In defence of the modern romcom

...or how we learned to stop worrying and love Meg Ryan movies.

11 December 2015

By Guy Lodge

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

“Title sounds suspiciously like a generic product – like Canned Peas or Toilet Tissue.” So states the Leonard Maltin Movie & Video Guide, erstwhile sofa-side Bible of the VHS era, of Romantic Comedy, a justly forgotten Dudley Moore-Mary Steenburgen match-up from 1983 with a self-effacingly meta title that was perhaps a couple of decades ahead of its time: in 2006, snarky spoof-movie merchants Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg chose Date Movie for their limp takedown of genre tropes, effectively lifting and twisting the Maltin guide’s joke. Arriving – with the tardy timing of all the thinnest satire – at the tail-end of its subject’s commercial zenith, the film was a generic product about what a generic product the Hollywood romantic comedy is.

Genre film is generic by definition, yet some take more heat than others for their characteristic conventions. The critical majority may have dismissed Seltzer and Friedberg’s mucky pastiche, but hardly did so in defence of the films under fire – the enduring popularity and cultural referencing of such multiplex smashes as Pretty Woman (1990) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), it would appear, is comfort enough.

For ‘romantic comedy’ came to mean something different in the 1990s from the champagne-fizz farces that gave the genre a good name in Hollywood’s Golden Age, or even from the bittersweet modern-romance model perfected by prime-era Woody Allen: a certain expectation set in of heightened, candied reality, neither swooningly romantic nor raucously comedic, founded more upon wholesome megastar personae than offscreen comic talent. Cineastes can identify and appreciate the auteur cachet of a Preston Sturges film; a Garry Marshall film, while not quite an anonymous concept, is harder to formally discern.

The Lady Eve (1941)

It all began when Harry met Sally…

Yet none of this is really true of the film that sparked the re-evaluation (or de-evaluation) of the term. Released in the summer of 1989, near the end of a decade whose Reaganite conservatism and aspirational capitalism hadn’t done terribly progressive things for mainstream screen romance – be it Out of Africa (1985) or Dirty Dancing (1987), the signature date movies of the 1980s were largely nostalgic visions – When Harry Met Sally… was a wellspring for revised sexual politics and stylistic form in the romantic comedy, but it wasn’t startlingly innovative in itself. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s bristly, evasive banter updated the passive-aggressive chemistry of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Director Rob Reiner was so unconcerned with hiding the material’s debt to Woody Allen that he scored it to Great American Songbook covers and dressed Ryan in outright Annie Hall costume in one scene. (Allen, after all, was coming off the solemn one-two of September in 1987 and Another Woman the year after: the gap had presented itself.) And that material – by Nora Ephron, a persuasive candidate for writer as auteur – channelled Allen not just with its upscale Manhattan setting, but its neurotic negotiation of liberated gender roles in the dating game. 

What Ephron’s script had that was unmistakeably its own, however, was a thesis. Every frame of When Harry Met Sally... works toward proving or disproving a theory flatly blurted out in its opening scenes: cynical graduate Harry’s statement that “men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way”. Over its 12-year time frame, the argument is buffeted this way and that as its would-be lovers evolve through various stages of attachment, detachment and repulsion, nearly derailed by the “sex part” along the way.

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

Harry and Sally don’t seem like fated soulmates so much as smart, decent, mutually interested people made compatible through maturity and a degree of compromise, right down to their eventual, eccentric choice of wedding cake. (Coconut with chocolate sauce on the side, as if you needed reminding.) Indeed, Ephron’s script originally ended with the two settling for a platonic relationship; that she and Reiner ultimately decided otherwise seems less a concession to the genre rulebook than a celebration of imperfect union.

Structural elegance and buoyant wit aside, When Harry Met Sally… was most remarkable for the unremarkability of the romance at its centre – it was the film’s truths, rather than its fictional contrivances, that people came to see and left discussing, paving the way for the editorial-style comedy of Bridget Jones’s Diary and TV’s Sex and the City (1998-2004).

