Saturday, March 10, 2018

Romantic Comedy at the End of the Millennium: The Last, Brief Golden Age

James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner (1940).  

Why is it so difficult for Hollywood to make decent romantic comedies in the twenty-first century? Every year brings a handful, but by my count there have been only five in the last decade worth looking at: Ghost Town and Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2008, Letters to Juliet in 2010, Top Five in 2014 and – a special case – Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (with a contemporary setting) in 2013. And you could put David Fincher's 2011 adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on that list, too, since it’s a murder mystery that only gets solved (as Kevin Courrier argued convincingly on this website) when the two protagonists, a brilliant journalist with an analog background and an IT whiz, pool their intellectual resources (while becoming lovers). As Whedon’s movie reminds us, Much Ado is the granddaddy of modern American romantic comedy. It pioneered the structure – a hero and heroine begin as adversaries but, by passing a series of tests and proving they’re open to compromise and change, they gradually earn each other’s love – that Hollywood adopted in the 1930s and that proved hardy and resilient through the rest of the twentieth century. It was the ideal solution to the issues posed by Hollywood’s self-censorship code (the Production Code, known popularly as the Hays Code), which bore down on American filmmakers in 1934 and held sway for roughly the next twenty-five years. The romantic-comedy structure enabled writers and directors to make movies that were sexy and witty, even though the narratives were forced to banish actual sex. Audiences loved smart entertainments like It Happened One Night (the first of these), My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, Easy Living, The Moon’s Our Home, Bringing Up Baby, The Shop Around the Corner, His Girl Friday and The Lady Eve. And they responded to the form itself, which was a dramatic metaphor for the process of falling in love.

One of the qualities that made these early romantic comedies so satisfying was the idea that the partners were co-equals; actresses like Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Katharine Hepburn, Margaret Sullavan, Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck had strong, distinctive personalities that kept the men they played opposite on their toes. The toughest challenge to the genre came in the years after the Second World War, after the boys came home and many women left the jobs they’d picked up on the homefront and returned to being homemakers. Hollywood was nervous about portraying women who might pose a threat to their men – a concern that wasn’t present in the same way in the pre-war days. You can see Hollywood negotiating it even in some of the wartime comedies, like Woman of the Year (1942), where Spencer Tracy’s sports columnist Sam Craig puts down Hepburn’s political journalist Tess Harding in order to assert his superiority, a turn in the story that curdles the experience of the movie. As it happens, Tracy and Hepburn’s best vehicles, Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), both directed by George Cukor, are among the few romantic comedies of the post-war era that can stand up to the best Depression-era rom-coms. Pat and Mike came out just before the shift to the Eisenhower presidency; most of the romantic comedies that followed in the wake of that shift felt more like sitcoms – shrill and pre-programmed. Others had sex-doll heroines like Marilyn Monroe (if audiences were lucky) or Jayne Mansfield (if they weren’t). Billy Wilder directed the only great Monroe rom-com, Some Like It Hot (1959), and it was a real wild-card picture with two cross-dressing heroes, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, the latter wooing Monroe (out of drag, of course) with a Cary Grant imitation. Grant himself was the star of two of the few memorable rom-coms of the mid-fifties and early sixties, Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) and Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) – weird cases, in a way, because both ostensibly belong more prominently to other genres. (The first is a heist picture, the second a thriller.) Without stretching a point too much, you could argue that Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which came out the same year as Some Like It Hot, is as much a romantic comedy as it is a thriller – but then, Hitchcock had been straddling that line ever since The 39 Steps (1935).

