In an interesting new piece in The Atlantic, Christopher Orr provides a surprisingly simple answer to a big question: “Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?” The rom-com is one of the staples of American cinema, but in recent years the genre’s become sort of a laughingstock — and not in the hilarious look-they-bumped-into-each-other-while-ice-skating kind of way. In fact, Orr quotes a long-time rom-com producer, Lynda Obst, who says “It is the hardest time of [her] 30 years in the business.”
You might say that the hard times were the direct result of bad movies. And if you’ve seen recent stinkers like “Playing For Keeps,” and “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” and “Valentine’s Day,” and “New Year’s Eve” and “World Juggling Day” then you know that’s not a totally baseless argument (all right, so I might have dreamt that last example up while mixing NyQuil and Johnnie Walker Red but just to be safe, nobody tell Garry Marshall there’s a World Juggling Day). It’s not like people have lost their taste for onscreen romance. As Orr notes, audiences still flock to melodramas like “The Vow,” and “The Notebook,” and “The Lucky One,” and “The Last Song,” and “The Juggler” — sorry, sorry, NyQwalker Red talking again, but just to be safe, nobody tell Nicholas Sparks about World Juggling Day either. So interest is still there, even if box office or high quality films aren’t.
Orr considers the theory that the caliber of stars making romantic comedies today are not on par with the caliber of star that used to make them — the gulf, he says, between Katherine Heigl and Katharine Hepburn — but he ultimately argues that our society has essentially progressed beyond the conditions that gave older romantic comedies their spark and made their plots so appealing:
“Among the most fundamental obligations of romantic comedy is that there must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome. And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by. They used to lie thick on the ground: parental disapproval, difference in social class, a promise made to another. But society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds. Love is increasingly presumed — perhaps in Hollywood most of all — to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status.”
This argument makes a lot of sense to me: with a shortage of relatable obstacles, romantic comedy creators have increasingly resorted to more desperate circumstances to keep their characters apart — like, say, the breakdown of the Times Square Ball hours before its annual drop in “New Year’s Eve.” If the latest wave of romantic comedies seem desperate, well, that’s because they are a little desperate — for these all-important plot obstacles.
But wait! Don’t go carving dates into the romantic comedy’s tombstone just yet: NPR‘s Linda Holmes has already penned an effective rebuttal to Orr’s piece entitled “Are Romantic Comedies Dead?” Holmes says Orr is overstating the moribund quality of modern rom-coms, and understating just how imperfect the so-called “classic” romantic comedies of yesteryear are:
“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.”
Holmes also argues that there are still plenty of obstacles standing in the way of romance in the year 2013 — from distance to the pull of careers and the responsibilities of children. Plus, she says, “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.”
So who is right here? Personally, I find elements of both arguments persuasive. The inherent silliness Holmes sees in old romantic comedies doesn’t negate the power of the obstacles Orr writes about — the way Grant, Hepburn, Tracy, and the rest turned heavy subjects into cathartic froth might have been precisely what audiences liked about their movies. The relative lack of modern obstacles doesn’t negate Holmes’ point that we tend to romanticize the past, either. We might have our rom-com schlock, but so did the 1930s and ’40s, and every decade since. Some high profile actors like George Clooney might avoid romantic comedy roles (although he did make “Intolerable Cruelty”), but we did just see an extraordinarily talented young actress win an Academy Award for her performance in what is ostensibly a very high-end rom-com (that would be Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook”).
Do I think a certain staleness has crept into the rom-com? Absolutely. But it’s not like the romantic comedy relied on the most wildly original plotlines in the best of times anyway. Filmmakers just might need to get a bit more creative as they look for those obstacles. One of the best rom-coms I’ve seen in recent years was 2009’s “I Love You Philip Morris” about two men who meet in jail and fall in love. The directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, found plenty of obstacles to wring out of that scenario.