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Criticwire Survey: UnRomantic Comedies

Criticwire Survey: UnRomantic Comedies

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: What’s the most un-romantic romantic comedy you know? Not just one that doesn’t work, but one where you’re actively rooting for the couple not to get together, or despise both of them.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

I once had to review “Made of Honor,” and let me tell you: everything about that movie made me want to insert a fork carefully and deliberately into my eye. Michelle Monaghan was just fine, and her character was rather sweet. But I have never been less attracted to any ostensibly attractive man than Patrick Dempsey’s idiot manchild. I get very unhappy when I think about it — still.

Keith Phipps, The Dissolve

I always thought the ending of “Pretty in Pink” was kind of a bummer. It felt like much of the movie was building to Andie and Duckie getting together. It just made sense, where the last-minute change of heart didn’t. It was only years later that I learned this was the original ending — it even made it into the novelization — but it got changed after test audiences balked. There might have been other reasons, too, apparently. Years ago I interviewed the late indie director Sarah Jacobson and she noted that the Andie/Duckie ending might have also sent the message that working class kids need to know their limits and stick with their own kind. I get that. But Andie and Duckie make a better couple.

Piers Marchant, Philadelphia Magazine, Pop Matters

Some of these questions force me to contemplate for long minutes the honest answer; this one, about a nanosecond. For it was the horror that was “Wedding Crashers” that caused me to identify what I find to be one of the single most annoying traits in any given film: When we, as an audience, are asked to root for a character who is clearly a total asshole simply by making everyone else in the film inexplicably adoring of them. To wit, John Beckwith (played with woozy smugness by Owen Wilson). In the course of the film, he lies about himself in order to gain access to weddings and quick bed-downs with bridesmaids, dangerously uses eye-drops to poison a potential rival when he thinks he’s in love, falls out with his best friend (and refuses to go to his wedding) because his friend managed to keep a loving relationship going while his fell apart, crashes more weddings alone as a dark and twisted sociopath, and finally crashes his rival’s wedding in order to woo back the woman he lost because of his shady, underhanded dealings with her in the first place. Rather than feel a warm glow of triumph at the end, I felt flush with rage and desperately wanted to punch dude in the face. Yet, the film positions all the other characters to be enthusiastically on John’s side, shamelessly slanting itself both for him and against his rival, despite the former’s complete lack of ethical code and contemptible selfishness. It’s every bit as vile and disingenuous as its two male protagonists are in the beginning of the thing.

Farran Smith Nehme, Self-Styled Siren, New York Post

Cary Grant was the greatest screen actor of all time, and Deborah Kerr was no slouch. So watching Sidney Sheldon’s “Dream Wife,” from 1953, is like finding out your Cristal has cork taint. Grant plays a businessman who dumps Kerr’s busy diplomat for a Middle Eastern princess (the gorgeous Betta St. John) who has been raised to devote her entire being to pleasing a man. The movie’s certainly not hopeless; there are some chuckles despite the eye-rolling plot and St. John’s dialogue, which is like outtakes from “Anna and the King of Siam.” Kerr seems to be having a reasonably good time. The big problem is that Grant looks like he hates the Middle East, he hates the State Department, he hates oil, he hates his suits and his lines and most of all he hates women. (He took a two-year sabbatical from acting after wrapping this one.) He’s so glum that I wanted him to go into the wilderness of the fictional Bukistan and find inner harmony, like Ronald Colman in “Lost Horizon.” Grant’s character spends most of his time squabbling with Kerr, and I assume their marriage would go the same way. Four years later Grant and Kerr made “An Affair to Remember,” so there’s your real happy ending.

Richard Brody, the New Yorker

People often set up two people they’re very fond of on a blind date but, despite the hinge of friendship or affinity, it just doesn’t click. That’s the more interesting kind of failed cinematic chemistry — not the inability of inert substances to react but the failure of volatile agents to connect in interesting ways. Rock Hudson is a hero for inspiring Douglas Sirk (starting with “Has Anybody Seen My Gal,” his slyly secularized version of “Heaven Can Wait”) and a host of other masters, including Raoul Walsh, Robert Aldrich, and Howard Hawks; Doris Day created two of my favorite performances, in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The Pajama Game”; but spare me the Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedies. Both actors remain on their own islands of performance; Day tries too hard, and Hudson strains for perkiness, and they run their lines and hit their marks like pros without every seeming to be in the same room or even on the same party line. Unless they were just miserably directed; imagine if Vincente Minnelli, with his sense of vulnerability and looming chaos, had gotten hold of their movies; or even Billy Wilder, with his worldly, high-relief cynicism — if they couldn’t make a match, they could at least have made something more of the mismatch than just raw material for the pastiche that’s better than the originals: “Down with Love.”