Romantic comedy resurfaced in the Vietnam era, when the culture was again ready to embrace strong, unconventional women like Barbra Streisand (playing opposite George Segal in 1970’s The Owl and the Pussycat) and Diane Keaton in the Woody Allen movies, culminating in Annie Hall in 1977. What was fascinating about Annie Hall was the way Allen turned the romantic comedy on its ear in order to make it speak to wised-up contemporary audiences. Allen’s Alvy and Keaton’s Annie are a match (they have a great time together) yet they’re not (he’s too possessive, too judgmental – he smothers her). So they don’t wind up together, though he can’t get her out of his head and we know he’ll never find anyone who suits him half as well. Allen alters a key convention of the romantic comedy right at the beginning, when Alvy looks straight at the camera and tells us that he and Annie broke up and he still can’t figure out why. The movie that follows shows us why: we see how she changes while he refuses to, how she grows past him. In what Stanley Cavell dubbed the “comedies of remarriage” – late-thirties and early-forties variations on the screwball comedy like The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, where the discarded hero has to win back his ex – we know the couple is going to reunite, but in Annie Hall we can see that the romance is truly over. What made Allen’s picture such a defining movie for its time (it won the 1977 Best Picture Oscar) was that it was the first romantic comedy to acknowledge that love is so difficult in the modern world that it often just doesn’t work out. What made it true to the spirit of romantic comedy was its insistence that we have to keep trying.

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977).

The genre had its ups and downs in the years that followed Annie Hall and then experienced a major resurgence in the last few years of the twentieth century. All the best ones from that period grappled in some way with the reality Annie Hall had laid bare, so they felt like they had been conceived in the world we were all living in. I don’t mean to suggest that classic screwball comedies like It Happened One Night and The Lady Eve – or the gentler, more delicate The Shop Around the Corner (my own favorite romantic comedy) – aren’t modern. In fact, what makes these movies continue to feel fresh – and continue to enchant movie lovers who discover them for the first time, like my students – is their accuracy about sexual chemistry and the tests of courtship and the possibility of change that makes any good relationship hopeful. But it was inspiriting, even exciting, to find new movies that addressed the specific challenges for a couple in the last years of the millennium. Even a modest film like 1999’s The Bachelor does that, though in most ways it’s a farce built around a modified romantic-comedy premise. Its uncredited source is Buster Keaton’s 1925 Seven Chances (which was based in turn on a stage play) in which Keaton is left an inheritance on the condition that he marry immediately, and after proposing to several women in his social set he doesn’t really want, and literally running away from hundreds of others, he ends up with the girl he loves. In The Bachelor, directed by Gary Sinyor from a dry, sharp-witted script by Steve Cohen, the hero, Jimmy (Chris O’Donnell), sets out to marry his girl friend, Anne (Renée Zellweger), but he’s so ambivalent about giving up his freedom that he botches the proposal. It’s the stipulation of his uncle’s will that light a fire under him: the legacy will save his pool-parlor business. And eventually he comes to see that it’s not so hard to put his liberty to one side and face the future. (The fact that he gets to face it with Renée Zellweger certainly cushions the blow.)

The Bachelor is comically stylized: Jimmy takes Anne to a spot called The Starlight Room when he gets ready to propose (the first time), which is such a traditional setting for popping the question that she knows what’s coming (just not how clumsy he’s going to be about it) -- and when they walk in there’s a line of nervous young men who are all there with the same aim obviously in mind. The world of the movie is hilariously constrained: when Jimmy screws up the proposal, everyone he runs into for days afterwards, including total strangers, knows who he is and what he did. There’s a clever satirical idea in operation here: the omnipresent social expectations of marriage – or at least settling down – and procreation are so pragmatic they threaten to kill romance. Jimmy and Anne have to fight against them; when they win, we feel they’ve a chance at a happy life together.

Renée Zellweger and Chris O'Donnell in The Bachelor (1999).

