI films, etc. I should look at in more detail some time.