It was an even-handed battle of the sexes, yet subtly, astutely feminist, handing its heroine equal agency – and, in that diner scene, superior sexual awareness – in determining a romantic outcome without idealising her as an irresistible hyper-kook. Audiences flocked, as they had only two years previously to the nearly-as-charming but less enterprising Moonstruck (1987), in which a swarthy, one-armed Nicolas Cage proves the cure for Cher’s sexless widowhood; meanwhile, Broadcast News (1987) and Working Girl (1988) modernised courtship only by placing it in a brittle corporate context. The shift heralded by When Harry Met Sally… might not have been generational (Ephron was 48 at the time, Reiner 42, and Generation X had four years to wait until Reality Bites, 1994), but it was clearly perceptional. Here was romance as hopeful reality rather than wishful ideal, muddled through by People You Know.

Queens of hearts

The very next year, Pretty Woman (1990) – initially positioned as a modest starring vehicle for a then fast-fading Richard Gere – consolidated the genre’s renewed financial viability, and announced 23-year-old Julia Roberts as an American sweetheart to rival Ryan, one of several actresses who had rejected the role of sassy, opportunistic-within-limits Los Angeles streetwalker Vivian Ward. 

Ideologically, however, it was poles apart from Ephron’s personality-based mating study. Reaching back to the old model of romance as starry-eyed fairytale (“Cinder-fuckin’-rella,” as Vivian’s gum-snapping roommate Kit helpfully points out), J.F. Lawton’s script also took a heavy dose of Pygmalion: as Gere’s satin-sheen corporate raider grooms Roberts’s hired escort into preppily appropriate arm candy, the pair’s opposing temperaments are gradually unified not by mutual understanding, but mutual status enhancement.

Pretty Woman (1990)

Prostitution, as many a feminist critic pointed out, has never seemed quite such a fast track to bliss. Or at least to marriage: the film offers barely a hint of what Vivian plans to do with her life after being saved from the sidewalk by her Lotus-driving prince, presumably because she needn’t do anything at all. Not all liberation is liberal.

Nakedly sexist in conception but performed with such incandescent gusto by Roberts (against a willingly capitulating Gere) that it came to seem more of a women’s film than it really was, Pretty Woman nearly doubled the already remarkable US gross of When Harry Met Sally…, and landed its breakout star the Oscar nomination that had eluded Ryan the year before.

If the takeaway from its superior success was that audiences liked love stories, but liked fantasy even more, Ephron herself took the memo. Her return to the genre, this time as a writer-director, reunited her with Ryan – this time taking a role Roberts had passed on – but not their previous collaboration’s pithy perspective. Co-written with two men and directly namechecking the Old Hollywood fatalism of Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember (1957), Sleepless in Seattle (1993) kept its lovers apart until their final-reel Empire State meet-cute, relying less on characterisation than on standard genre etiquette and the equal amiability of Ryan and Tom Hanks to convince viewers that their long-distance love was meant to be. (You might say the stars, in both senses of the word, were aligned.)

Whatever its compromises, the results were clever (and popular) enough to secure Ephron’s position as one of the industry’s leading comedy merchants, though she used the promotion less to push the envelope than to repay her debts to her forerunners. You’ve Got Mail (1998), once more pairing Ryan with Hanks, doffed its hat to Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop around the Corner (1940), rejigging its courtship-by-correspondence for the email age – the infinite intangible of the online universe adding a further layer of beyond-human-control mysticism to the course of true love. It’d be unfair to say this bright, palatable film lacks a point of view, but in nine years, its creator’s romantic sensibility had shifted in a way that perhaps merits more auteurist scrutiny than her oeuvre has thus far been afforded.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Ephron wasn’t the only filmmaker looking over her shoulder to sustain romance in the internet age, though other filmmakers were doing so with considerably more irony – not least within the teen-movie subgenre, where a mini-movement of youthful updates of classic texts cleverly identified age-old courtship rituals in contemporary high school corridors. Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) ingeniously relocated Jane Austen’s Emma to the sniping social battlefield of Beverly Hills mall culture, yet still ended with its spoiled, snarky heroine succumbing to the improving influence of true love.

Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate about You (1999) riffed with gender-sensitive intelligence on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, tempering the misogyny of the source by giving its haughty adolescent Kat (Julia Stiles) more psychologically nuanced reasons for her romantic reticence. The same year, Robert Iscove’s She’s All That (already being primed for Hollywood remake treatment) was less sophisticated in its reimagination of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, though it too levels the sexual playing field before allowing love to conquer all. 

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

If, in an age of pre-millennial panic, such fuzzy tales of predestined coupledom sounded a note of commercial and social caution, other romantic comedies sought to upset the status quo – with varying results. The sentimental success of You’ve Got Mail perhaps came as a relief to Meg Ryan, who had taken critical and popular flak the previous year for Griffin Dunne’s sour, profoundly strange Addicted to Love, in which she and Matthew Broderick play the jilted exes of a newly loved-up couple, conspiring to split them apart through surveillance, subterfuge and perfume-bombing.

Conceived as a darker change of pace for Ryan – still meant to be winsome beneath the heavier-than-usual kohl and spikier-than-usual hair – it turned out creepier than intended. More interesting, too, if viewed as a tale of two sociopaths gradually finding love in a hopeless place, though it’s hardly surprising that American audiences bought it only to the relatively paltry tune of $34 million. As was made even more hostilely clear with In the Cut six years later, some romantic comedy queens had more leeway to test audience sympathies than others.

Wedding movies

In the same year as Addicted to Love, Ryan’s old casting-sheet rival Julia Roberts had a career-rejuvenating hit with My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) – another tale of elaborately attempted romantic sabotage, this one with an altogether more grown-up outcome. The richest, most riotous and most unexpectedly humane romantic comedy of its crowded decade, My Best Friend’s Wedding was only Roberts’s second foray into the genre after Pretty Woman (third, if you count her ensemble appearance in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, 1996), so perhaps her image was more pliable at that point. Still, the character of Julianne Potter was an unusually unlikeable one around which to build a studio comedy: a high-maintenance restaurant critic – not the sort of inexact everywoman profession usually granted romantic comedy heroines, though a step up from prostitution – aggrieved when her college friend announces impending nuptials to another woman.

As Julianne systematically uses her maid-of-honour status to plant doubt in both partners’ minds, the film might have stacked the deck for Julianne by making her love rival a nightmare. But it’s smarter than that: as ingenuously played by Cameron Diaz, here making her introductory bid for American sweetheart status, Kimmy isn’t presented as a foil so much as a viable alternative.

The beauty of Ronald Bass’s script (a twist worthy of prime Nora Ephron) lies in showing how the right person for a character isn’t always the right person for the audience, how the sparkiest player needn’t always win. In his previous film, Muriel’s Wedding (1994), Australian director P.J. Hogan revised the rules of the wedding comedy, ending as a celebration not of heterosexual partnership but of female independence and solidarity; My Best Friend’s Wedding pulls off a similar trick, leaving its ostensible romantic heroine contentedly single, twirling across the dancefloor with her gay pal George – one (or two) in the eye for any detractors claiming Hollywood romance stands only for vanilla heterosexual coupledom.

It made a more subversive statement than the otherwise cheerfully ribald Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Britain’s chief contribution to the romantic comedy revival and the film that opened the floodgates on a still-trickling flow of wedding-themed romps. As simply and ingeniously structured as the title suggests, Richard Curtis’s script mines most of its comedy from the perceived awfulness of the whole marital ritual – only to do a cosy-about face and admit that it’s all rather lovely once you’ve found The One.

