Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Taking back the romantic comedy

In preparation for the first of my three promised rants I have posted the list of useful links on this topic from the NYCPlaywrights weekly email blast from July 26.

The Romantic Comedy Is Dead
by Andrew Romano

They Came Together is a comedy. This much is clear. The movie stars Paul Rudd (I Love You, Man) and Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation). It was co-written by Michael Showalter (The State). It was directed by David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer). These are some of the funniest people in the business. When you see it, you’re supposed to laugh.

And yet I left the theater the other day feeling sort of… sad.

The reason, I think, is that They Came Together isn’t just a comedy—it’s a parody of romantic comedies. Molly (Poehler) owns a quirky mom-and-pop candy shop on New York’s Upper West Side. Joel (Rudd) works at the big Corporate Candy Company that’s threatening to put Molly out of business. At first Molly and Joel hate each other—and then (surprise!) they fall in love.

If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it is; Wain & Co. borrowed it from You’ve Got Mail (which itself was a riff on the 1940 Jimmy Stewart classic The Shop Around the Corner). Many of their jokes refer to Nora Ephron’s canonical 1998 romcom as well. There’s Joel and Molly’s over-the-top obsession with New York, which everyone keeps reminding us is “almost like another character” in their tale. There’s the used bookstore where Joel and Molly finally discover they’re right for each other. There’s Joel and Molly’s sense of shared bemusement at the increasing intricacy of the modern coffee-industrial complex. And so on.

But You’ve Got Mail isn’t the only movie They Came Together strip-mines for satire. Basically the film is a compendium of every romcom cliché known to man, lovingly compiled, combined, and amplified to an absurd degree. Molly acting clumsy. Joel and his bros discussing lady problems while shooting hoops. Molly ordering food a very specific way. Molly and Joel playing Charades at a holiday party. A falling-in-love montage. A trying-on-clothes montage. “I’ll have what she’s having.” If you’re a fan of the romcom genre, watching all of these gags in quick succession is dizzying, delirious, and ultimately very funny.

Appealing young actresses who could have been this generation’s Meg Ryans or Julia Robertses—actresses like Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, and Scarlett Johansson—have read the writing on the wall and increasingly gravitated toward big tentpole jobs.
It’s also strangely depressing. Here’s why: As They Came Together wore on, I started to realize that every movie it was referencing was at least 15 years old. That no one under the age of, say, 30 would have any clue what Rudd and Poehler were parodying.

And then it hit me: Could it be that the Romantic Comedy is dead—and that I didn’t notice until it was too late? How in the name of Meg Ryan did this happen?

I’m afraid the answer to the first question is yes. I should start by saying (in case you haven’t figured it out already) that I really like romantic comedies. Sure, they can be conventional. But pop songs tend to be conventional, too, and that doesn’t dull the dopamine rush of a perfect chorus. A well-made romcom—It Happened One Night, Sleepless in Seattle, Say Anything…, Groundhog Day, The Apartment—works in much the same way. It’s a dazzling machine doing exactly what it was designed to do. 




Rom-coms used to be a cash cow --and wildly popular with audiences. What happened?
by Amy Nicholson

The corpse lay crumpled on the conference table, close enough that the studio executive could tug on the red heel of her Louboutin. She'd been lying there unnoticed, or perhaps just ignored, for quite some time. Her wedding veil was tattered, and someone had spilled coffee on her white satin dress. A receipt had been crudely shoved in her bouquet.

Once, she'd been worth a fortune -- at least $100 million, according to her friends, who sat at home and rewatched tapes of her at her prime. Every woman had wanted to be her: Julia, Meg, Sandra, Reese. Not anymore.

The romantic comedy is dead.

In 1997, there were two romantic comedies among the top 20 box office performers. In 1998 and 1999, there were three. Each cracked $100 million in sales. Even as recently as 2005, five romantic comedies topped $100 million at the box office.

Contrast that with 2013: There's not one romantic comedy in the top 50 films. Not even in the top 100.

Men and women are still falling in love, of course. They're just not doing it onscreen -- and if they do, it's no laughing matter. In today's comedies, they're either casually hooking up or already married. These are comedies of exasperation, not infatuation.

It's not only that audiences are refusing to see romantic comedies. It's that romantic comedies aren't getting made, at least not by the major studios. The Big Wedding, 2013's sole boy-meets-girl-meets-matrimony comedy, was unceremoniously dumped into theaters by big indie Lionsgate and limped to No. 101 on the chart.

