I am Indignant! Why Can’t Romantic Comedies Be Good Movies?

My four-year-old niece loves everything having to do with the Disney Princesses, which, if you’ve been around a little girl in the past ten years, you’ll know is a brand unto itself. I can’t say I blame her. Those princesses are beautiful and good and have lovely singing voices and happy woodland creatures for friends, and they always get the hot guy. Fantasy is a wonderful thing in a child’s life. It’s a wonderful thing in anyone’s life. And there’s no harm in it; after all, the vast majority of us, once we’ve reached adulthood, know the difference between what we see in movies and what we know in real life. Don’t we?

Consider that classic movie genre, the romantic comedy. It is the adult version of a fairy tale. But how many do we have to watch before we start to believe that some part of them must be based in truth? My guess is, really, not that many. When you consider how many different romantic comedies are out there telling the same basic story with minor variations, well, some of it must be true sometimes, right?

Yeah, right.

The fact is that it’s not as easy to stay grounded as we might think. Psychologists in Great Britain have been studying the effect of romantic comedies (rom-coms) on people’s interpersonal relationships. They’ve found that fans of romantic comedies tend to have unrealistic expectations when it comes to their own romantic lives. Sex should always be perfect, and if you were meant to be together, your partner should know what you want without having to be told. After all, that’s how it works in the movies. And when people have been watching these things since early childhood, they start to accept some elements as real, however unconsciously. That is what makes these movies so perilous.

There is a well-known and accepted formula at work in romantic comedies. The main characters must be relatable and appealing, there must be obstacles to their union, and those obstacles must be overcome so that they can get together at the end. The stories are predictable, light, and funny. It’s a formula that predates Shakespeare, and it’s been executed in dozens of variations since the invention of motion pictures. It works, but with occasional exceptions, the rom-com pretty well peaked as a film genre years before I was born.

Of course, there will never be another Philadelphia Story or Roman Holiday. Hollywood’s recent attempts at remaking classics (1995’s Sabrina and last year’s The Women come to mind), only prove its ability to water down even the strongest source material. And with so many changes in gender dynamics in the past few decades, not to mention shifting taboos and advancing communications technologies, this genre should evolve. The problem is that it hasn’t. If anything, it’s regressed. The basic formula is still there, but the characters have become stereotypes and caricatures. If I know exactly how a movie will end based on a thirty- second commercial, it’s safe to say that the storylines are beyond merely predictable. The fun, then, should come from watching it play out, the witty dialogue, the sparkling chemistry, the will-they-won’t-they, and how far will he or she go to attain the inevitable happy end. But very rarely does anyone evolve beyond the designated type. The dialogue is generally flat and predictable. At most, the audience gets a few standard pratfalls or moments of painful awkwardness.

Take, for example, Renée Zellweger’s most recent offering, New in Town. Chances are good that I will never see this movie. Not just because it got terrible reviews, since bad reviews won’t keep me away from any film that I really want to see. Rather, my opinion was sealed on my first viewing of the trailer. New in Town is a standard fish-out-of-water-falls-for- local-yokel format. Fine. But are we supposed to believe that a high-powered ambitious female executive takes on an assignment in the boonies without doing any sort of research, least of all checking the weather before getting on the airplane? She’s sophisticated and a bumbling idiot. She’s a mix of caricatures that real women are supposed to be able to relate to. Is it any wonder this film bombed?

After all these years and all of these cultural and economic shifts, Hollywood still does not give women credit for being thinking, independent consumers. Judging from the rom-coms that have come out recently, Hollywood actually believes women to be completely mindless conspicuous consumers who will pay to look at anything pretty and shiny. When we don’t, they turn around and say we don’t spend enough to justify their continued investment in female-targeted fare. Fortunately, the success of Sex and the City and Mamma Mia! have finally made the studios think twice about the power of the female wallet. Unfortunately, the results of those second thoughts are movies like Bride Wars and Confessions of a Shopaholic, which feature female characters who are brainless conspicuous consumers. I understand the challenge of fathoming the eternal question of what it is that women want. I don’t understand what’s so hard about doing a little quality control when you’re dealing with a proven working formula.