In affable fop Hugh Grant, the film launched not only a star, but the genre’s first male brand name of the decade. Naturally, when Curtis paired him with Julia Roberts for the cutesier Anglo-American romance Notting Hill (1999), their toothsome cross-branding proved globally lucrative. US audiences, however, marginally favoured Runaway Bride (1999), another wed-com that marked Roberts’s tepid reunion with Richard Gere. Its sexual politics may look iffier with each passing year, but Pretty Woman remains the populist gold standard.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four Weddings marked a populist peak for the more aloof charms of former model Andie MacDowell, routinely cast less a girl next door than as a sleek, aspirational prize for slightly shambolic leading men: Grant, of course, but also Bill Murray, in 1993’s Groundhog Day, the era’s highest-concept romantic comedy, and Gérard Depardieu in 1990’s Green Card.

Gwyneth Paltrow briefly took a similar mantle, but audiences would always prefer their romantic comedy ingénues a little more, well, ingenuous: with a klutzy, self-deprecating screen persona that appealingly complemented her coltish beauty, Sandra Bullock joined the Roberts-Ryan plane with 1995’s inspired While You Were Sleeping, a sleeper hit with a mistaken-identity narrative that added a spritz of 1940s farce to the 90s fondant formula.

More than her rivals, perhaps, Bullock has experimented with pushing her goofiness into the realm of mania: audiences didn’t warm to 1999’s underrated screwball road movie Forces of Nature, in which her free-spirit antics don’t get her the guy, or the nutso girl-chases-boy curio All about Steve (2009) a decade letter.

The young pretenders

Projecting more contained haplessness behind that perfect curtain of hair, Jennifer Aniston reached for the same crown, though never found a film vehicle as star- or era-defining as her 10-year on-again-off-again partnership with David Schwimmer on Friends (1994-2004). Still, The Object of My Affection (1998), in which her character pines for her gay best friend, subverts the genre’s coupling norms more sweetly than My Best Friend’s Wedding.

Drew Barrymore, the former child star and reformed Hollywood bad girl whose lengthily storied career narrative has given her a generation-straddling appeal, drew both teen and adult audiences to the likes of The Wedding Singer (1998) and Never Been Kissed (1999).

The Wedding Singer (1998)

By pairing her with schlubby comic Adam Sandler, moreover, casting directors hit upon the most enduring onscreen romantic partnership of the modern era, even if subsequent collaborations 50 First Dates (2004) and Blended (2014) milked their combined charm to diminishing returns. Together, they’re hardly Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but theirs is a dynamic built on recurring relatability. That’s not a quality statuesque beauty and Latin pop diva Jennifer Lopez could claim in spades; romantic comedy roles in The Wedding Planner (2001) and Maid in Manhattan (2003), however, allowed her to cultivate a cheery everywoman persona far more endearingly than her brittle assertions of modesty in such hit songs as ‘I’m Real’ and ‘Jenny from the Block’. No natural comedienne, Lopez can nonetheless be viewed as an unlikely heir to Hepburn in her canny utilisation of the genre to soften a toughened public persona.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)

As the genre eased past Y2K, meanwhile, there was no shortage of bright-eyed young actresses on hand to keep it afloat, from Jennifer Garner to Kate Hudson to Renée Zellweger, whose plummily-accented, Richard Curtis-scripted and finally Oscar-nominated Bridget Jones’s Diary gave the romantic comedy its first pop-culture ambassador of the new century.

Might Bridget Jones have been the last? The genre’s rate of production might not have slowed in the last 15 years, but it appears to have relaxed its hold on the popular imagination. Notwithstanding Nia Vardalos’s independent 2002 smash My Big Fat Greek Wedding – a culture-clash first, and romantic one second – you have to go back to Sandra Bullock’s 2009 vehicle The Proposal to find a star-driven, 90s-model romantic comedy that cracked $150 million Stateside, and even that hit has scarcely left a cultural imprint.

Meanwhile, multi-stranded mosaic films like Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003), Ken Kwapis’s He’s Just Not That into You (2009) and Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day (2010) cynically attempted to compress and multiply the formula to maximise their audience reach while reducing romance to short-form sloganeering: why bank on just one star couple’s chemistry, after all?

