Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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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.

* * *

Well, that should hold you for a while. I think I need to go watch Holiday (1938) or Sullivan’s Travels now. And what do you think? Gen-X and -Y men, are you satisfied with the portrayal of you and your desires and dreams in Hollywood movies, or do you, like me, pine for more Mark Ruffalo, a desirable, grown-up guy with no shortage of 2007-style existential shadows, heroism, or soul?


I haven’t read the essay yet, but I wonder if DD discusses the 40-Year-Old Virgin at all, which, despite its crudeness, I found to be a much sweeter film than KU, with a heroine who did get funny lines and who was in fact something of a mess.

What do you think of Miranda July’s You and Me and Everyone We Know as a romantic comedy?

Sigh. A way more textured read than mine. I’m going to post, but let’s just say that the film history you work through, the online dating context you consider, and so much more are a bit unspoken in my response to Denby.

Post the link here too; I can’t wait to read it, even if you didn’t go as batshit as I seem to have done.

Josh, I agree about The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which I found very funny and tender, and you’re totally right: Catherine Keener is clearly no dummy (and has a healthy sex-positive vibe as well, which is a nice change from the usual sighing heroine), and much closer to the kooky dames in the movies Denby praises than is Knocked Up’s bland blonde.

I thought You and Me… was a little closer to the Todd Solondz universe, which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. The “online dating” scene in that movie was the thing I remember best, and when I saw it again recently on YouTube, I laughed heartily again.

If movies like Holiday and His Girl Friday were about topnotch, smart and unique women who were “too good” for the men they were attracted to, that’s just the point: the attraction transcended class, and even transcended common sense. Oh, yes, I’d drop everything and go sell peanuts with Cary Grant the impractical and stubborn idealist (who’s full of shit basically about how he needs to find himself, bla bla bla) because I’m creaming my panties watching him blather on! And yes, I’d dump my reliable, honest fiancé for Cary Grant the rakish, selfish, ruthless, lying, devoid of morals and consideration ex-colleague/husband. Why? Because of my hormones and the incredibly seductive dialogue. I’d abandon all common sense because I have the superduper hots for Cary Grant and my brain is on hold when I’m faced with him. We used to watch romantic movies to watch someone do something CRAZY, like run off with the hot sexy guy(s) who burned her and not the safe, unsexy guy who offers her “one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day”! It made us feel better about falling in love/lust with the “wrong” man.

So Seth Rogin’s character is not Cary Grant, and the attraction for him is not that apparent — isn’t this the case in many relationships? Doesn’t the majority amongst us just “settle”? But KU isn’t just forcing us to swallow the reality that yes, it’s still the same principle of overcoming common sense (and perhaps common lack of passion) and repeopling the world (or at least performing the act that usually gets the world repeopled, but using some kind of prophylactic), albeit that is why the crowning was the truest moment of the film, since that’s all that counts. (That new life doesn’t care how, or by what stupidity or faulty social logic he got there. None of that counts anymore.)

No, what’s depressing is not that this is the state of things today — because this has always been the state of things. What’s depressing is that we are no longer watching movies about two unique, shining personalities falling in love, and identifying with them — or at worst, wishing that were us. No, now we are celebrating mediocrity in order to somehow coddle our mediocre, resigned selves and think how cute we are, loving ourselves the way only a mother could love an ugly, mediocre child. That seems to be the specialty of our generation. It’s Forrest Gump all over again! So we’re boring and stupid and settle for mediocrity in our relationships? Well, we can still make a miracle in the form of a baby! Anyone can! Yay! Ever notice how people now describe having a baby as the most incredible feat EVER (as if babies’ heads haven’t been crowning between the legs of humans all over the Earth on a daily basis for thousands of years)? That’s because it probably is the best thing most of us will ever do. And we don’t even need to pass a biology test to do it!

So, yes, Emily, I do agree that Denby does not seem to realize what the reality of romance is in today’s world. But I’d stop short of settling for KU as a romantic movie!

