I've been thinking about romantic comedies alot lately since I'm working on Act II of JULIA & BUDDY, and for once I have to agree with Maureen Dowd - modern romantic comedies suck. And I'm not even talking about the hideous "men are lovable puerile slobs and women are controlling bitches" genre of the 2000s pioneered by "Knocked Up."
Both Maureen Dowd and A.O. Scott wrote about it - Scott being first in 2008. He noted:
And yet, while the romantic comedy has almost always trafficked in happy endings, that happiness is rarely accompanied by a sense of risk or exhilaration. When you think of, say, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn — or even Doris Day and Rock Hudson — you recall the emotional combat of two strong-willed, independent individuals ending in mutual conquest. Love, in those old pictures, was a dangerous and noble sport that required skill and cunning as well as commitment.
I'm talking about stuff from the last twenty years. There's a good article at The A.V. Club "The ugliest truth: 24 romantic-comedy characters who don't deserve love. I admit I've seen none of these movies because I read the reviews first and they sounded like they stank on ice - and the commentary here confirms it.
Sleepless in Seattle: Romantic comedies often depend on telling audiences what they wish was true. Case in point: in Sleepless In Seattle, the seemingly happy engaged Meg Ryan hears Tom Hanks talking on the radio, falls in love with his voice, and spends the rest of the movie re-arranging her life to find him. In the real world, these would be the mentally unbalanced actions of a disturbed, desperate person, a quixotic quest for a relationship that couldn’t possibly live up to expectations. While Seattle pays some lip service to Ryan’s strange behavior, she’s ultimately rewarded for her "courage" with the most ideal meet-cute imaginable.
As Good As It Gets: the romantic tension between Hunt and Nicholson never gets past the dictated-by-script phase, partly because Nicholson looks like a human-Sleestak hybrid, and partly because his newfound decency doesn’t make up for a life’s worth of vicious hostility.
You've Got Mail: Hanks, as the scion of a Barnes & Noble-like chain of heartless mega-bookstores, essentially wins over Meg Ryan, the proprietor of a boutique children’s bookstore, by putting her out of business. He's the friendly face of the McDonald’s-ization of our culture, and Ephron seems to encourage Ryan to put up a good fight before eventually yielding to the soulless comforts of a literary Big Mac.
Garden State: The myth of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was pushed to its most egregious extreme in Garden State, where beautiful Natalie Portman "redeems" a self-pitying, thoroughly unlikeable wimp (Zach Braff) by inexplicably falling in love with him, in spite of his rancid self-absorption and unseemly level of pussitude. In fact, she enables his bullshit, taking out a bottle to preserve his single, precious tear when he finally works up the nerve to cry over paralyzing his mother back when he was a kid.
Woody Allen in anything: nobody is more responsible for turning neurotic, paternalistic, essentially self-centered men into supposedly smart, sensitive, even sexy objects of affection for women foolish enough to accept personality traits that would (rightly) seem obnoxious coming from much better-looking guys.
Technically I have seen Woody Allen movies - although not since the early 1990s, and after reading Mia Farrow's autobiography, the very thought of Woody Allen makes me nauseous, and I just don't want to watch even his old movies that I liked.
I was griping about the absurdity of the stalker-triumphant-in-love of the Pulitzer Prize-winning TALLEY'S FOLLY, and there was a link from the A.V. Club article that made me chortle Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested
The movie "His Girl Friday" is always described as a "screwball comedy" but I think it's one of the best romantic comedies ever made, which is pretty impressive considering that in the Broadway play on which it was based, THE FRONT PAGE, the Rosalind Russell character was a man, and according to the very good Wikipedia article on the movie, the only reason the gender was changed was: "...during auditions, Howard Hawks's secretary read reporter Hildy Johnson's lines. Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded coming from a woman, resulting in the script being rewritten to make Hildy female."
The movie is charmingly modern in its view of the Hildy character - she wants to settle down and be a conventional housewife with the boring guy played by Ralph Bellamy, but Cary Grant's character convinces her that she would be much happier as a "newspaper man." And clearly they have much more in common than Hildy does with Ralph Bellamy.
Some fascinating stuff from the Wiki:
In her autobiography, Life Is A Banquet, Russell wrote that she thought her role did not have as many good lines as Grant's, so she hired her own writer to "punch up" her dialogue. With Hawks encouraging ad-libbing on the set, Russell was able to slip her writer's work into the movie. Only Grant was wise to this tactic and greeted her each morning saying, "What have you got today?"
Grant's character describes Bellamy's character by saying "He looks like that fellow in the movies, you know... Ralph Bellamy!" According to Bellamy, the remark was ad libbed by Grant. Columbia studio head Harry Cohn thought it was too cheeky and ordered it removed, but Hawks insisted that it stay. Grant makes several other "inside" remarks in the film. When his character is arrested for a kidnapping, he describes the horrendous fate suffered by the last person who crossed him: Archie Leach (Grant's real name).
A clip from "His Girl Friday" - the entire movie is available, at least for now, for free on Youtube.