Tuesday, December 07, 2010


No one may brag about it, but many a girl, and quite a few guys, young and old, like to watch a romantic comedy, or romcom, from time to time. I can't say I'd fork over the dough it takes to go to the movies these days to see one in the theater, but I don't do that for very many movies these days, unless it's a blockbuster like Harry Potter, something the kid is super-excited about, like Tangled, or starring M. Le Depp. But I've got cable, and a six-going-on-seven-year-old daughter, so romcoms are on the regular rotation, along with the inevitable Spongebob and iCarly shows.

What I don't understand is the snobbery attached to watching them. Yes, they're predictable, and frequently fluff, but not all movies should have exploding asteroids or be heavy or scary. I don't see a romcom being any more predictable than a Transformers movie. Or one of the countless Saws. Or even a "meaningful" film. I tried to watch post-apocalyptic The Road with Viggo Mortensen the other night, and while I love him and Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce, it was as predictable as it was wrenching.

The romcom genre hasn't changed much from when Claudette Colbert and Katherine Hepburn were the masters. The fun in a Palm Beach Story, It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby is still something a modern audience wants to experience—just with updated locations and maybe a touch more skin.

I just watched Leap Year on-demand the other night and it was delightful. Amy Adams can do no wrong in my book (except maybe prefer Patrick Dempsey to James Marsden in Enchanted. Sorry, I just don't get Patrick Dempsey as the ultimate romantic lead). Matthew Goode was quirky and annoying and handsome, everything a male lead should be in order to postpone the romance from happening in the first five minutes. The Irish scenery was great. Why were critics so hard on this movie? But that seems to be the case for a lot of romcoms. They get panned as a theatrical release (too formulaic, etc.) and then get rediscovered and enjoyed on DVD and cable. 27 Dresses* (only 40% of critics liked it on Rotten Tomatoes, but 71% of the audience liked it—quite a divergence of opinion, huh?) is one of my daughter's favorites, another movie that isn't thought of very highly, but is fun to watch—even on multiple viewings.

After the kid went to bed one night I caught up with Meryl Streep in It's Complicated* (56%/63%). Maybe not the greatest on Meryl's resume, but it was fun. The scene with Meryl and Steve Martin at the party was priceless. And Alec Baldwin was brave and hysterical with his laptop video seduction. Everyone loves to watch Meryl Streep, so it wasn't just a movie for an older female demographic. It was a fun, slightly sassy, rom-com.

I'm sure from a feminist perspective, many feel that a romcom is the absolute opposite of female empowerment. But not all romcoms are princess stories, with marriage as the ultimate goal. Many are just about the search for love, for a partner. The hard truth is that romcoms also serve as one of the few film genres that have women at the helm, as stars, writers and filmmakers. It's ridiculous that it took so long for a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, to win a best director Oscar. Of course Bigelow doesn't make romcoms, but looking at a list of top female directors in Hollywood, the list skews heavily in that direction. Is that because it's easier to get a romcom green-lit for a female director? Or maybe if you've fought so hard to get a chance to tell a story on film you're sure as hell going to make its focus be a woman.

When I think of some of my favorite comedies over the years, quite a few of them are romcoms.
  • Annie Hall (the ultimate 70s romcom from the Woodman with Diane Keaton as his muse and fashion icon)
  • Ball of Fire (Gary Cooper is an amazing foil to sassy Barbara Stanwyck—who knew the Coop could be such a funny guy?) 
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell sing and dance their way to Paris in bright colors and diamonds, diamonds, diamonds)
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's (More diamonds with Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly, who's complicated, beautiful, quirky, funny—everything a romcom heroine should be)
  • Sabrina (the original, with Audrey Hepburn and Bogie)
 Still of Ben Stiller in There's Something About Mary

  • Moonstruck (Snap out of it! Cher and Nicolas Cage are wonderfully matched)
  • The Princess Bride (quotable, romantic, funny as hell, one of the best movies ever)
  • French Kiss (when Meg Ryan was still a romcom queen and with Kevin Kline having the best time playing French)
  • There's Something About Mary (dirty jokes abound, but it is still funny and a classic romcom) 
  • When Harry Met Sally (Billy Crystal's sarcastic brand of comedy is perfect here and he and Meg Ryan are a wonderfully neurotic twosome)