The romantic comedy’s primary purpose is, of course, to be profitable for whichever Hollywood studio produces it. Which means that, in practice, they are cinematic cotton candy–inoffensive, insubstantial, overly sugary treats that are enjoyable in the moment and then make you feel a little sick. We go to see them because we like the sweet fluffiness. It’s pure escapist fantasy. But I’m tired of feeling sick afterward. All I’m asking is that Hollywood not persist in insulting our intelligence. Plenty of clever writers and talented directors and charismatic actors float around in L.A. Let them be clever and show their talent and charisma. Over half a century ago, Charles Lederer and Howard Hawks, along with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, proved that you can have a completely implausible plot and still tell a great story in a fun, smart way. Fantasy doesn’t have to be stupid, and characters don’t have to be two-dimensional or stale.

In a world of Facebook, Twitter and iPhones, it should be so easy to explore the promises and pitfalls of modern technology that studios have no need to fall back on played-out conventions. I went to see He’s Just Not That Into You, thinking it might offer some comedic insights on the role of social networking and technology in the dating world. Beyond a line Drew Barrymore delivers that was featured in the trailer, though, the movie could have taken place at any point in the past thirty years. The central character is a slightly younger Bridget Jones on speed, desperately flinging herself at every potentially available guy. This is not a person with whom I am able to or wish to identify. The overall depiction of relationships is somewhat more realistic in this movie than most others that have come out in the last couple of years, but that’s not saying much. It’s a film based on a self-help book, for pity’s sake. The women are pathetically naive and completely neurotic, and the men are given license to exploit them. The fact that the movie has been so successful just speaks to the vacuum in the marketplace.

The only evolutionary trend I’ve noticed in the genre is a marked leaning toward men. Judd Apatow clearly deserves the credit for the recent introduction of the bromantic comedy to theaters everywhere. His take on the genre has nearly eliminated the need for female presence onscreen at all, while at the same time expanding the male audience. No coincidence there. For years, men have been complaining about their wives and girlfriends forcing them to sit through romantic comedies. Apparently, if you throw in a couple of fart jokes and make the leading man a stoner, guys will lap it up. Team Apatow has raised the status of the lovable loser in ways that John Hughes’s Farmer Ted and Duckie could never have imagined. The trend would seem to be culminating in the upcoming I Love You, Man, which is about a straight guy, in need of a best man at his wedding, who goes out looking for bromance. All I have to say about this is that there’s a reason the Duckies of the world didn’t get the girl. Relatable they may be, but sexy they are not. And, yes, I do resent men co-opting this traditionally female-targeted movie genre. Sure, Spicoli was hilarious, and while he might be the ideal bromantic partner, he is not the man of any girl’s dreams. Don’t men have enough movies targeted at them? We deserve our bit of market share. We also deserve a higher quality product for our money and time. If this genre is supposed to be about fantasy, loveable losers don’t cut it. Ostensible romantic comedies like Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall set up clueless, spineless slackers as the leading men. Is that supposed to be the romantic ideal for the twenty-first century? Call me old-fashioned, but I would much rather stay home and watch Cary Grant banter than pay to see Jason Segel’s bits.

My parents took me to see Lady and the Tramp when I was five years old. It was the perfect starting point for a lifetime of movie watching, especially for a little girl. All the elements are there: the beautiful, vulnerable heroine, the charming but flawed hero, an undeniable attraction, uncontrollable obstacles driving them apart, a handful of sidekicks for comic relief, some witty dialogue, a grand gesture, and a happy ending. I have no doubt that it and many similar films had something to do with my ideas about what life should be like. I still sometimes wish I could have a date half as romantic as Lady’s spaghetti dinner in that alley. Silly as the theory may seem, those British psychologists have a strong case. What we see on the big screen, especially when it’s set in familiar surroundings, probably does have an impact on our perceptions and expectations. So, when all that we see is superficial, generic and puerile, it can’t be good for anyone. The thing about Lady and the Tramp is that it’s smart and fun, and the characters all learn lessons and grow. It’s more than fifty years old and it’s a cartoon, but it has more realistic three-dimensional characters than anything Kate Hudson has starred in lately. It’s bad enough for people to hold up romantic comedies in general as models for their own lives, whether they do it consciously or not. But if they’re basing their romantic expectations on current rom-coms, I fear for the future of our society.

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