The March issue of The Atlantic features an essay from Christopher Orr called "Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?"* In it, Orr asserts that romantic comedies have been "lackluster for decades." Decades. He goes on to acknowledge that "classics of the genre," in which category he includes Annie Hall (sure!), When Harry Met Sally (sure!), and Pretty Woman (...), have been sprinkled around, but says we're not getting the amazing films "reliably churned out by the likes of Tracy and Hepburn and Grant and the other Hepburn."
Orr cites A.O. Scott of The New York Times in throwing some of the blame on stars — especially actresses he doesn't like (including Katherine Heigl) for not being good enough and actors he likes (including George Clooney) for opting out of the genre altogether. But in the end, Orr chalks up the problem mostly to the idea that romantic comedies require an obstacle to love: class, geography, parents — something that artificially keeps the lovers apart until they can kiss at the end. And those obstacles, he says, are fading.
The piece is a little all over the place, but part of it is sound: it's certainly true that there aren't a lot of pure romantic comedies of the stereotypical obstacles-culminating-in-a-kiss variety that are either making a lot of money or earning a lot of critical praise.
But it's important to keep in mind that the classics Orr misses so much, from Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, were rarely of that variety in the first place. Think about the movies that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn actually made together. In Adam's Rib, they're already married — that movie isn't about navigating a courtship; it's about navigating a marriage. In Desk Set, there's much more of what you would call companionate love (good conversation, mutual respect, that sort of thing) than swooning, exciting romance, and when there's a proposal of marriage at the end (made from one 50-ish actor to another), it's the culmination of a story about folks getting to know each other, not the culmination of a story about obstacles to heart-pounding romantic love that finally cleared.
Moreover, if you really examine these films, what you'll find is that ... story-wise, they're resoundingly silly. They are exercises in flawless scene-level execution, not storytelling — the stories, such as they are, are really just frames to hang great conversations on. When Tracy and Hepburn sequester themselves in the upstairs stacks of her research library and talk about the beautiful fashion model who once bored him to death talking about women's necklines getting higher, that's a breathtaking scene because of the chemistry and the dialogue.
But the scenes where the computer is smoking and spitting out pink cards while the tight-bun-wearing lady freaks out and runs out of the room? That stuff is ridiculous. It's frankly awful. It's just that it doesn't matter, because it's there to hang that library-stacks discussion on, and to hang the girl-talk scenes with Hepburn and Joan Blondell on. And if you reviewed Desk Set today, you would be absolutely obligated to mention how silly and broad a lot of that story is, and you'd be right. You'd also be missing the point.
In other words, many of the romantic comedies we revere have always had something in common with the ones we don't: something I used to call the "hum-through plot," meaning that you just hum really loudly and ignore how dopey it is until you get back to the great scenes where people are talking to each other. It was there in Desk Set. It's there in Bringing Up Baby. It's there in Roman Holiday, to name just one lark featuring the other Hepburn.
So you can't really be surprised that it's there in While You Were Sleeping. The history of the classic romantic comedy is littered with things we would be far less likely to forgive if they weren't classics, if they weren't tinged with iconography and nostalgia. That doesn't mean they're not great — they are great. They are absolutely, undeniably great. But greatness in romantic comedy has always been about what happens when the leads (and sometimes the supporting characters) interact with each other within that story. The Lady Eve is pretty dopey too, if you pay a lot of attention to the plot. It's when you pay attention to the scene where Barbara Stanwyck is playing with Henry Fonda's hair that you get why you're watching the movie.
Great or greatly loved?
Furthermore, there is a useful distinction between romantic comedies that are great and romantic comedies that are greatly loved. I think When Harry Met Sally is great; it's wonderfully crafted, and aside from its unenlightened take on whether men and women can be friends, it's got a lot of smart things to say about both friendship and romance. Pretty Woman, on the other hand, is greatly loved, and reasonably so, largely for Julia Roberts' sparkly performance. It's right that people love it, and rewatch it, and speak fondly of it.
But ... it's not a great movie. The idea of a prostitution meet-cute, the makeover montage, the cringe-y ending where Richard Gere looks like he wants to die ... look, I've seen this movie a lot of times, and I like a good Roxette song, but this is not a great movie. Before we get too hard on the films we're getting now, we've got to get real about how good the ones we were getting 20 (as well as 60) years ago actually were.