There are others, although maybe not quite as classic, that if I flip past them on t.v. I'm destined to keep watching until the end. 
  • Doc Hollywood (75%/43% Michael J. Fox gets stuck in the "squash capital of the world" for sweet fun)
  • Notting Hill (82%/74% Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant are surprisingly well-matched and the supporting quirky friends are top-notch)
  • Runaway Bride (45%/57% I prefer this Gere/Roberts pairing to Pretty Woman, with its town full of unexplained twins and multiples and Roberts's multiple almost-bridegrooms—plus, Hector Elizondo) 
  • The Holiday* (47%/81% Jack Black and Kate Winslet as a couple?—yes it's crazy but it works)
  • While You Were Sleeping (85%/75% Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman, nuff said)
  • Someone Like You (47%/60% Hugh Jackman should do more romcoms and scenes in his underwear)
  • The Wedding Singer (66%/76% I'm not usually an Adam Sandler fan, but his obnoxiousness is perfect here and so is Drew Barrymore)
  • Mamma Mia!* (53%/76% If you can leave the room while Pierce Brosnan is singing or just congratulate him on his bravery, this is great fun)
The number one consistent criticism leveled at these titles on Rotten Tomatoes is "predictable." which baffles me. Does anyone buy a ticket to a romcom full of doubt and trepidation as to how the movie might end? It's a 50-50 proposition. Either the two top leads will end up in an embrace as the credits roll or they won't, with the odds greatly skewed in the direction of the former. Admittedly, some romcoms handle the postponing of the inevitable more skillfully or pleasurably than others.

Romcoms are filmic comfort food. There is definitely a bit of wish-fulfillment involved. Sometimes it's nice to visit a world where everyone lives in unbelievably large apartments in New York City and find love with that incredibly gorgeous but initially annoying person. They are substitution fantasies, where you can sit safely beside your true love, but for ninety minutes let yourself be one half of an onscreen duo. Or maybe you just want to watch some pretty people do silly things.

To keep the record straight, I don't like all romcoms. I've seen many that don't work. Usually this is a simple case of chemistry—basically there is none—between the two leads. Chemistry is a far more important factor for me than any plot predictability. Sometimes the leading lady just doesn't have what it takes to carry the picture through, as most romcoms depend on a strong, likable heroine.
  • My Best Friend's Wedding (The only reason to see this film is Rupert Everett singing in the fast-seafood restaurant—start watching at 4:30)
  • Pretty Woman (as appealing as Gere and Roberts can be—and they have chemistry galore—it's just awful and crass)
  • As Good as It Gets (Greg Kinnear is fun, but I don't like Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson together) 
  • What Women Want* (even before Mel Gibson completely lost it, I could never buy him in a romantic comedy—and I guess I really don't like Helen Hunt) 
  • Serendipity (I don't like these two actors apart or together)
  • Maid in Manhattan (Jennifer Lopez was so good in Out of Sight—I wish someone would tell her she is not a female romcom star—ditto Jennifer Aniston)
  • My Life in Ruins (Richard Dreyfuss is fun, as are the Greek locations, but that's about it)
I actually feel a tiny bit guilty criticizing the "bad" ones. The way that we all think and criticize movies these days has changed. The stakes seem higher because they cost so much to make and so much to watch. Many of these sorts of movies might have been viewed as a double feature in my parents' day. I wish Hollywood could scale back a bit, or the critics relax and not criticize a romcom with the same expectations as a special-effects laden extravaganza. Actually I wish the critics would lay off on some of those, too. For the most part what the critics think and what the audience thinks are two very different things.

Anyway, Leap Year and its two leads were fun. It's a nice romp and I would definitely stop and watch it through if I trip across it again sometime. Watching a romcom shouldn't be a guilty pleasure.

*These films were directed by women.
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