Speaking of “online dating” in the context of old movies, anyone remember “The Shop Around the Corner”? It’s still extremely valid today, right down to the pretention, downright dishonesty and vague ruthlessness, desperation and vanity of the two rather humdrum correspondents, who somehow turn out to be our hero/heroine through the catalyst of the physical attraction which triumphs over their idealized vision of what they think they want.

Yeah, hence You’ve Got Mail! But that movie, perky and tolerable though it is (despite the lame caving in to the evil Barnes & Noble stand-in), doesn’t quite capture the true weirdness of the online world.

Don’t worry, I’m not saying I actually think Knocked Up is romantic, just that the shared context (spoken out loud, part of the public landscape) has gotten so much coarser. It’ll always be the old dizzy classics for me (better even than the sad or stormy classics, though Now, Voyager and Douglas Sirk have a special place in my heart, of course). We haven’t even brought up Bogie, but there’s nothing about him that says “future.” It’s all steamy present, baby.

Of course, there are plenty of sexy, funny modern angst movies made just or far outside Hollywood, like Sex, Lies, and Videotape and—as ZP at “I Hate The New Yorker” notes in her penetrating post on this very topic of Denby’s essay—Shortbus, which really must be seen. (Her post, and John Cameron Mitchell’s misshapen beauty.)

Damn, this is all great stuff, Emily and commenters. I haven’t been able to look at the Denby yet, but I think one of the things that’s happening is that we’re blending two completely incompatible standards of quality. The first is the 1930s studio system standard, which produced a hell of a lot of great stuff, including Cary Grant, and a hell of a lot of crap, too. The second is the arthouse standard, whether you mean like 1960s nouvelle vague, mid-career Woody Allen, or just contemporary indie complexity (Solondz etc.). George Cukor at least didn’t have to worry about that second standard when he was working, you know?

The point is, we’re holding too high a standard for the contemporary gems. Our sensibility demands intricacy, complexity, “angst,” interestingness, acknowledgment of neurosis/weakness, etc. etc. — and we want it to look/sound/feel like Cary Grant too! That’s not a thing that’s going to happen very often.

There are lots of pretty normal romcoms out there that are plenty effective on their own terms, like … Hitch? Hitch isn’t a great movie, but it’s perfectly diverting. (Of course there you’ve got the Jack Black/Kate Winslet problem again, in spades. Grammarians’ favorite (missing apostrophe) Two Weeks Notice of a couple years back almost even qualifies as a 1930s movie — it’s fairly close to screwball in structure, and Hugh Grant is cranky and amusing. These movies won’t change anyone’s life, but they are entertaining, have some mass appeal, and are romantic, which was all people were looking for in the mass medium of movies. But then today the snobbery kicks in, and someone says “But these movies aren’t exactly Wes Anderson, people. Where are the really good romcoms?” I submit that the glorious movies of the 1930s succeeded partly because they weren’t catering to the egghead coterie, and that’s as it should be. Today audiences demand more of that sort of stuff, and you don’t get a lot of movies appealing to every single demographic as you once did. Great movies are rare; they were rare in 1930, and they’re rare today. We don’t have a Cary Grant, but the 1930s didn’t have a Mark Ruffalo, either. It’s not all downhill.

“Great movies are rare; they were rare in 1930, and they’re rare today.” This is quite true, certain films were canonized and kept in circulation and so the past “looks good” by comparison to the present.

But Denby is describing a fairly large body of films, and so it seems likely that yes, some among these films will become representative of the romantic comedy of aughts, or some such, and the problems of gender and sexuality that attend it.

My problem with Denby’s essay is that it isn’t that interested in the complexity of the problems of sexuality and gender that exist (or existed) just outside the films he sees. Actually, the very idea that the films are realistically representative of a broader culture is frustrating too. I suspect they are twisted expressions of something, not necessarily reflections.

Right on, zp. I’ve just read the Denby, which annoyed me less than I expected (and yet, watch out below). I’d prefer to celebrate the subtle societal shift away from inane fare like Anchorman and Dodgeball and and towards 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up and yes, Wedding Crashers than whine about how immature and slobby everybody is these days. If Denby actually wears a jacket and tie every day as he writes from his home office (?), then he can pine. Otherwise, move on.