What happened?




From As You Like It to The Front Page, theatre was once captivated by romantic comedies. Did we get too cynical?
By Lyn Gardner

The other week I interviewed the playwright David Greig and the musician Gordon McIntyre about their lo-fi musical, Midsummer. The show (opening at Soho theatre this week) is being sold on the novelty of its indie soundtrack – but when I saw it in Edinburgh last year, it wasn't the music that stood out, it was the romance. Indie music in theatre isn't so uncommon. But romantic comedy? If there'd been popcorn for sale in the Traverse foyer, it could hardly have seemed more out-of-place.
So is theatre down on romcom? It wasn't always thus: consider As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream et al, and Shakespeare starts to look (well, just a little) like the Nora Ephron of the Elizabethan age. Romcoms were popular, too, in the theatre of the early and mid-20th century. Some of the great Hollywood examples – The Philadelphia Story, The Shop Around the Corner, His Girl Friday (based on Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page) – were cribbed from hit plays. Bernard Slade's Romantic Comedy, recently revived by (and starring) Tom Conti, was one of the genre's last hurrahs.
Of course, there are still plenty of romances in theatre – but not many plays that satisfy themselves with romance alone, and fewer still that are funny. The classic romcom traces the lovers' will-they-won't-they trajectory up until consummation – and then blushingly draws a veil. But when modern stage comedies take love as their subject – Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, for example – they seldom send us home with romantic illusions left intact. It's instructive to compare Stoppard's theatre romcom with his script for Shakespeare in Love.




…I’ve long had the desire to fire every romantic comedy into the sun. I despise romcoms, and I never spent time figuring out why. Now that the answer is in my face, it’s undeniable: they’re one way we disseminate all of the worst ideas about relationships we have as a culture, including (especially) the male master narrative. What was once just an annoyance to me now looks like the worst kind of reprehensible irresponsibility. And that’s just one tiny corner of the art we produce. 

It’s easy to say, Oh, it’s just a play; it’s just a movie, etc. But there is no “just.” The narrative art form is POWERFUL. The human brain can experience narrative as if it’s happening in real life. The brain of a person telling a story and a person listening to that story experience neural coupling. Art is where we discuss who we are as a culture; our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our past, our imagined future. It’s the most important aspect of how our culture is created and how it is changed. Stories are the building blocks of culture, and we’re the ones who create and tell those stories.



~ OR ~
Why I despise and loathe the Pulitzer Prize-winning play TALLEY'S FOLLY
In which I explain why I have a problem with a play that presents a stalker, who forces a woman to remain in a boathouse until she submits, as a romantic hero.
by N. G. McClernan

When I first saw Lanford Wilson’s TALLEY’S FOLLY, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980, I didn’t even pick up on the horrific stalking and bullying aspect. This was in the early 1990s, when I first became interested in writing plays, and I considered it homework to go and see a community theatre production of the play in Haddonfield New Jersey. I picked the play exactly because it had won the Pulitzer Prize: I figured it had to be good. Like Shakespeare good.

But instead I was bored. It’s a ninety minute play that felt like two hours, but I gritted my teeth and stayed until the end. As I was walking out of the theatre I remember wondering whether I should abandon playwriting and go back to painting. If that was theatre, then I hated theatre.

My impression of the play, based on that long-ago production, was a long boring conversation, with lots of exposition, and the man doing most of the talking. I don’t know why I didn’t pick up on the truly repulsive underlying message of the play - perhaps it was the way it was directed - I don't remember any physical force used, as it is specified in the stage directions of the published script. 

Cultural gatekeepers have always been men (or men's female enablers.) To this day the vast majority of movie and theatre critics in the traditional media are men. But thanks to the new technologies all kinds of excellent feminist commentary is available to the public. One of the best purveyors of feminist culture theory is a web site called Tiger Beatdown. And one of its best essays is called TIGER BEATDOWN FOR DUDES Presents: That’s Not Funny. No, Seriously Dude, It’s Not.