Despite the Julia Roberts Oscar nomination (remember that?), I actually consider Pretty Woman in the "greatly loved" group, which also includes The Cutting Edge (figure skater and hockey player!), While You Were Sleeping (being more a Bullockian than a Robertsian, if I'm picking a romantic comedy purely for an actress' performance, that's my pick, and I watch it a lot), and Two Weeks Notice, and a lot of other agreeable trifles. These are pleasing, adored pieces of candy, and that candy has always been (ironically) the meat and potatoes of romantic comedies for people who are actually fans of the genre as opposed to visitors who haven't really loved one since His Girl Friday.
The changes in obstacles are overstated
So if it's not the strong, compelling, airtight plots that have been selling romantic comedies for decades, Orr is probably overstating the importance of the external obstacles — parental disapproval and so forth — that are holding the lovers apart.
But frankly, I think he's wrong about there being fewer credible obstacles anyway. Anyone who believes that geography is less of an issue than it used to be in the age of the internet has not done very much meeting of people on the internet. Orr's hand-waving at the geography issues in Sleepless In Seattle is very strange — you can't be in love on Skype forever, so even if you assume a modern Annie and Sam would have just started e-mailing each other, the ultimate question still arises exactly the same way: she lives in Baltimore with a job and friends, and he lives in Seattle with a job and a son. As a matter of fact, the ending of the movie is profoundly unsatisfying on this level if you really think about it. Is one of them moving? Is she leaving her job? Is he uprooting his son? Are they going to just keep writing letters? What comes after Jimmy Durante?
But that, of course, indulges the notion — which is false — that the obstacles in Sleepless In Seattle are primarily geographical to begin with, and that the film is about overcoming logistical hassles. If it were, they'd have had to answer those questions about location, location, location. But because it wasn't, they didn't. The obstacles in that movie are grief, fear, and the difference between what looks good on paper and what feels good in reality. That's what the characters have overcome by the end. And the advent of Skype has not eliminated those things, nor has texting.
In fact, if you saw the 2010 romantic comedy Going The Distance, you saw a pretty smart look at obstacles that are thoroughly modern. In it, the couple meets while she's in town for an internship, and when it's time for her to go, they're at that awkward point where it's too soon for them to change their plans for each other but too late for them to easily part. So they decide to stay together from across the country, which is almost impossible, but which people who really like each other do anyway in situations where it seems like saying goodbye is worse. In a way, that is the blush of love at its finest: believing that leaving somebody behind is so out of the question at that moment that being involved in some kind of quasi-situation with someone who lives many states away from you will be better. If Going The Distance faltered, it did so by allowing too easy a way out of those obstacles when, in fact, they can indeed be insurmountable.
In fact, the very entire idea that both people in a couple are likely to have important, absorbing jobs (and sometimes kids) creates all kinds of perfectly viable, workable obstacles if what you're looking for is a bunch of obstacles for a couple to overcome. (Do not get me started on the idea that Say Anything is a romantic comedy about her father standing in the way of their love, because that is so reductive it kills me.)
Romantic Comedy As An Element, Not A Genre
One of the challenges of evaluating the state of "the romantic comedy" is that much of the best romantic comedy work in movies is done in ones that wouldn't classify themselves as romantic comedies at all, let alone "rom-coms." If you think nobody knows how to write dialogue between men and women that's almost breathtaking in both its simplicity and its crackle, watch the first scene between Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt in last year's Your Sister's Sister. That is not a conventional romantic comedy, at least between those two, and (to cite a familiar theme) there are some plot moments in the film that I could have lived without. But that is a stunning dialogue scene, from writer Lynn Shelton, that's absolutely worthy of anything you want to hold it up to for comparison. In fact, Duplass had quite the romantic-comedy-that-isn't-really-one kind of year in 2012, also appearing in Safety Not Guaranteed, which has romantic comedy in its DNA but also quite a lot of other stuff. The same is true of Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect; it's there, but it doesn't dominate.
Other people have mentioned Silver Linings Playbook, and frankly, the romantic elements of that story make me a little nervous owing to the "mental illness as a lovable quirk" problem that, if the film doesn't actually have it, the film is always threatening to have. But it's certainly the case that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence play some lovely scenes together, and again, that's kind of what it's all about.
How To Get Better Romantic Comedies
It seems to me that the most obvious way to get better romantic comedies is to stop stigmatizing them and putting the blame on the wrong people. If you believe that what was wrong with The Ugly Truth was Katherine Heigl, you didn't see it. That movie was cancerous and revolting from the outset, and you could have resurrected Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn and both of them, one standing on the other's shoulders, wrapped in a giant trenchcoat, and that movie would not have been any better. Ditto The Bounty Hunter and The Switch and most of the junk that Matthew McConaughey unaccountably wasted years of his life making.