I think Emily’s right if she invoked nostalgia as the engine here. Once you start with a dek like “how did we get from Hawks to Apatow?” the details don’t matter, the article writes itself. And is fundamentally dishonest; an invocation of Shakespeare serves the same rigged end.

Great post, Emily. You’ve got to hand it to Apatow, though. There aren’t too many romantic comedies that people talk about more than 24 hours after seeing them. But as for imperfect women getting the dreamboat, don’t forget Bridget Jones and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Couldn’t you see the beauty/shlub pairings of today as a reflection of some of the unlovely features of today’s dating world? The slacker comedies offer something hopeful for each sex. For young women, the message is, There’s a husband in there somewhere! For the young men the message is, don’t worry, eventually a beautiful girl will rescue you from your protracted adolescence.

I wrote about Knocked Up on my Nation blog, And Another Thing, and made much of Seth Rogen’s lack of physical charms. Is it reverse-sexist to say I found the sex scenes painful to look at? In the real world, I don’t think too many Katherine Heigls take up with men like that, let along sleep over in his horrible bedroom (but that’s part of the comedy). On Feministing, a lot of commenters disagreed. Seth Rogen has a real female fan club! Apparently, some young women find guys like that adorable. What grossed them out was the shaved privates of Katherine H in the birth scene.

Katha PollittJuly 20, 2007

Take heart: There’s a good romantic comedy coming up this summer. For the moment, I will say no more.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Seth Rogen; I trust Apatow to make good choices for his nascent Sturges stable, and it could be that he just hasn’t found the right part yet for ol’ Seth. That said, I should note that I don’t find Rogen unattractive because he’s chubby and not wearing Brooks Brothers or a snappy haircut—it’s that default who-cares smirk that turns me off.

I still say that movies like KU are more about mainstreaming mediocrity (and bring our expectations and standards way down to a very low denominator) than about representing anyone’s idea of reality. These movies are the fairy tales that influence our aspirations.

BTW: I loved Anchorman.
And hey, I just remembered a chick/date movie with an explosion that my date loved: The Upside of Anger. Remember that exploding head? And the two lovers were quite equal in intelligence and quality of personality, and did grow as the result of their relationship.

You lost me at Raymond. His was the only believable sitcom marriage on television, in more ways than just looks. But Patricia Heaton is NOT, as you say, “impossibly good-looking, accomplished, polished female,” and neither was her character. Do you even have a TV?

“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.”

Which is kind of the premise of the film. But back to your friend’s views on abortion:

There’s one moment that the entire film hinges on. It’s during the scene where they’re at the gynecologist’s office, getting the pregnancy test. The doctor is all smiles and congratulations, and they are all like “um… yeah?”, and then he whips out the ultrasound and goes at it, and it is that very moment (it’s really super important!!!!!) that Seth and what’s-her-name realize that they shouldn’t have gotten the ultrasound, because now what was just a concept called ‘baby’ is now an actual baby, and it is at that very moment that they realize that neither one could stand to have that taken away. It’s not about pro-life anything. It’s just that fucking prick of a doctor.

You (and Denby) really struck a nerve. Of course, 50-60 years from now people will be embracing the good old ’90s-’00s, and talking about how contemporary comedies can’t hold a candle to classics like Groundhog Day, and complaining about how the inevitable remake of Notting Hill isn’t as good as the original. Not that I’ve seen many of them, but I would guess the closest analogy quality-wise to the screwball comedies is the Pixar animated films today. No question that people will look back just as fondly at those 50-60 years from now as you and Denby look back fondly at the screwballs.

ValleyGuyJuly 20, 2007

Do I have this right? You think that a generation 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” is a good thing? Even within this group of names there are some serious generational divides: what does Nora Ephron (age 66 at last report, which should put her in Denby’s generation) have to do with Kevin Smith? I’m neither old enough to remember screwball comedies first hand nor young enough to find John Hughes representative of anything but suburban smugness, but I still can’t see how you can compare Hawks, Lubitsch, McCarey and their peers to Holofcenter and Heckerling, whose filmmaking skills are on the level of an average television sitcom?