Can the Romantic Comedy Be Saved?
By Claude Brodesser-Akner
It was not that long ago when romantic comedies were a reliable date-night staple at the box office. It was a carefree, frothy time, when Julia, J. Lo, Kate, Katherine, Sandra, and Reese could show up onscreen, meet cute with just about any handsome male specimen, and pull in seven figures. But audiences seem to be falling out of love with the genre: The near-total rejection of Gerard Butler’s Playing for Keeps ($12 million, and fading fast) is only the latest casualty.

Earlier this year, Wanderlust ($17 million) and The Five-Year Engagement ($28 million) fizzled, while the genre’s once-reigning doyenne, Reese Witherspoon, saw her hybrid action/rom-com, This Means War, met with yawning indifference: It grossed just $54 million domestically, ten million less than its explosion-heavy budget. The highest-grossing rom-com of the year was Kevin Hart’s Think Like a Man ($91 million), and that film never truly broke out beyond its predominantly African-American target audience. “It is the hardest time of my 30 years in the business of doing them,” said Lynda Obst, the producer of romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle, One Fine Day, and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. Vulture asked several top filmmakers, producers, and executives for a heart-to-heart about the reasons why the genre is getting the cold shoulder — and as with most splintering relationships, there’s plenty of blame thrown back and forth: Studio chiefs blame audiences and stars, directors and producers blame studios and audiences, and agents blame their clients.

The downward slope of the rom-com’s fortunes has been steep. Just a decade ago, theaters were packed with date-night fare that took in hundreds of millions of dollars: In 2002, the top five highest-grossing romantic comedies alone — My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Sweet Home Alabama, Maid in Manhattan, and Two Weeks Notice — collectively took in a whopping $555 million in domestic box office. There were seven rom-coms in the top 100 films of that year, and this septet averaged a $96 million take. In 2008, there were eleven rom-coms in the top 100, with an average domestic gross of $77 million. By 2010, there were fourteen rom-coms in the top 100 highest grossing films — but their average domestic gross had dropped to $53 million. This year the average gross in the top 100 is up a hair to $54 million, but that’s based on only four movies that have cracked that list. (Many more did not.)



Clearly, the rom-com is in dire straits, and things only seem to be getting worse.
by Phoebe Robinson

This week marks the 25th anniversary of arguably the best romantic comedy of the modern era: "When Harry Met Sally." (I write “arguably” to appease the ornery person who always steps to me, proclaiming "Love Actually" is the new sheriff in town.) And to that I say, “Show me the receipts,” which usually includes someone pointing out the film’s omnipresence on basic cable as proof, but I’m still unconvinced because Actually contains one of the most ludicrous love stories of recent memory. Colin Firth's character, Jamie, falls in love with a gorgeous, non-English speaking foreigner and they subsequently get engaged thanks to her father's response to Jamie's asking for his daughter's hand in marriage: "Who? Her? Sure." O...K. 
Clearly, the rom-com is in dire straits and things only seem to be getting worse. "Think Like A Man Too," which was released three weeks ago, has decent box office numbers ($61 million dollars), but is saddled with a 24% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In the past, this sort of critical lashing would have been an anomaly for movies of its ilk instead of what it is now: par for the course.
Since the early aughts, the average rom-com now is not only getting bad reviews and poor to middling box office returns, but major film studios are releasing fewer of these films in theaters (in 2002, there were 13, including "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" which grossed $241 million domestically; this year, only five romantic comedies are coming out).
The rom-com genre is going the way of the wooly mammoth, but I have three ways it can save itself from extinction: 
1) Let’s get some comedy up in here!
The genre is called “romantic comedy,” so why are so many of the films low on the funny? Where’s the witty Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell banter of "His Girl Friday," the satire of "Clueless," the go-for-broke rom-com/gross out humor mash up of "There’s Something About Mary"? Too often what's passing for "comedy" in rom-coms these days is a basic Katherine Heigl-type chick dressed in basic beige linens who vacillates between klutzy and shrill. Ugh.


I Rewatched Love Actually and Am Here to Ruin It for All of You
Lindy West

We open in a fucking airport. A fucking AIRPORT!!! Of course Love Actually, the apex of cynically vacant faux-motional cash-grab garbage cinema would hang its BIG METAPHOR on the bleak, empathy-stripped cathedral of turgid bureaucracy known as "the airport." Of course. And then, of course, Hugh Grant's voice pipes in to tell us how inspiring and magical the airport is, because when you're at the airport you can't help but notice that "love actually IS all around." THE FUCKING AIRPORT!!!!!

