Is it me, or are romantic comedies of late not only tragically unfunny but virulently anti-women as well?
Take Bride Wars. Please! How Anne Hathaway could go from her playing the raw and riveting rehab sis in Rachel Getting Married to a clichéd Bridezilla out to upstage Kate Hudson’s dreadful blonde wig is beyond me.
At least the public rightly decided during the film’s opening weekend that their time would be better spent watching Clint Eastwood as a tobacco-spewing, arms-bearing bigot of a geezer.
And don’t get me started on New in Town, the latest attempt by Renee Zellweger to outdo Gwyneth Paltrow and Mira Sorvino in the “Who’s had the worst post-Oscar career?” sweepstakes
Looking at the past decade in retrospect, the original Bridget Jones now comes off like a working-girl classic instead of just another diverting fluffer nutter.
Then there’s the just-opened He’s Just Not That Into You. How many romantic-comedy red flags do I see waving in that opus? For one, it depresses me that Jennifer Aniston – who’s actually a talented comedienne when she has worthy material — has apparently decided to spend the rest of her career performing big-screen variations of not just lovelorn Rachel from TV’s Friends but parodies of her own ongoing Brad-left-me-soap-opera from real life. Instead of, say, returning to the better-suited medium of TV in a challenging HBO or Showtime series, she continues to play second fiddle to Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller or, worst, a Labrador.
Even more disheartening is that women were behind this much-delayed roundelay of cardboard cut-out dolls, namely He’s Just Not co-star Drew Barrymore and her biz partner Nancy Juvonen. Me, I have much more hope for the pair’s roller-derby farce Whip It!, where at least you know the female characters will have an interesting job to care about.
But the fact a male pronoun is the main drawing card in the title of this dated riff on a self-help book is but one clue as to how un-seriously this film takes its gaggle of gals who spend their screen time defined only by their love-life woes. As wrong-headed as that remake of The Women was, it at least had no qualms about advertising its sexual orientation.
The run of inane romantic comedies that began last year with 27 Dresses, Fool’s Gold, What Happens in Vegas and Maid of Honor appears to continue apace with next week’s thematically troublesome-in-this-economy Confessions of a Shopaholic and this summer’s Matthew McConaughey tour de farce The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
Now I adore Sandra Bullock, and I’m praying hard that she has a return to funny form this year in All About Steve and The Proposal. Anything would be better than doing a Miss Congeniality 3. Yes, chances that one of these will be another While You Were Sleeping aren’t great, but for now I’d like to have something to look forward to.
Actually, the one nuptial-minded comedy trailer that did get me to laugh is I Love You, Man—which simply dumps the female side of the heterosexual equation to focus on a budding bromance between Paul Rudd and Jason Segel.
I’m starting to think that as much as Knocked Up lacked a certain logic in its central pairing, it at least provided an even playing field–not just for Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen to go at each other with some invested emotion that rang true, but also to allow Leslie Mann and Rudd’s in-a-rut marrieds deal with some recognizably real issues.
Heigl, who’s shown considerable comedic promise in the past, could have another worthy opponent in Gerard Butler when they butt heads in the upcoming The Ugly Truth. But it would take more than one opposites-attract laugh-a-thon to end this current comedy recession.
Substance and a semblance of reality don’t have to be boring even if romantic comedies are supposed to be the airy foam that tops our venti-sized cup of life, adding that welcome layer of fantasy to everyday drudgery. That is exactly why When Harry Met Sally, and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan still brew laughter today.
But as the decade closes, male-female relationships have devolved into uninspired junk like Fool’s Gold (and did anyone take a vote before deciding that Matthew McConaughey is anyone’s idea of the next Cary Grant?) and What Happens in Vegas.
Actually, the first sign of Hollywood’s romantic-comedy trouble arrived in 2006, with the well-received The Devil Wears Prada. For most of its running time, it was a sharply observed modern comedy especially when it came to the relationship between Hathaway’s initially clueless assistant and Meryl Streep’s hell-on-stilettos fashion-mag doyenne.
But the ending – oy! What message does it send to young girls that Hathaway’s Andy is made to feel guilty about liking a demanding job that she proves to be incredibly good at? Why must she give up the fabulous world of couture for a hair-shirt reporting position at a New York weekly? Who says she would be fated to end up as nasty and cut-throat as Streep’s Miranda if she’d stayed?
Meanwhile, her chef beau played by a vapid Adrian Grenier is allowed to make a guilt-free move to Boston to pursue his restaurant career, which presumably not only would include hellish bosses like Gordon Ramsey but also require personal sacrifices such as long hours on weekends and nights.
I fret about the state of romantic comedy not only because we need a good laugh during hard times. But I also believe that relationship comedies are ways for women, especially young ones, to vicariously work out what they desire and need in their own lives – much the way sports and war films seem to help define the nature of manhood for men. (Oh. Is that sexist? Maybe. Is it true? Likely.)
Look at Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Or those glorious Tracy and Hepburn showdowns. Or the works of Preston Sturges.
I might have initially scoffed at 1978’s An Unmarried Woman in my naïve youth. Who in their right mind would leave a man like Alan Bates, a gorgeous bohemian painter who will gladly cook you eggs in the morning in his romantic Soho loft? Yet images of that Paul Mazursky film continue to linger in my mind years later as well as those from the filmmaker’s Blume in Love. They were complicated, messy, sophisticated, unpredictably humorous portraits of people trying to understand their place in the universe instead of simply wondering whether a guy will call or a girl wants to have sex.
At least December holds the potentially potent trio of Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin in an “Untitled Nancy Meyers Project.” It could turn out to be just another Meyers gloss fest. Then again, giving credit where credit is due, Meyers’ 2003 Something’s Gotta Give lead the way for last summer’s successful older gal romances in Sex and the City and Mamma Mia!.
For now, though, Hollywood seems all too determined to continue to send their stupid cupids our way for Valentine’s Day.