The most popular romantic comedies at the end of the nineties all starred Julia Roberts. It was fitting that Roberts saw the decade in romantic comedy out, so to speak, since she had seen it in with Pretty Woman, the 1990 movie that made her a star. Pretty Woman, in which she plays a whore hired by a rich businessman (Richard Gere) to be his escort for a week, is appealing but shallow; it wouldn’t be much without Roberts’s charm and her killer smile. It’s meant as a down-and-dirty Cinderella story that trades on the romantic-comedy convention of the social difference between the hero and the heroine, though in the 1930s it was usually the woman who was the heiress and the man who was the working- (or middle-) class Joe. But the happy ending doesn’t address the idea that class is a real obstacle for Gere’s Edward and Roberts’s Vivian; it doesn’t solve the conundrum it poses, just leaps over it, as if this really were Cinderella. Even the manager of the hotel where Edward puts Vivian up (Hector Elizondo) is solidly on her side and roots for her to overcome Edward’s psychological block about relationships, which the movie presents as the only issue. And even in this implausibly reduced scenario Edward’s metamorphosis isn’t sufficiently dramatized, so the big finale, where he rides on top of the hotel limo with La Traviata blasting and a rose for Vivian, and then conquers his fear of heights to climb up the fire escape outside her apartment to declare his love, feels like an insert from some other movie with some other hero. (The symbol of his acrophobia is misplaced, too: his problem isn’t a fear of flying, but an icy, repressed withdrawal from the world of feelings.) We’re supposed to think that this earthbound, passionate creature warms him up – we’re meant to take it on faith that what happens to him when they’re in bed together thaws him out in other ways too, e.g., he becomes less ruthless in business. I didn’t buy it, and I didn’t enjoy the way the movie had to sell Edward’s partner Phil (Jason Alexander) down the river in order to effect Edward’s transformation. He represents the bad part of Edward, the part he has to shake off, so the filmmakers (writer J.F. Lawton, director Garry Marshall) turn him into a villain who not only humiliates Vivian verbally but even tries to rape her. And the reason the movie suggests for his conduct – he wants to get revenge on her when the kinder, gentler Edward douses a mean-spirited business deal – doesn’t make psychological sense.

The later Roberts romantic comedies – My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997, written by Ronald Bass, directed by P.J. Hogan), Notting Hill (1999, written by Richard Curtis, directed by Roger Michell) and Runaway Bride (also 1999, written by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott, directed by Marshall) – are way better than Pretty Woman, and she’s terrific in all three of them. In the first she plays Julianne Potter, an edgy, neurotic New York food critic who learns that her best pal from Brown, a Chicago sports writer named Michael O’Neal (Dermot Mulroney, who has a soulful handsomeness and a way-out-west sweetness), is about to marry, and he wants her at the wedding. Julianne and Michael had a month-long fling in college and when they broke up and became friends they swore an oath that if they weren’t hitched by twenty-eight they’d marry each other. None of her subsequent relationships has worked out, she’s about to turn twenty-eight and is feeling frantic, so when she hears from Michael she assumes at first that he’s calling in that promise. When she learns instead that he’s engaged to another woman – a twenty-year-old with a rich daddy – she’s devastated, and she determines to break them up.

What makes My Best Friend’s Wedding such an intriguing twist on the sort of romantic comedy where the obstacle is another man is that Julianne isn’t the one we want to end up with Michael; we root for his fiancée, Kimmy (Cameron Diaz). In The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, where Cary Grant merely has to defeat Ralph Bellamy, who’s engaged to his ex-wife (Irene Dunne, then Rosalind Russell), there’s no contest. And in The Philadelphia Story, which is a high comedy with a romantic comedy embedded in it, the intended second spouse (John Howard) is a prig and a careerist, so it’s just a matter of time before Katharine Hepburn figures out that she belongs with her ex (Grant again). But in My Best Friend’s Wedding, it’s the heroine who behaves badly – very badly. When Julianne arrives in Chicago, Kimmy welcomes her with open arms and gratefully presses her into service as substitute maid of honor after her original choice has to drop out. From that point everything Julianne does to try to make Kimmy look bad in Michael’s eyes either backfires or makes Julianne look worse in ours. Diaz is effortlessly charming as Kimmy. And in the scene where Julianne initiates the idea that they all go to a karaoke bar, knowing Kimmy hates to sing, and Kimmy laughs at herself un-self-consciously as she performs the Dionne Warwick hit “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” off-key, the whole bar – and the movie audience – falls in love with her.

Dermot Mulroney and Julia Roberts in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997).