The Proposal (2009)

Modern love

Much has been written in recent years about the growing neglect of the adult female audience in Hollywood production, as male-driven superhero tentpoles and family-targeted animation dominate the release schedules: perhaps not coincidentally, there’s been a degree of testosterone colonisation in a genre previously handed the dismissive ‘chick flick’ label. The biggest romantic comedy hits of the new century? 2005’s Hitch and 2000’s winkingly titled What Women Want – starring vehicles for Will Smith and Mel Gibson, respectively. 

Bridesmaids (2011)

The rise of the man-child comedy, spearheaded by the likes of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007) and Seth Macfarlane’s Ted (2012) has prompted the new century’s richest seam of critical discussion and commercial imitation within the genre’s broadest remit. The Apatow-produced Bridesmaids (2011), meanwhile, granted a bawdy female perspective to this genre offshoot, to encouragingly lucrative effect; despite its wedding-comedy foundations and endearing odd-couple match-up of Kristen Wiig and Chris O’Dowd, however, female friendship is the film’s primary narrative concern. Apatow is also a producer on the HBO phenomenon Girls, one of several recent television series – including Catastrophe, The Mindy Project and Jane the Virgin – that point to expanded, more female-driven opportunities for the romantic comedy on the small screen.

It’s with the help of a television-reared female collaborator, then, that Apatow’s Trainwreck (2015) promised to feminise the very subgenre on which the director had made his name. Written by its star Amy Schumer, a comedienne whose brand has been built on defiance of the pop-culture patriarchy, it’s a woman-child comedy of sorts. Schumer plays a bawdy, happily single lads’ magazine writer – “one of the boys” in the most literal sense – with a penchant for casual sex; a contemporary female equivalent, then, of the playboy bachelors set up for taming in Hollywood romantic comedies dating back from the Golden Age. (Think Rock Hudson or Cary Grant, or Ewan McGregor’s character pastiche in 2003’s Down with Love.)

If the archetype’s sex has been updated, the outcome hasn’t: somewhat disappointingly, Trainwreck still corners its fancy-free heroine into a redemptively monogamous ideal of true love. Conventional coupledom may still carry the day, though writers are finding more politically progressive routes to get there. In Gillian Robespierre’s scrappy independent Obvious Child (2014), for example, the termination of an accidental pregnancy is the catalyst that turns a casual fling between two very schlubby New Yorkers into something more intimate by the final, cuddly fade-out.

Certainly, an onscreen visit to the abortion clinic would never have been on the cards for any of the heyday’s romcom queens – who, in the face of the genre’s shifting parameters, have largely branched out or tailed off. Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Renée Zellweger and Reese Witherspoon all won Oscars in the 2000s – for varying degrees of against-type dramatic work, highlighting intellectual resistance to romantic comedy fare even within industry ranks.

The genre may have a younger heir to the throne in Jennifer Lawrence, born five months after Pretty Woman hit American screens, and who defied the aforementioned bias to win for playing a zany romantic target in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook in 2012. It’s a smart, snappy, itchily funny turn, referencing the fireball energy of Barbara Stanwyck and Carole Lombard. One suspects Nora Ephron, who died the same year, could have had a blast working with her. But even that role is far from Lawrence’s commercial signature: that’d be Katniss Everdeen, self-sufficient, emphatically unfunny action heroine of the The Hunger Games films, one of the multitude of solemn young-adult fantasy series that are engaging the next generation of female viewers far more than any tales of lovelorn real-world wallflowers.

That’s no bad thing, but the challenge for the romantic comedy going forward is not only to update its feminist agenda, but to re-establish its commercial viability in a franchise-fixated industry where one happy ending – and one generic product – isn’t enough.

The BFI’s LOVE season took place over autumn 2015.

This article is taken from Love: A BFI Compendium. Edited by James Bell.

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