What's most profoundly wrong is the terrible, mean-spirited scripts that are getting made, that are making people feel justified in using "rom-com" as an eye-rolling insult, and we've got to stop that first. Stop saying "chick flick" like it's "pile of rotten meat," and stop saying "chick lit" and "chick book" and "chick movie" and anything else that suggests that love stories are less than war stories, or that stories that end with kissing are inherently inferior to stories that end with people getting shot. Or, if you believe they are and you want to continue believing that they are, stop pretending you're open to romantic comedies getting better.
Good actors, writers and directors are not going to make it their goal to elevate this genre — the way some make it their goal to elevate action films and horror films — until we allow for the possibility, we don't make "chick flick" a dirty word, and we ensure that just like there are critics at most major outlets who are open to and interested in people who can make surprisingly great horror and action films, there are critics who are open to and interested in people who can make surprisingly great romantic comedies.
I also must admit to another fairly firm belief: that we're not going to enter another "golden age" until we address the epidemic of weirdly aggressive actress-hating that seems to befall anyone who trades on straight likability. Right now, you can get away with being a sort of cool-girl likable, like Emma Stone and Mila Kunis are, and like Jennifer Lawrence is. (This is no knock on any of them; they're all immensely likable, at least to me.) But the classic romantic comedy trades on audiences not having already decided that they hate the actress, so if we're going to devote full-time journalism beats to hating Anne Hathaway (and Jennifer Aniston and Lena Dunham and Katherine Heigl and Sandra Bullock and Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts and Kate Hudson), we're going to have trouble asking audiences to embrace the kind of low-cynicism energy that good romantic comedy requires. I mean, Katharine Hepburn had haters as it was, and that was the 1930s. If she — or even Audrey Hepburn — had existed in the age of the internet, do you really think they could have remained so loved? Or, in Katharine Hepburn's case, come back from the early sense that people didn't like her?
There is a story that circulates about Katharine Hepburn, interestingly enough, that says she gets knocked down by Cary Grant at the beginning of The Philadelphia Story in part because the audience had so fully turned on her that she had to be knocked on her behind before they'd embrace her again — a move that arguably worked pretty well, since Bringing Up Baby had flopped and The Philadelphia Story did great. It's hard not to think about Jennifer Lawrence tripping on her dress at the Oscars and wonder: is that the best thing that could have happened to her? Did falling down buy her another six months before people start more loudly saying they can't stand her and they can't put their finger on it quite but they just haaaaate her? (Don't get me wrong — some already do. But she hasn't started to have think pieces written about the exciting phenomenon of internet commenters who don't like her, like Hathaway has.)
Finally, we may have to get a little more flexible about how romantic comedies are delivered. The best ones often have other elements; elements of real sadness, like the terrific and underappreciated Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts vehicle Notting Hill, for instance, which touches on not artificial obstacles, but on the way people in difficult circumstances sometimes hurt each other's feelings and let each other down, not to mention supporting characters struggling with disability and fertility issues. The twin entries that Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks made with Nora Ephron, Sleepless In Seattle and You've Got Mail, are both at times profoundly sad, dealing with grief and loss and unwanted change.
The ones that take nothing seriously except dating, those are the How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days ones, and The Wedding Planner ones. And they rarely work, and they've rarely ever worked, because love in life is usually mixed up with all kinds of other nasty stuff, and anybody who can put everything else on hold to think about banter for an entire movie's worth of life experiences doesn't come off as very interesting. The facile slickness of the Gerard Butler man-child oeuvre is boring; About A Boy, on the other hand, is only about 20 percent romantic comedy, but when it is one, it's a much better one because the Hugh Grant man-child isn't just that way when it comes to dating. And some, like Julia Roberts' My Best Friend's Wedding, are at their best when they're showing the seams and the flaws in what's assumed to be true in every love story.
Making romantic comedies as good as the ones Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made is very hard. It's art. It's like all other art — nobody is making what Andy Warhol made, either. Nobody is making epics quite like Lawrence Of Arabia. There's no new Godfather. And you don't have to go as far back as Howard Hawks and Cary Grant to feel that loss — what Nora Ephron did in the '80s and '90s was very, very hard as well. Those balances are difficult, the execution is everything, and making people care about a story where everyone usually knows how it ends isn't easy.
Obstacles, you see, are everywhere.
*Because we apparently remain in a cultural 2009 where everything that anyone doesn't like is Katherine Heigl's fault, the subhed is "The long decline from Katharine Hepburn to Katherine Heigl." If the same piece came out in six months, it probably would have said "The long decline from Audrey Hepburn to Anne Hathaway."