It’s been agitating me, this essay by David Denby about why modern romantic comedies are so depressing. Part of the reason is that he’s right: Movies like Knocked Up, even those made by smart, sensitive guys like Judd Apatow (whose Freaks and Geeks may be the best television I’ve ever seen), are no His Girl Friday, and the stoned, sarcastic, slovenly “back-of-the-classroom guys” (clinging tightly to their “hopeless pals”) who must sorta fight for the hearts of ambitious, beautiful, straightlaced ladies (“Apart from getting on with it…she doesn’t have an idea in her head, and she’s not the one who makes the jokes”) are no Tracy and Hepburn.
Of course, nothing is; no one can be. But it’s a different galaxy we’ve drifted to, and while Denby is noble to bring up the subject and correct on many points, he seems to have missed some key ones, as well as the generational sensibilities behind them. I admire and echo his yearning for the witty, sly, majestically amorous effort of the “heroic” and “soulful” guys, and the “daffy or tough or high-spirited or even spiritual” gals—as he notes, true equals—he tracks through decades of great movies. Nevertheless, and it’s probably a credit to him, he doesn’t seem to have faced what’s happened to dating, even though he notes, properly bemused, that he’s seen Knocked Up “with audiences in their twenties and thirties, and the excitement in the theatres is palpable—the audience is with the movie all the way, and, afterward, many of the young men (though not always the young women) say that it’s not only funny but true. They feel that way, I think, because the picture is unruly and surprising; it’s filled with the messes and rages of life in 2007.”
I wished Nancy Franklin had written this piece, or Molly Haskell. Or maybe even someone in the demographic at which the current Boring Beauty and the Bonehead Slacker movies are aimed, whose ideas about sex and love were informed in great part by John Hughes, David Lynch, Kevin Smith, Cameron Crowe, Nicole Holofcener, Amy Heckerling, Todd Solondz, Woody Allen (the movies and the man), Martha Coolidge, Nora Ephron, Steven Soderbergh, and Quentin Tarantino—now there’s a ripe and unstable blend.
Throw in comics, MTV, Sex and the City, reality shows, Neil Strauss, Seinfeld, porn, online dating, and social networking sites, and you’ve got part of a picture of how fucking romantic (to quote Stephin Merritt) the world seems to be. I’m not saying no one ever had a sleazy thought before or failed to come through for their sweetheart. What I’m saying is that just as screwball comedies were shiny fairy tales for the eras of disappointing early marriages, stock-market crashes, and limited opportunity for personal expression, There’s Something About Mary is a shiny fairy tale for ours. At the same time, I might respectfully propose that the sight of the baby’s head crowning in Knocked Up, which made the audience I saw it with give a startled, impressed, grossed-out, longing gasp, might have been a kind of champagne toast in itself, a bold move for a date movie, and the movie’s truest moment. I’ve been writing a response in my head for a few days, but instead, here’s an email conversation a (female) film-minded friend, whom I’ll call P, and I had recently, slightly edited for this family newspaper.
P: Man, did that Denby piece on “what’s wrong with romantic comedies today” get me steamed, and not because I find his conclusions about the “today” part completely wrong-headed. What’s wrong-headed was that it was suffused with a kind of nostalgia for the way we never were. No one loves a screwball more than I do, and I’ve been thinking and raving and sobbing a little about Manhattan, or maybe myself, ever since [her guy] and I saw the new print at Film Forum last weekend—can you believe I used to find that the height of cynicism? through my adult skin they seem to be pinching each other gently on the arm, compared to the kind of blows to the head people are actually capable of in real romantic life—but though the women used to get better clothes and better lines and have less demanding standards of physical fitness they have always had to work harder, be smarter, and generally outwit, outlast, and just plain endure in order to triumph in rom-com.
Just because the men have gotten less attractive, less ambitious, dumber, fatter, and generally gone to pot in every department except, perhaps, the humor one, depending on your feelings about farts, beeramids and Vince Vaughn, doesn’t mean the women have really changed. If they feel more uptight to Denby, I think it’s because he’s now a middle-aged man who identifies more with the concerns of the women—home, family, making a living, planning a future, etc.—than with the adolescent boys of comedy, and he’s unsettled by the feminine, i.e. adult, subject position.
But really, were Henry Fonda and his snakes such a great bet? What guarantee did Irene Dunne have that Cary Grant wasn’t going to be the same lousy husband she just divorced? None. They had faith, which is the intangible that all romance relies on. He’s right to point out that faith reached a kind of nadir in those Woody Allen-Diane Keaton pairings, but wrong to think it’s not in this new crop of romantic comedies. In fact, what bugs me is that I feel like these women often have too much faith, but in that they are completely in line with what is inherently a conservative position, which gives men all the time and space in the world for self-improvement but posits that a woman, to be worthwhile, must be pretty much perfect from the jump (or at least the sitcom ideal of impossibly good-looking, accomplished, polished female with ugly schlub: see Raymond etc.).
