Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Blow Off: How Hollywood Killed the Romantic Comedy

You know the plot. Boy meets girl. Boy is into girl. Girl isn’t into boy. Girl spends 90 minutes tossing off insulting one liners to drive boy away until, in an “a ha” moment, she realizes she’s been acting like a 2 year old in the sandbox and she is indeed into said boy. Is it too late? You’ll spend the next 20 mins on the edge of your seat as she makes a mad dash to the airport/train/bike stand/ferry in an attempt to catch him on time before he leaves the country.

Sometimes the roles are flipped. Sometimes the boy and the girl equally despise each other. Sometimes they’re placed in each other’s paths as the result of a bet, a bribe or, as Sandra Bullock taught us last summer, a “Proposal.” Plot points change and, on occasion, a particularly daring director will turn the genre on its ear. But for the most part, the story stays the same — and, at some point (I’m thinking about the time Meg Ryan went in for her first lift/tuck/plump), the romantic comedy imploded.

Where did it all gone wrong? Sure, Hollywood has always cranked out a dud here and there, but in 2010, each romantic comedy to hit theatres was worse than the last (two notable exceptions — the little seen Going the Distance and The Switch, further proof all that Jen Aniston bashing isn’t entirely warranted). But if you actually sat in theatres and felt you got your money’s worth from When in Rome, Killers, Leap Year, The Bounty Hunter (sorry Jen), The Back-Up Plan, You Again, Life As We Know It or the truly dreadful Sex & the City 2, I’m guessing you saw the bargain matinee or made it the second half of your “double feature.”

So before we romantic comedy fans blow off the genre all together and start watching Love Actually on repeat in hopes we won’t grow bored, some suggestions for Hollywood on how they might just turn things around.

No One Buys The Pathetic, Workaholic Woman Thing — Jennifer Lopez can’t find a man because she’s too busy devoting herself to running a boutique pet store in Manhattan. No man will give Kristen Bell the time of day because she’s attached to her Blackberry. Katherine Heigl is always the bridesmaid, never the bride; a local TV producer without enough time to go on a real date (et tu, Rachel McAdams. Morning Glory isn’t quite a romantic comedy, but the example works here); a dedicated bakery worker focused on making her small business fly and can’t make time for “bad boy” Josh Duhamel. If this is really the plight facing the perfectly toned, coiffed and lit ladies of Hollywood, what the hell sort of fate faces you average, every day girl. Sure, the idea of a man coming in and sweeping a girl off her feet is appealing, but does every romantic comedy need to star a career-obsessed, unlucky in love girl who needs a man to bring her to life?

A Good Leading Man is As Important As the Woman — No disrespect to Ashton Kutcher and Josh Duhamel. They’re both hot, perfectly charming men. They just seem to do nothing for the romantic comedies in which they star. If a woman is to be won over, the man doing the winning needs to so charming, so charismatic, so irresistible, that every woman (and gay man) in the theatre falls for him. On the same token, he has to have some visual appeal. Charming as they may be, Jack Black is not an appropriate match for Kate Winslet (as the frumpy girl in The Holiday, no less). And on what planet would Jason Segel land Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis in the same movie (Forgetting Sarah Marshall is funny, don't get me wrong, but seriously?). I get it — this is Hollywood. The city is full of rich schlubs and their hot trophy wives. But these are movies about everyday guys and the everyday girls they date. How bout some realism, huh?

What’s the Matter With Television? — I saw a great romantic comedy the other day. One of the best I’ve seen in quite some time, actually. It’s called Marry Me. It stars Lucy Liu. It aired on Lifetime. Yes, Lifetime, the former home of Meredith Baxter, Valerie Bertinelli and all of their “women in peril” colleagues. Actually, it was a romantic comedy miniseries — four hours, to be exact. And though the plot is in no way, shape or form earth shattering — career woman finds herself weighing three wedding proposals — because the smaller budget allowed producers to take a chance on someone other than Cameron Diaz (though the last time I checked, Lucy Liu was a movie star), the formula immediately finds itself reinvigorated. Liu is smart, funny, confident. She gets the guy — scratch that, three guys — because she’s the sort of girl men want to be with. By comparison, in Life As We Know It, while trying to connect with Duhamel, Heigl accidentally smears poop on her face.