The filmmakers go overboard when Julianne plays her dirtiest trick on Kimmy, which involves a phony e-mail; only Roberts’s skill as a comic actress can keep her in our affections after that. The movie goes on too long, the structure gets thrown out of whack, and there are scenes the filmmakers should have resisted, like the one where everyone at the rehearsal lunch sings “I Say a Little Prayer” (extending the Dionne Warwick gag) and especially the nonsensical eleventh-hour locker-room confrontation between the two women. Still, it’s a very affecting comedy, largely because Roberts is willing to go all the way with her portrayal of romantic desperation – and because she makes it clear that Michael isn’t just (in her view) the answer to her aimless life but the man she actually loves. When Julianne falls apart, her frizzy hair seems to stand for her unraveling psychic state. And Bass is smart enough to give her a gay sidekick, George (an irresistibly debonair Rupert Everett, underplaying the irony in his lines with such finesse that they sound like Noël Coward), who slyly undercuts all the gay-sidekick clichés while providing the counsel that nobody else is in a position to offer. At the end, Julianne gives Kimmy to Michael and even makes a gracious toast that references her own bad behavior. Roberts has a wonderful moment of shock mixed with panic when she sees the man she loves go off with the woman he loves; only his coming back to hug her and George’s gallantly rescuing her with a dance get her safely to the end of the story.

Roberts is even better in Notting Hill, the first movie to play off her celebrity. And she and Hugh Grant are so wonderful together that they guide it past all the problems in the script. He’s William Thacker, who runs a financially troubled travel bookshop in Notting Hill (London) and, his wife having left him for another man, has all but resigned himself to being alone. (Grant is good enough in this role to make it seem almost plausible that a man who looks like him and is as charming as he is could go months without a date.) One day Anna Scott (Roberts), a famous American movie star in town to promote a new picture, shows up at his store and gets to witness the panache with which he handles a shoplifter. Later that day he literally bumps into her on the street, spills orange juice all over her outfit, and persuades her to come to his flat across the street to clean up. They end up in a clinch, and a courtship proceeds by fits and starts. In one sequence William goes to see her at her hotel and finds himself in the midst of a press conference, so he has to make up press credentials. It’s funny mostly because of Grant’s impeccable timing and his marvelous befuddlement, which makes his face go rubbery and then flatten out so he looks soused. You really wish, though, that Curtis, the screenwriter, had come up with an embarrassment for William more likely than having him be so ignorant about Hollywood that he doesn’t know who Leonardo DiCaprio is. (The man runs a specialty bookstore; he doesn’t live on Mars.) In another scene he brings Anna to his sister’s birthday party, and after a few awkward exchanges she relaxes and enjoys the unpretentiousness of his circle of friends. They’re written as cheerful downbeats – people who haven’t been dealt much of a hand and are honest about it but don’t let it wreck their lives. Where all this recognition of limitations leads is a downmanship contest for the last brownie on the dessert plate, which Anna wins, surprising everyone, by talking about the down side of her famous life. This section of the movie would try our patience if Roberts weren’t so superb in it, meeting the effusiveness of the other party guests with quiet irony – Anna’s trademark – and reading the speech about what’s wrong with her life with delicate precision, as if she could only touch these painful truths with gloves on.

The movie has dozens of problems but only one serious one. Curtis has elected to tell the story from William’s perspective instead of splitting the point of view between him and Anna – as William Wyler and his fleet of screenwriters do in 1953’s Roman Holiday (one of the glorious exceptions in that dim era for rom-coms), in which Audrey Hepburn plays a runaway princess who falls in love with an American journalist (Gregory Peck). Anna runs away, too – when a tabloid turns up nude photos of her taken years ago without her knowledge and the press bombards her hotel, she arrives on William’s doorstep because she doesn’t know where else in London to go. That’s when they become lovers – sweetly and unexpectedly. But the next morning the paparazzi show up, Anna incorrectly assumes William’s roommate (Rhys Ifans) called them to make a quick buck, and she turns on William. She says that the world will look on him as a lucky guy and his failing book business will thrive (“Buy a book from the man who slept with Anna Scott”), while the story about her will be filed and recycled forever, and she’ll regret her fling with him forever. Curtis and Michell are trying to make a romantic comedy that has its feet in the real world, and we know it isn’t possible in 1999 to portray a celebrity as possessing the innocence of Hepburn’s rebellious princess in Roman Holiday. But since the movie has put us solidly on William’s side – since we only see Anna whenever she drops into his story – and since it never allows him any sort of bad behavior, the portrait we get of their romance seems unfairly one-sided. When he calls Anna’s take “spectacularly unfair,” of course we have to agree. The movie sets it up so that Anna has to be the one to make amends, Anna has to be the one to grow and deserve William. It undermines the cheering democratic nature of romantic comedy, which is about two people changing and compromising and earning the right to wind up with one another.

Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (1999).

Something always seems to get screwed up in these Julia Roberts comedies, but their efforts to get at the contemporary realities of romance makes them very poignant nonetheless. Runaway Bride is the most screwed-up of the three. It begins unpromisingly – and unconvincingly – and the last act is a mess. And Roberts, at this point in her career, has too much of an air of movie-star sophistication to be cast believably as a small-town girl who leaves one groom after another at the altar because she hasn’t figured out who she is and what she really wants. But she’s delightful anyway, and a recognizable truth comes through in her performance about the way we fumble and fall in relationships on our way to figuring out what really matters to us. Richard Gere plays Ike Graham, a hard-nosed Manhattan newspaper columnist with a tendency to make women look bad in print; when he walks down the street, women routinely punch him or pummel him with their purses. Yet somehow, at the end of the twentieth century, he’s managed to get away with being misogynistic in a major big-city newspaper, until he chooses Maggie Carpenter (Roberts) for a target after one of her deserted grooms spins his story to him at a bar. Equally improbably, Ike doesn’t bother to research it, or to interview Maggie, so when he describes her as a man-eater in print she writes an angry letter to the paper, pointing out fifteen errors of fact in his column. The paper’s lawyers decide his misrepresentations are actionable and his editor (Hector Elizondo) fires him. That puts him in the same position as Clark Gable’s Peter Warne at the outset of It Happened One Night, and like Warne he has to find a way to vindicate himself. So he heads out to Hale, Maryland to meet Maggie and her neighbors. At first he’s so biased against her that he misreads everything she says and does. His compassion only kicks in when he sees how her marital history has turned her into a running gag in the town; even her alcoholic dad (Paul Dooley) makes unkind jokes about her.

The movie turns around in the scene between Maggie and one of her exes, Brian (Donal Logue), who stayed in Hale and is now a priest. A question of Ike’s has puzzled her: he wanted to know how she likes her eggs. When she mentions it to Brian, he recites without hesitation his memory of how she eats her eggs, adding tenderly, “Just like me,” and suddenly she realizes how badly she hurt him. It’s an affecting little moment. But her preference in eggs isn’t just an intimate detail that Brian hasn’t forgotten. It’s an indication of Maggie’s tendency to take on the tastes of every man she gets serious about; now that she’s engaged to Bob (Christopher Meloni), a sports psychologist, she eats the egg-white omelets that he favors. Maggie runs away from one bridegroom after another not because of a fear of commitment (the clichéd reason) or because she hates men and likes to string them along (Ike’s original assessment, before getting to know her), but because at the very last moment some instinct reminds her that she’s not the person she’s been pretending to be, the cheerleader for whatever lifestyle and tastes these stronger male personalities have – some unwittingly – foisted on her. And she keeps making the same mistake over and over again, because she has so little confidence in her own point of view that she hasn’t stopped to think of herself as an individual. (It’s really to Julia Roberts’s credit that she can carry off the role of a woman who lacks the exact qualities that Roberts herself has in abundance.) Yet she keeps attracting men, despite her disastrous romantic past, because, as her best friend Peggy (Joan Cusack) points out, her lack of confidence makes her a magnet for guys who view her as mysterious and vulnerable and want to protect her from herself. And she’s so unsure of herself that she doesn’t see how her combination of forthrightness and friendliness and blank-slate personality turns them on.

Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Runaway Bride (1999).

Runaway Bride does well with the central conflict, the adversarial position of the two protagonists; it takes most of the movie for them to get on the same page. First Ike has to see and understand the real Maggie, not the Maggie he’s invented for his column (and comes to Hale resenting for getting him bounced off the paper). Then she has to figure out that he’s changed – that he’s no longer cynical and critical and looking for an excuse to make her look ridiculous. The film doesn’t do as well when it comes down to analyzing the reasons Ike’s failed at relationships, too. (His ex-wife, played by Rita Wilson, is now married to his editor.) The movie, like My Best Friend’s Wedding, takes too long to resolve, and on the way to the happy ending there’s a terrible romantic montage, an excess of comic hysteria, and a lot of pictorial nonsense that looks like it’s stuck in there for magazine layouts on how much fun everyone had on the shoot. But as in Notting Hill the core of emotional reality gets to you even through the mistakes the filmmakers keep making.