If that's not the epitome of unexamined privilege—declaring that the airport is your favorite place—then I don't know what is. Welcome to Love Actually.

Bill Nighy and his technicolor dream-blouse are in the studio recording a shitty, vapid Christmas song in hopes of squeezing a few dollars out of idiots who will pay for any tatty garbage as long as it has a celebrity's name attached (way better metaphor for your movie than "the airport," BTW!). Bill Nighy keeps ruining perfectly good takes so he can yell about how shitty his shitty Christmas song is, because Bill Nighy doesn't care about the valuable time of the hardworking professionals who are just trying to finish his vanity record so they can get home to their families. Not Bill Nighy's problem! He's done heroin before!

Question: Can somebody please adjust Bill Nighy's microphone so he doesn't have to cop that weird squat anymore? I should be able to watch a movie without my brain being forced to contemplate the current dilation of Bill Nighy's butthole. Thx.

Text appears on the screen to alert us that it's five weeks before Christmas. Why are you recording a Christmas single FIVE WEEKS BEFORE CHRISTMAS!?!? This movie is so fucking incompetently made that even the people doing their fake jobs inside the movie are incompetent.

Colin Firth's girlfriend is sick. NBD, right!? WRONG. Turns out, she isn't sick with the flu—she's sick with ColinFirth'sBrother'sDongitis! Colin Firth cannot deal, so he runs off to France all sulky to fucking type a novel on a fucking typewriter in a mansion. Siiiigh! "Alone ah-GAYN!"

This old French woman shows up at Chateau de Firth and is like, "Here, I found you a lady. I'm literally giving you this lady." Score! Free lady! The lady is named Aurelia and she only speaks Portuguese, and so does her entire family, apparently, even though all of them live in France. It's irritating.

Colin Firth falls in "love" with Aurelia at first sight, establishing Love Actually's central moral lesson: The less a woman talks, the more lovable she is.

None of the women in this movie fucking talk. All of the men in this movie "win" a woman at the end. This goddamn movie.



The greatest romantic comedy: His Girl Friday

Hawks stages an exceptional battle of wits and sexual politics between Grant and Russell, two performers matched in their capacity to hurl  verbal jabs with machine gun speed. Russell’s Hildy Johnson wants out of the newspaper game to marry her dopey insurance salesman fiancé, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), and make a family in Albany. She arrives at the Morning Post’s offices to tell her editor, Grant’s Walter Burns, of her plans to wed Baldwin the next day after catching a train that evening. With little time to maneuver, Burns concocts a scheme to keep her around, in part because his paper needs her sharp reporting, and also because he still loves her. “Oh, she’s staying,” Burns quips. “She just doesn’t know it yet.”  His biggest hook is the execution of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a cop-killer who should have been tried with an insanity plea. Should the Morning Post cover the story, they could save Williams’ life and simultaneously rub out the careers of the corrupt Mayor (Clarence Kolb McCue) and his ineffectual sheriff (Gene Lockhart). Burns dangles the story in front of Hildy, lays an effective guilt trip on Baldwin, and Hildy eventually agrees to write one last story, in exchange for Burns signing a life insurance policy with Baldwin that will provide the new couple a financial nest egg. After Hildy interviews Williams to play up the insanity angle, the prisoner escapes, creating a frenzy of newspapermen trying to get the scoop. Working together again with Burns to get the story makes Hildy realize she still loves being a reporter and still loves Burns too.



Study: Rom-Coms Could Save Your Marriage
by Kat Stoeffel

Watching and discussing romantic movies is roughly as effective as couples therapy in reducing the divorce rate among newlyweds, according to a University of Rochester study published in December's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Researchers looked at 174 couples over the first three years of their marriage, when one in four couples divorces. Couples were randomly assigned to one of three month-long programs — conflict management, compassion training, or movie-and-talk — as a kind of secular surrogate for the marriage-preparation classes offered by churches. The conflict-management and compassion-training groups required about twenty hours of therapist-supervised lectures and practice sessions, whereas movie-and-talk required half as much time, involved watching movies, and was almost entirely done at home. But all three groups halved the divorce rate of the control group, from 24 percent to 11 percent. 

Their conclusion? People already know how to fix their relationship problems, they just need the excuse to think and talk about them…“


OBVIOUS CHILD - Take Back the Rom-Com