OK, James. I’m stone busted. I was being lazy using Raymond as shorthand for the world of sitcoms (According to Jim would have been better, or, how’s this for TV Q, Still Standing?) in which these Skinny Woman & the Schlub pairings are par for the course. Mea culpa. That show jumped to mind because I hate everything about it. But I’m using your comment to segue to a point a clever friend slipped me in an email last night after reading my exchange with Emily. Movies, he notes, don’t happen in a vacuum. The world of TV has continued the screwball tradition much better (read: more creatively, more playfully, with the necessary updating and complexity) than the movies have. There are a myriad of reasons: because TV allows everyone a lot more room to breathe in terms of time, the financial stakes are lower, the audience is more diverse, there are restrictions on things like explicit sex and toilet humor. The obvious example that worked is Moonlighting; but for every show that had a little of the magic, there was one that starred Tea Leoni. Clever Friend points out that Aaron Sorkin thinks HE is the future of screwball writing. I will simply note that the man has a well-documented drug problem, and recommend a few shows I think have a bit of that zing (not all the time, in little ways): Bones (Fox), House (Fox), Veronica Mars (WB/CW/RIP), the Gil Mayo Mysteries (now on BBC America).

Dave K.—no indeed, I wouldn’t want to give that impression. I’m only saying the brains of Gen-X and -Y moviegoers are mixed-up files of themes both sweet and distinctly not. And I wouldn’t say Holofcenter and Heckerling have the chops of Hawks, Lubitsch, McCarey, et al. It’s just what we’ve got to work with, and I’m all for this kind of questioning: Why are we settling for such inadequate fantasies of modern love? Note that I didn’t say “representations of modern love.” It takes a moviemaker with a strong stomach to take that on. That’s why Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are two of my favorite contemporary romances (or whatever they are).

For the record, I liked Anchorman too and talked about it for more than 24 hours after watching. I didn’t like the waste of Applegate, however. She could be a real comic actress. In my dreams.

And that Shakespeare reference WAS such a cheap shot. But so is a reference to Mark Ruffalo!

I actually like Seth Rogan and the character he (always) plays, but I wouldn’t have his baby. Even if a doctor (and, true enough, they do) waved a whole handful of sonograms at me after screening romantic comedies in his waiting room.

As for Holofcener … for me, her work is sophisticated, disturbing and looks like Dawson’s Creek (or whatever) for a reason … it’s a tough study, but its worth the time and effort.

I can see how my list of filmmakers up yonder could be taken as either an A-list or Z-list, but it’s neither, believe me. I’m wary of conflating too many different kinds of films and filmmakers here (Walking and Talking, Valley Girl, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Mulholland Drive, and Fast Times, among others by these directors, are all on my long list of favorites). My actual taste in movies, as various as you might expect given such a preliminary and incomplete list of formative influences, isn’t really coming to light.

That’s OK, of course, but I just want to make sure I’m not coming across either as Old Movies Good, New Movies Bad, or vice versa, since I really don’t think that. I was a devoted student of Andrew Sarris; I liked Old Boy; I refuse to jump on the Nora Ephron bandwagon of hate (have you seen This Is My Life?). I carelessly left Michel Gondry, Spike Lee, Jane Campion, and John Singleton [adding more as they occur to me] off the list, and of course could have included many more as a gesture toward the strange powers that rattle us even as we watch and rewatch the best of the black and whites. I’m as full of the (perhaps) seemingly contradictory values of anyone approximately my age, and I guess this whole post is to try to figure out how that can translate into moviemaking and film criticism with which I can completely identify.

Katha, I like that you mentioned My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which I enjoyed, but how many men saw either that or Bridget Jones?

Yeah, no, I didn’t see that list as a homogeneous group to be dismissed. And I certainly didn’t see you doing an old movies good, new movies bad thing - I saw you as critical of Denby’s nostalgia.

I thought the list was made to call attention to the rich variations in the genre that Denby didn’t acknowledge, and to describe the body of film that informs our viewing of today’s romantic comedies.