Me: This is what my post is going to say: David, I love you for thinking there’s a world of charming innocence for these filmmakers to draw on if they have any brains, heart, and courage, and I’m sorry to be the bearer of such bad news, which is that for the majority of the people seeing these movies, the reality is far worse. Spend a few hours reading Craigslist Casual Encounters, Nerve Personals, the multiple choices on social networking sites (what’s the difference between “random play” and “whatever I can get,” by the way?), Maxim, Gawker, ad nauseam, and suddenly Knocked Up is going to look real, real romantic to you.
P: He totally leaves out the Nora Ephron romantic comedies, interesting to consider as counterpoint: are they not in the tradition because she’s a woman? It’s like he just skips the 90’s, when I think these movies with their boys and gross-out stuff are very much a reaction against the endless tension and talk and gentility (read: stereotypically feminine tone) of those. Also, if a woman had made Knocked Up, it would have been called Abort It, and it would have been a very short film.
Me: Ha! So true. Especially with Seth Rogen, who is no one’s idea of a catch. I laughed often during Knocked Up, but that’s a premise I couldn’t get over no matter how hard I tried. And Denby’s right about this kind of female character—whatshername has almost no snappy dialogue, and no self-respecting screwball heroine would ever have taken the part.
I was surprised Denby skipped the seminal Say Anything. Also, re: Apatow, Freaks and Geeks had wonderful, funny, clever, complicated female characters (young and old), so what the hell?
P: Really, all the movies by Cameron Crowe, who seems to be a bit of a cool older brother to Apatow, have that same romantic idea Denby sees as the zeitgeist now: Almost Famous (in which the perfect girl is also—oh no!—a groupie, but the hero is still a teenage boy, albeit one with ambition), Singles (variations on the theme—women want boyfriends/commitment, men want, well, look at the title), Say Anything (Cusack as prototype for slacker guy with speech about not buying, selling, etc.), even the Stacy-Rat story in Fast Times. Again, all the women are gorgeous, go-getters, lusting or falling for or Xing blah guys who happen to cross their paths—it’s like a friggin Greek myth.
Me: Then there’s the chick-flick tradition of the guy being absurdly goopy and refined—Bed of Roses, that movie with Amanda Peet/Ashton K., etc.—the guy’s a landscape gardener who knows sign language, performs heart surgery, and rescues kittens for his brother’s kid, to whom he is adorably close. Hilarious fantasy, but I don’t think anyone over 20 needs to be condescended to this way, and it’s not doing little girls any favors. As we know, though, trouble is men and women don’t usually see each other’s movies. Knocked Up is, I guess, a crossover.
P: I used to drag guys to the worst romantic dreck I could find on early dates to see how sporting they were—I figured if I’ll go see really awful action movies etc., they should be able to sit through Something New (landscaper and uptight accountant interracial romance) and find some comedy or redeeming value in it. It’s a decent character test. Yes, KU is a crossover, as are the other Apatow movies, and Crowe’s. Most of the time it’s very hard to get men to romantic movies unless there are explosions or it’s so-called art. Easier if there is poop, of course. Or a lot of nudity.
Some of the ones Denby wrote about did okay I think—The Break-Up, etc. Did you hear Anne Hathaway turned down KU because of the birth scene?
Me: No way! That girl in KU was cute. Way, way too cute for loser SR. (I’m afraid I never liked him that much on F&G, either, though I’m not saying there isn’t a role for him somewhere. Maybe as he ages, he could be more like John C. Reilly and less like Bozo the Jerk. While I’m on the subject, how outrageous was it of The Holiday to pair Kate Winslet with Jack Black? As Anthony Lane would say, break me a fucking give.)
P: Been chewing over your musing on how a blast of web courtship (to be genteel) would knot DD’s undies, and it makes me think that besides faith, the other ingredient in romantic comedy via movies, i.e. through a lens smeared with Vaseline, is a healthy dose of truth-fudging.
The thing about online dating, of course, is not that people are brutally honest all the time, but that the reasons to lie are really just in the eye of the beholder. Thus many people—esp. when they’re just looking for a hookup—are pretty specific about exactly what it is they want, which is the opposite of romance, right? Romance is what porn isn’t, it’s all about what you don’t see (or you can’t tell what it is up close, then the magic disappears), it’s vague, inexplicit, full of promise, illusory, poetic.
On the web, in ads, people are generally at their most prosaic, basic, needy. No one looks good when they’re looking for love. You can do a certain amount of imagining what people might be like on the web, but therein danger lies. In the movies, however, and in life, to some extent, you have to imagine, project, hope, dream. Just because the goods are low-quality it doesn’t mean the projection process does not happen. It just means in movies, as in life—maybe?—women are settling here and there (oh no! paging Maureen Dowd!). Maybe having it all can mean being happy with a little less—or that’s what H’wood, and male directors, are trying to sell us.
Hello! I’m Emily Gordon, a content strategist, critic, and copywriter. Emdashes, born in 2004, spent its formative years as a New Yorker fan blog. (The project garnered some nice compliments and press.) It’s now a collection of conversations—generally civilized—about punctuation, magazines, movies, design, and other things that stir me.
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