Once We’ve Seen It, We Don’t Need to See It Again — Funny as it may have been, there’s a reason The Switch bombed. We’d just seen the artificial insemination comedy The Back-Up Plan three months earlier. And in three weeks, we’ll see Natalie Portman try and keep things light with Kutcher in No Strings Attached, nevermind that five months later, her Black Swan co-star Mila Kunis will do the same film with Justin Timberlake (theirs — Friends With Benefits — looks far better, BTW). For a genre so desperately in need a of a facelift, it isn’t surprising every studio would be batting around some version of the same script. But releasing the same movie within months of each other? That’s like opening a CVS next to a Rite-Aid. It just screams bad business.

Think Outside the Box — If a leading man is important, the leading lady is key. There’s a reason Meg, Julia and Sandra had hit after hit in the romantic comedy genre. They’re pretty enough, smart, relatable, funny, and can toss off a one liner as ably as their male costars. They also can’t be duplicated, no matter how badly Katherine Heigl wants to be America’s sweetheart (hint, Heigl — Julia never walked off the set of the TV series that made her a star without giving notice… and I’ve never heard her asking to be removed from consideration for an award because she felt her writing wasn’t strong enough). A look forward at 2011’s slate of romantic comedy releases, and it’s clear that for every flick that looks to be thinking outside the box (in What’s My Number?, Anna Faris looks back on a life of men wondering if one — Ryan Phillippe, Zachary Quinto, Andy Samberg, Chris Evans and more — might have been the one) there are two that toe the line (Ginnifer Goodwin as an undatable lawyer crushing on Kate Hudson’s fiancé? Such originality. And don’t even get me started on Jennifer Aniston passing herself off as Adam Sandler’s ex so he can land the woman of his dreams — a 23-year-old model).

And finally — because I couldn't very well end this column without circling back around to the truly dreadful Sex & the City 2 — if you have spent 10 years establishing characters that we know, love, want to be friends with, do not change them overnight for the sake of a punchline. Samantha Jones loves sex. We get that. Samantha Jones also loves to raise eyebrows. But what Samantha Jones isn't, at 50-some odd years old, is an idiot. Screwing on a beach in the Middle East? Really? Lindsay Lohan isn't even that stupid. With one move, one of the great TV/film characters of all time was ruined. And if there's a Sex & the City 3, with any luck, Samantha will find herself on vacation — preferably somewhere that doesn't imprison women for whipping 'em out in public.


  1. So true Sara. . . I thought that SATC 1 was great. . . 2 was painful!

  2. I totes agree, Melissa! This brilliant post was by Ross, one of our awesome contributors.

    Ross, I'm totally guilty of writing scripts with the career obsessed no time for love heroine, but you are right--- total cliche. I do have to say that I thought Going the Distance was awful minus Charlie Day. Drew was way past her prime in that role and Justin Long needs to play the buddy, not the lead.

  3. i love this post - true word for word. you know what this means? time for you to write the next 'love actually'!!

  4. but in 2010, each romantic comedy to hit theatres was worse than the last (two notable exceptions — the little seen Going the Distance and The Switch, further proof all that Jen Aniston bashing isn’t entirely warranted).

    I've heard a lot of good things about Going the Distance.I also hear that I Love You Phillip Morris is a funny, unconventional romantic comedy but while it did well in foreign counties almost no one in America has gone to see it.

    I think they should stop recycling the same people for romantic comedies and cast based on chemistry and talent rather than familiarity because there is no other genre that depends more on chemistry. Even a well written movie can fall short if the stars don't spark and/or can't sell their characters feelings for each other.

  5. Someone please explain to me what's good about going the distance except for Charlie Day?! It had the same old cliches of every rom com--- including the career driven girl and the race to the airport. and a lot of low hanging fruit comedy--- spray tan gone awry? I liked that the first time on Friends ten years ago.

    I Love You, Phillip Morris was very entertaining, but I wouldn't call it a rom com. It's more focused on the Jim Carrey character than the romance.

    I think my last favorite romantic comedy was 500 Days of Summer, it was original, not your typical stars, and turned the genre on its head.