I just thought I’d weigh in a bit on what some of those variations might mean for me …

I’m terribly nostalgic and sentimental myself—very unfashionable character traits these days, and not very useful ones, either, but it’s my violin-strain burden to bear. So I sympathize with Denby’s keening, but I also think there’s a missing link. Let’s revisit the dek again, as Martin suggested: “How did we get from Frank Capra’s ‘It Happened One Night’ (1934) to Judd Apatow’s ‘Knocked Up’?” Well, through social, scientific, and historical circumstances with which we are all familiar, we’ve now got audiences who, fairly confident of sex with a stranger on the first Nerve date or an NSA romp with a fellow undergrad, would probably not believe in a Clark Gable who would put that sheet between the beds. On the other hand, they seem to be believing that Katherine Heigl would have Seth Rogen’s baby, so what do I know?

Speaking of that baby, Carolita, I didn’t mean to imply that the miracle of new life was what made that moment (the baby’s head crowning in Knocked Up) so surprising. As I’m sure many others have noted—though, as Katha notes, you’ll want to see the excellent query re: unrealistic waxing at Feministing—it was a kick to see something so universal, but so taboo, onscreen and larger than life at a blockbuster comedy. Forget about that actual baby (whose brain cells I hope aren’t too addled already from daddy’s hobby), I’m just happy that all those people, me included, who’ve never seen a birth got to sort of see part of one. The movie is about pregnancy, you know? All this “bump” inanity in the celebrity rags can’t hold a candle to the intensity of seeing that sight.

Oh, and Martin, thanks for bringing up Hitch, which I liked. One Fine Day strikes me as similar in tone and lightness, in the sense you’re referring to, though that’s the only role I can think of in which George Clooney actually earns that hopeful Cary Grant comparison.

Well, something weird is happening to me. While googling Seth Rogen images, many of which, it should be said, are of him in tuxedos at premieres with a shy, happy grin on his face, I’m finding him not completely unappealing. Also, he’s Canadian, which in my book is almost never bad. Nevertheless, ZP, though I might have actual Seth’s baby, I still would try very hard to avoid being impregnated by his KO character, Ben Stone. Ben there, stoned that. Know what I mean?

Emily: You do realize that you are now on record, on the Internet, as venturing a willingness to have Seth Rogen’s baby?

Further than I’ll go.

Well, I guess we’d have to have a couple of coffee dates first. I suspect, though, that his characters’ taste for massive daily quantities of weed could be somewhat autobiographical—but I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe we should steer back toward Mark Ruffalo and Jason Segel (who was disgracefully misused in Knocked Up, by the way).

Signorina Emdashes,

Well, it’s my duty to channel Dawn Powell. The reason for why our finest comic genius novelist was neither loved nor celebrated, as she was by Vidal and Hemingway, was that she refused to write about the romantic side of life and proved that women were as ‘absurd’ as men. She refused to put a down payment on love, or rather the romantic kind.

With that said, my DVD collection consists of movies made before i was born, circa ‘63. I’m rarely moved to go to the theatre but Greek Wedding was great, Bridget, well, my ex beaux played the icky producer, but he’s not, was a pleasant guest at Chez Bay last week, in fact.

People are becoming more skeptical, borderline cynical and pragmatic but they shall continue to gravitate towards one another for partnership and romance, difference being, a contract won’t follow as rapidly as it did before.

Io e mio marito have lasted 10 yrs thus far but I’m with Joseph Campbell, he suggested that Western relationships shouldn’t be viewed as love affairs but rather ordeals. I think of my own marriage as monthly negotiations with some sex thrown in. But then, I married an Italian so romance is mandatory, at least when we’re in the same country.