Alan Zilberman, Brightest Young Things and Tiny Mix Tapes

The most un-romantic is Billy Wilder’s “Love in the Afternoon.” Audrey Hepburn was 28 when she made the film, and her costar Garry Cooper was double that. They’re too far apart in age, and never develop any real chemistry. A close second is Ben Stiller’s “Reality Bites” because Ethan Hawke’s character is supposed to be this Gen X soothsayer, when he actually is a condescending pseudo-intellectual asshole.

Josh Spiegel, Sound on Sight

I’ll go with “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” which is not only an incredibly obnoxious so-called romantic comedy, but has one of the least romantic set-ups in recent memory. “I bet I can find a man, make him fall for me, and push him away in 10 days by doing all the things men hate!” “Well, I bet I can find a woman, make her fall for me, and then dump her in 10 days!” “You scoundrel! Let’s fall in love with each other for real, after doing this whole 10-day scenario! What a story it’ll be to tell all of our surprisingly tolerant friends and family years from now!” This piece of garbage is one of the many reasons why Matthew McConaughey’s comeback in the last two years has been so impressive; “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” might’ve been financially successful, but it’s so hollow, cynical, and unromantic that he had to do a lot of goodwill to shake this off.

Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting

As much as I love Wilder, I’ve always had trouble getting behind Bogey and Hepburn as a couple in “Sabrina.” It’s easy to say that Bogey’s just too stuffy, cold and crusty — he was 55 to his co-star’s 25 — but more problematic is the fact that not even Hepburn’s stylishness and natural exuberance are quite enough to make “Sabrina” a truly compelling character.

Lili Loofbourow, Dear Television, Los Angeles Review of Books

I’d have to go with “The Philadelphia Story,” the ending of which is one of the great instances of cinematic self-sabotage. It’s a perfect film but for its ending: witty, sharp, hilarious, profound. The insane chemistry between all the actors (including Stewart and Grant!), the drunkenness, depth, poignancy, analysis — they all take a sharp fatal turn toward a resolution that reins in the film’s farcical undiscipline and substitutes a bleakly repressive ending. We want them together until that point, I think. They’re marvelous, each in their own way. But the scene that officially reconciles C.K. Dexter Haven and Tracy Lord does so by negating their most appealing qualities: her patrician sarcasm, his affable mockery, and the fiery contest of wills evident in the famous opening scene when she throws him out, breaks his golf club, and he pushes her face. The couple we’ve grown to love is messy, chaotic, intelligent, equal. The end pronounces this a problem: it casts Tracy’s most appealing characteristics as flaws, authorizes Dexter’s reading of her as frigid and judgmental, and tames her, Shrew-like. The effect of that final scene is more than unromantic comedy; it’s something like “romantic horror.” That’s not to say anything against Grant and Hepburn, whose tender chemistry scorches the screen. Quite the contrary: they’re both such charming, independent oddballs that their chemistry goes flat when it’s disciplined into its final, hyper-traditional context. Squaring Hepburn and Grant’s nettlesome relationship into husbandly authority and wifely submission obviously satisfied audiences when it premiered, but the horror of watching Tracy obediently parrot everything Dexter says stems as much from its dramatic illogic as its antiquated views on gender. It’s a misstep. The domineering gent and the dreamy milksop who wed aren’t the people we’ve come to know and waited to see together; their “romantic” incarnations repress much of what seemed to bind them. Crafting believable change is the problem that plagues comedies of remarriage, of course — how do you generate an arc when your endpoint is technically a return? — but “The Philadelphia Story” is ultimately an imperfect and deeply “unromantic” comedy of remarriage even considering the norms of its time. (Just compare it to “His Girl Friday.”) 

It’s a failure that, interestingly enough, has plagued the film’s descendants: “Gilmore Girls” borrowed heavily from “The Philadelphia Story” and accidentally reproduced its flawed conclusion. I say “accidentally” because there’s an attempt at revising the flawed ending there: [SPOILER ALERT] Christopher was Lorelei’s C.K. Dexter Haven, and Lorelei’s “remarriage” to Christopher in the model of Tracy Lord fails. Unfortunately, by the time Luke and Lorelei reunite, he’s become a C.K. Dexter Haven too: the terms of the reunion are so bleak that fans’ hopes for them soured.

Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter, Tribune

I’m generally an inveterate Preston Sturges-ite, and lap up anything involving Barbara Stanwyck. But “The Lady Eve” — yes, I know it’s routinely ranked among the great romantic comedies — gets on my nerves, and I just don’t buy any of it. A major problem: Henry Fonda, loaned to the project by Darryl Zanuck and stepping into a role originally intended for Fred MacMurray or Joel McCrea, always looks like he’s fulfilling some kind of grim contractual obligation. The only time I let loose a guffaw is during the scene when the duo go horse-riding and stop to admire a sunset. As they exchange soppy romantic patter, one of the horses keeps poking his head through between theirs, over and over. That’s my kinda nag.

Carrie Rickey, the Philadelphia Inquirer

Much as I love Joseph Bologna and Michael Caine, Imma have to say “Blame it on Rio.” The father of a teenage girl having an affair with his best friend’s daughter? And the best friend guilty of something almost as reprehensible? That’s not yuk-yuk, it’s yucky.

Glenn KennyRogerEbert.com, Some Came Running

“The Mother and The Whore”?

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second 

The route to a happy ending of “Groundhog Day” is one that has always seemed a little bit off. While the romantic element of that film makes for a neat analogy for the protagonist’s own journey of self-discovery, his ritual pursuance of a woman who’s not interested, learning what she likes and manipulating that in order to get her in the sack, takes on a darker turn when one overthinks the premise.

Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound, Fandor

“The Invention of Lying,” in which a man imposes his perfect-woman projections onto a boring, rude, ignorant snob — and wins her over!

Peter Howell, Toronto Star:

I’ve gotta go with “People Like Us,” the disastrous attempt by former screenwriting accomplices Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to make a movie that doesn’t involve giant robots or spaceships. It manages to combine both creepy incestuous vibes with dead-fish chemistry by giving Chris Pine two women to trifle with: a half-sister (Elizabeth Banks) who doesn’t know they’re related and who really likes him; and his supposed real girlfriend (Olivia Wilde), who looks at all times as if she’d sooner date Godzilla than be stuck with Pine. I’m not even sure this qualifies as a romantic comedy, but that’s the least of this film’s confusions.

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

I just saw “5 to 7” at the Tribeca Film Festival, and I found it to be one of the worst romantic comedies I’ve ever seen. Devoid of laughs and attraction. Just because characters are seen under the sheets in a fancy hotel does not mean they have chemistry. But the filmmakers seem to think that qualifies. This is more of a fantasy (because it’s unbelievable, and unbelievably bad) than a romantic comedy. Anton Yelchin plays a would-be writer who finds himself attracted to an older, wealthy, and connected French beauty, who practically worships him for reasons unclear to viewers. Perhaps the genre is mystery, not romantic comedy? I couldn’t find anything redeemable about these characters, or care if they got together. 

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I considered cheating and saying “all of them,” because I think the vast majority of rom-coms are shallow and thoroughly ignorant of what love really is. But upon giving it more consideration, I realized my answer is “The Hottie and the Nottie.” In this vile piece of cinematic sludge, a doofus (played by Joel David Moore) pines for the girl of his dreams, who is portrayed by none other than the incessantly annoying Paris Hilton. She refuses to date anyone until she can find someone to love her best friend June. Now, June is a walking compendium of every physically unattractive trait you can imagine, including buck teeth and a unibrow. To make a long, deeply unpleasant story short, June ends up getting a lot of radical procedures done, after which she is revealed to be rather attractive. Then, and only then, does our idiot hero fall for her. “The Hottie and the Nottie” is loathsome because it purports to be about seeing the inner beauty in people, but the main character doesn’t flip for June until she looks good. This is perhaps the least romantic notion I’ve ever seen in a movie. Beyond that, “The Hottie and the Nottie” is just painfully unfunny. Plus, you know, it’s got Paris Hilton, so there’s no getting around that. 

Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com

It’s a quick response but I’m going with the first film that comes to mind, the horrendous “What Happens in Vegas,” the Cameron Diaz-Ashton Kutcher vehicle in which both protagonists were so reprehensible that it became impossible to root for their happiness. Then again, maybe that made them better for each other. Two awful people finding happiness = unromantic. There have been a number of rom-coms in which the lead ends up pining for someone who the screenwriter forgot to make interesting but this is the rarity where both leads were just awful people.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

My first thought was of “Modern Romance,” which is a fantastic romantic comedy where the characters aren’t really… well, that’s the theme of the movie so I guess it doesn’t count. My next attempt at a thought came up empty. The romantic comedies I’ve seen where the leads don’t seem right for each other, not in terms of theme but in terms of on-screen chemistry, have been wiped clean from my mind. I can only conjure up vague images of boring leading men and disinterested actresses, the blobs mutating between images of Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz and Ashton Diaz and Cameron Kutcher. After several minutes I awoke from this self-induced coma to face my greatest fear: resolving my feelings about “Scott Pilgrim vs the World.” Michael Cera, an actor I love, just does not pull off the love-struck, love-lorn, love-overdosed-impulsive quality I was looking for, my interpretation of Scott Pilgrim that was forged on the comic-book-manga-sized page. I agonized over multiple viewings of this film that I wanted to wrap my arms around and embrace whole-heartedly. But he just didn’t look right standing next to the other worldly beauty of Mary Elizabeth Winstead. But I love Edgar Wright. I love all the actors in the film. What’s keeping this movie at a distance from my heart of hearts? This week’s survey question forced me to find the answer and it’s this: I missed the point. Wright often talked in interviews about how the film can be seen as taking place in the dream life of the lead character. Young love is selfish. The first attempt at the real thing leaves you battered and confused, forced to admit that there are universes of experience you have yet to encounter. And the film refused to indulge me in my wish for yet another puppy dog love story that would give me that nostalgic lovelorn rush other lesser films have given me. Instead I got a rollicking action-musical comedy that rewards multiple-viewings and reconsideration. What exactly is wrong with me? Do I watch romantic comedies because I’m miserable? Or am I miserable because I watch romantic comedies?

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

I’ve been blessed with the ability to forget a lot of the truly execrable movies I’ve seen over the years, leaving more room to store the great experiences. But it’s hard to erase my few experiences with Eric Schaeffer, whose on-screen persona rendered those examples I’ve seen positively toxic. So there’s no way to want anything but an unhappy ending for Schaeffer in stuff like “If Lucy Fell” (which turns a suicide pact into a meet-cute) or “Wirey Spindell.” And now let us agree never to speak of him again.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

Richard Quine’s 1964 “Paris When It Sizzles” is a very enjoyable romantic comedy that becomes more and more absurd and unromantic with every postmodern-before-its-Hollywood-heyday turn. William Holden and Audrey Hepburn look good together and make an effort to keep their chemistry at bay. He plays a screenwriter with a deadline and an alcohol problem. She is a temp, who is hired for a weekend in Paris to type his earth-shattering script. There is no script, of course, and the two together invent variations of a love story, starring themselves as detectives or vampires or rich American tourists who grew up with giraffes. The cameos by Marlene Dietrich, who disappears from earth after walking into Christian Dior, or Noel Coward as badgering Riviera pool-side producer Alexander Meyerheim steal the show. Especially Tony Curtis in a double role as fake French method actor Maurice and Second Policeman is a wonderful distraction from the romantic notion that goes nowhere. Frank Sinatra’s voice keeps singing the same and only lyric — “The girl who stole the Eiffel Tower also stole my heart” — and Holden eloquently answers Hepburn’s question what the movie is really about: “It’s an action/suspense, uh, romantic melodrama with lots of comedy, of course. And, uh, deep down underneath, a substrata of social comment.”

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

The worst example of romantic comedy syndrome is something that, thankfully, seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history — “Saving Silverman” and the “Sex in the City” sequel being the most recent examples of this truly heinous phenomenon, wherein the film’s gay characters are paired off despite having nothing in common other than being gay. What’s worse is the near-palpable sense that the screenwriters/filmmakers most likely felt they were being incredibly progressive and forward-thinking in doing so. Interestingly, neither of those two films are a conventional romantic comedy, but both indulge in this regrettable narrative shortcut, and they are the examples that leap to mind. Also, the “Sex and the City” sequel is excruciatingly awful, while “Saving Silverman” is mostly just guilty of trafficking in some hackneyed tropes.

Joey Magidson, the Awards Circuit

For me, it was “This Means War” from a few years back. Not only are the trio of Tom Hardy, Chris Pine, and Reese Witherspoon deeply shallow one note dolts, but the guys play government operatives who waste what seems like billions of dollars of taxpayer money in order to screw with each other and woo Witherspoon. When the best part of a movie is an annoying Chelsea Handler, you know something is wrong.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “Under the Skin”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Only Lovers Left Alive”

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