Some other romantic comedies from the same era hit a nerve – though, unhappily, not with audiences. I thought Mr. Jealousy, written and directed by Noah Baumbach in a low-key revue-sketch style, was terrific, and extremely imaginative. Eric Stoltz plays Lester, whose jealousy over his girl friend Ramona (Annabella Sciorra) isn’t restricted to suspicions about what she may or may not be up to when he’s not there; he’s even jealous of her old boy friends. (Sciorra is lovely in a distracted, wandering sort of way – like an updated Brooklyn version of Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall.) When she mentions in passing that, for a year in college, she went out with Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigeman), now a high-profile novelist reviewers are calling the voice of his generation, Lester gets really unstrung. He starts stalking Frank, even following him into his shrink’s office and joining his therapy group. But since he doesn’t want to reveal his true identity, he claims to be his own best friend, Vince (Carlos Jacott), a nervous wreck in a long-term relationship with a woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who’s constantly putting him down. When Lester admits his faux pas to his friend, Vince’s first response is outrage; his second is curiosity. He encourages Lester to keep going to the group and try out Vince’s problems on them, and then report back so that at least Vince can gain some psychiatric value out of Lester’s charade. In group Lester’s private anger at Dashiell keeps flaring out, but when it does Dashiell isn’t pissed; he’s impressed with the challenges Lester’s throwing his way. Soon Dashiell is making overtures of friendship to him. Mr. Jealousy is a variant on the analysand comedy Woody Allen invented, with Stoltz as a kind of WASP version of the Allen neurotic Everyman hero. The way Baumbach writes his characters –not just Lester – they stumble along, making it up as they go, getting themselves into untenable situations because they just can’t help themselves.

Annabella Sciorra and Eric Stoltz in Mr. Jealousy (1997).

Mr. Jealousy was probably too quirky and insular for a popular audience; it’s defiantly a New York movie, made at a time when no one was interested in them anymore. And Addicted to Love, which came out the same year, 1997, was probably too perverse for the box office, with characters whose behavior is too unattractive for audiences to admit to any empathy with them. But the movie, directed by Griffin Dunne from a first-rate script by Robert Gordon, is quite something. Matthew Broderick plays Sam, an astronomer whose girl friend, Linda (Kelly Preston), an elementary school teacher, gets a chance to represent her school district for two months in New York. Sam can’t take off work to join her, and he’s not happy about her going alone. Then it turns out she’s just been waiting for an opportunity to distance herself from Sam so she could break up with him. Thunderstruck, he follows her and finds her living with another man, a transplanted Parisian restauranteur named Anton (Tchéky Karyo). But instead of confronting her, he locates an attic nearby that provides him with a good vantage point from which to spy on them. (His profession makes his voyeurism a comically viable premise.) He moves in, setting up a camera obscura that projects images of Linda and Anton on the wall. Sam is certain that Anton is just a phase for her, that eventually she’ll see the folly of her ways and fall out of whatever substitution for love he imagines she’s feeling – and Sam will be there to catch her when she does. He doesn’t see what we do – that the indirection he has to use to “communicate” with her, which the camera obscura symbolizes, proves that they’re irrevocably split. Dunne and the photographer, Andrew Dunn, do a beautiful job with the images generated by the camera obscura. There’s a wonderful moment when Sam paints the wall white and suddenly, magically, captures the true colors of Linda’s new life with Anton.

Broderick gives perhaps his best screen performance. At one point Sam watches Anton, naked, spraying his chest and crotch with whipped cream in preparation for making love to Linda, and Broderick’s face looks boyishly uncomfortable, like that of a teenager who’s just discovered something unpleasant he’s never experienced before and isn’t ready for. You understand immediately from this scene that sex with Sam must have been pretty unadventurous for Linda; you get why she’s moved on. His insistence that with him she always liked gentle, quiet lovemaking is an admission that there’s a side to her that she didn’t reveal to him, but he doesn’t see it that way; he’s still obstinately projecting his own point of view on the world outside himself, unwilling to let go of his adolescent narcissism.