I’ll have to take a day or two to digest the article and all these abfab comments. A lot of subversive feelings morphing to the surface…

Emily-am working your query, but leaning towards Shaw rather than Powell. She died in ‘65. It’s midnite in La Ville lumiere but I’ll re visit Dawn Powell’s books of letter and diaries.

what would the philadelphia story look like if judd apatow remade it today? i think we can all agree that denby is the v definition of douché. but i dont think these romantic comedies today represent a generational reality. i think that they have only succeeded in projecting one 40 yr old loser’s ultimate fantasy as a universal condition, much like woody allen did in the 70s, as j hoberman said in that thing about manhattan. romantic comedies today contain but a simple and unique conception of what a woman looks like: a woman who has been willed to be affable and nice. what apatow does in his movies is turn these women who would be intimidating to apatow’s men, and completely sterilizes them so that a tracy lord in his hands would become a boring beauty. a catherine keener would marry a steve carrell, and that is a really horrifying scenario. i don’t think apatow or the farrelly brothers could come up with a woman like linda fiorentino’s bridget gregory if they tried. they couldn’t because that version of womanhood doesn’t exist in their minds. in what world does a catherine keener marry a steve carrell? in apatow’s mind she marries him because shed rather be married to a loser without sex drive than be alone. apatow’s women never really choose to be with these guys, they’re made to by a film universe that calls them damaged goods. she’s over 40, divorced, a parent, who’ll want to date her? the carrell character is the only man who is nice to her, so she marries him. why and is it that these women keep dating these men. who are these boring beauties who keep dating boring losers, and are ok with it. who put such premium on being nice. in apatow’s the philadelphia story tracy would marry macauley connor.

for these girls who like knocked up, what hope is there? they probably would marry a steve carrell, and i say screw that. the true romantic comedies of our times, the ones that are perhaps somewhat aspirational, are movies that offer tough women bitches who would cut those little men in half. i’m thinking mamma roma, last seduction and black snake moan.

Where does the strange late Altman film, “Dr. T and The Women” fit into all this, since it’s a sorta romantic comedy that ends with a very graphic “crowning” scene? And for all those Mark Ruffalo fans, I hate to break it to you, but he’s really, really short, continuing the long tradition of tiny people being the most photogenic.

Holiday (1938): Don’t miss the 1930 version if you ever get the chance. Downright amazing how little Hepburn, Grant, and Cukor added to the original.

penalcolonyJuly 21, 2007

What’s fascinating about this thread and its various tendrils, e.g., Katha Pollitt’s musings on her own website, is precisely what’s lost when we discuss movies solely in terms of what they provide for fantasy fulfillment. I understand Hollywood is sometimes referred to as “the dream factory” but come now; to laud “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” on the ugly-duckling-gets-the-hunk grounds is to ignore the broad, trite witlessness with which that particular notion is realized. I guess it all depends on what you’re willing to forgive. I thought the behavior of Rogan’s character in “Knocked Up” was frequently unspeakable, and that any guy who went on the way he did in the morning-after breakfast scene should have gotten, in all probability, a severe and well-deserved smackdown, regardless of the Heigl character’s sweetness. I let it go because the movie had, for me, more genuine one-after-the-other laughs than any film I’d seen since “Hot Fuzz” (speaking of improbable). Aside from that, lonely aesthetes such as Dave K. and myself are forever going to wonder, “What’s the big deal about mediocre movies?”

I’m afraid I’m such an antique when it comes to movies that I tend to be stuck on Lillian Gish and Clara Bow (to whom The Runaway Bride is dedicated), but I thought it might be worth noting that one very different things about the 30’s movies is that Cary Grant was much younger than two of the three actresses he typically starred with in the 30’s, and Katherine Hepburn was only a little bit younger. My understanding is that that is unlikely to happen nowadays — particularly because the movies with Mae West and Irene Dunne were much more openly sexual than most of his other films.

Gene O'GradyJuly 21, 2007

There are two senses in which all the posts that talk about how ridiculous it is that a “willowy creamy world-class beauty” would end up with a “sclub” might be intended. First, they’re talking “is” and describing the standards of dating where people of like degrees of beauty end up together. Or they’re talking “ought” and there is some idea that we want things to end up that way.

Okay, let’s take “is.” Perhaps that is a hard and fast rule at the ends of the conventional attractiveness spectrum, but even then I’ve had to add the word “conventional.” We all know that in the middle of the spectrum there are many cases where there is a physical mismatch, that grow out of misguided people weighing things like talents, humor, etc., on a par with physical attractiveness. In fact, the only place that I know that said exceptions never apply is the movie and tabloid world, where impossibly sculpted and coiffed people only date like kinds.