Matthew Broderick and Meg Ryan in Addicted to Love (1997).

The movie gets complicated when Meg Ryan shows up as Maggie, Anton’s ex, who’s been stalking him, and she and Sam join forces. With dark eye shadow and short, windswept blonde hair and wearing motorcycle gear, Ryan looks great – sexier than ever – and Maggie’s punk attitude brings out a risk-taking side in Ryan she hasn’t shown before. Unlike Sam, Maggie isn’t interested in getting her lost lover back; she’s out for revenge, and she doesn’t put limits on how much misfortune and humiliation she thinks Anton deserves to have visited upon him. Ryan played another kind of stalker in Sleepless in Seattle, the loathsome 1993 romantic comedy Nora Ephron wrote for her; the difference is that Ephron didn’t acknowledge that Ryan’s character was stalking Tom Hanks and how creepy it was, whereas in Addicted to Love Dunne and Gordon use stalking as a metaphor for Sam’s immaturity and Maggie’s bitterness – qualities they both have to get over before they can end up with each other. The movie takes too long to land them in each other’s arms; the last half hour feels a little desperate, like the late machinations in Julianne’s plan to oust Kimmy from Michael’s affections in My Best Friend’s Wedding. And the figure Gordon devises as a catalyst to edge Maggie and Sam in each other’s direction – her grandmother, played by Maureen Stapleton – never comes across as more than a device. Still, the movie is genuinely funny and it has genuine depth. Spinning a comedy of amorous rejection off Rear Window turns out to be a smart idea; it implicitly links Sam and Maggie’s obsessions with that other great picture Hitchcock made with Jimmy Stewart, his treatise on romantic obsession, Vertigo. And spinning a romantic comedy out of a comedy of rejection works better than anyone might have imagined. In the farthest-out scene, Sam and Maggie break into Linda and Anton’s apartment, try on their clothes, and end up turning each other on and having sex on the bed their exes share. Addicted to Love reminds us of the dark recesses into which love can take us and how tough it is to pull ourselves out of them, and it does all that without ever ceasing to be a comedy. It suggests, once again, how pliable romantic comedy is, and how far talented filmmakers can take it into the realm of our emotional experience.

It’s hard to know exactly why romantic movies have gone so disastrously wrong since these end-of-the-millennium entries in the genre. Hollywood has all but abandoned the old conventions, so what happens between the protagonists no longer serves as a metaphor for falling in love – and if we don’t see the characters fall in love, why should we believe they have? Sometimes twenty-first-century rom-coms import the fated-romance convention from romantic melodramas: John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale are hardly on screen together in Serendipity (2001), but we’re supposed to buy the notion that being together is their destiny. More often we’re meant to make the leap from a one-night hook-up to true romance without any evidence that the characters have moved beyond the superficiality of the first to the depth implied in the second. That’s the flaw in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007), where a gorgeous TV news personality (Katherine Heigl) gets drunk enough to go to bed with a jobless stoner (Seth Rogen) and then, learning she’s gotten pregnant, decides they should raise the child together. The shift to love is supposed to occur sometime after this decision, which is ridiculously implausible: it’s hard to fathom her opting to have breakfast with him after waking up to find him in her bed, let alone considering inviting him to co-parent their baby. And then the movie doesn’t dramatize the shift, any more than subsequent rom-coms like Going the Distance (2010, with Drew Barrymore and Justin Long) do. Audiences don’t seem to require the convention of compromise and change to prove yourself worthy of love anymore, and the few romantic comedies that make a point of including it, like Ghost Town or Letters to Juliet, aren’t making a splash at the box office, so it seems to have all but vanished as a feature of romantic comedy. I think that’s a terrible shame. Filmmakers should be looking to the best rom-coms for models – whether they happen to be It Happened One Night and The Lady Eve, or Roman Holiday and Charade, or the original version of The Heartbreak Kid, Something Wild, Before Sunrise and others that have truly refreshed the conventions while acknowledging them. That’s how you keep a genre alive.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Steve, but what about "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?" I found it to be ever so enchanting and certainly Ben Stiller's finest work behind the camera, as well as in front of it. For my money, it's the best romantic comedy of the decade. - Mike