Which brings us to “ought”. When people are saying they don’t like it, they either mean they don’t believe it (reducing to the “is” issue above) or that they genuinely don’t like it. The latter group I can only assume were Heathers in high school.

The litmus test for all this is how you feel about “Beauty and the Beast” and “Shrek.” Having been compelled to watch the former movie almost every day for months by my four-year-old daughter in Santa Monica, there is that scene at the end where the Beast is magically changed to the same level of attractiveness as the heroine, thereby rendering the whole mismatch of types motif moot — just an exercise that thankfully the viewer does not have to take seriously. So when I saw Shrek’s transformation scene, which is obviously (along with much of the rest of that movie) a stick in the eye to its Disney predecessor, I was overjoyed that they lampooned it (and did it well). (But it strikes me that neither movie actually broke that taboo that “Knocked Up” did, by carrying through the visual mismatch to the end.) So, to apply this text to the movie at hand, ask yourself: Would it have been better if Seth Rogan buffed up, trimmed down, and had a total makeover at the end, so that Katherine Heigl would get the reward she deserved?

Physical mismatch carried through to the end:
Miracle at Morgan’s Creek! (Another movie, but from the old days, about an accidental baby bringing about an unlikely pairing).

I can’t believe everybody’s so shocked with the schlub/beauty thing. It happens every day. Walk around New York on a Friday night, kids!

Love, I hope, is still blind! And isn’t the idea in Beauty and the Beast that love makes the Beast beautiful in an allegorical sense? Love transforms people, MarcC., meaning, when you love someone, don’t they look very beautiful to you? I’ve dated men who at first glance actually repulsed me! But after the first good bonding conversation, they began looking kind of like Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy to me. Seriously! That’s how I know I’m in love.
Now, I’ll go watch Miracle at Morgan’s Creek again!

Actually, that was what I was trying to say, too. I thought some of the comments were a little too accepting of the conventional ideas of attractiveness and of the idea that people should pair off with others “at their level.”

I agree — Miracle is really a great example of a “Knocked Up” type movie, with Eddie Bracken playing the Seth Rogan part. I don’t quite remember, but doesn’t “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” also work out this way?

As long as we’re throwing out recent movies, I had a couple that sprang to mind. One of them was Spanglish, which not only is about certifiable adults but also is about mismatches. It’s still one of the weirdest ones out there.

Emily mentioned Holofcener; has anyone seen Friends with Money? Brave in trying to talk about class and yet still incoherent. The gay husband who is? isn’t? gay? Klepto maid Aniston ends up with the schlubb (but he turns out to be a zillionaire). Few movies have made me want to get married less than this one.

My favorite recent movie about men and women and love is In Her Shoes. Unlike almost every movie under scrutiny here, it had no agenda, wasn’t crass, didn’t hit the easy My Best Friend’s Wedding-ish notes. Indeed, what I liked was that it wasn’t a genre movie: it was trying to do right by a certain set of characters, and it played fair with the audience.

Finally, on P’s “Abort It” — does anyone remember Ron Howard’s “The Paper”? That movie spent so much time on the pregnant Marisa Tomei character’s annoyance over her maternity leave that by the last twenty minutes it had us practically rooting for a miscarriage.

Martin, I’m also a big fan of In Her Shoes, a movie that I thought took women and their problems (not just that can’t-live-with-‘em etc dilemma that is men, but actual problems) seriously, but with a light touch. I do get a little miffed with Hollywood’s insistence on the homeliness of Toni Colette—the sheer horror it must be to be a size six with a little character in your face instead of a wide-eyed zero—but that is a minor point.

Holofcener, not to be proprietary on Emily’s blog, was my addition to the list, as she is a filmmaker who both fascinates and infuriates me. I adore “Walking and Talking,” with a pre-insanity Anne Heche and the brilliant conceit (so prescient!) of The Ugly Guy, played with perfect understatement by Kevin Kerrigan, who is now the star of every romantic comedy, according to Denby. Remember the scene where he takes her to the geek convention, and she’s all superior mocking? And the Keener/Liev Schrieber endless rehash of their relationship and breakup remains one of the most painful and real portrayals of letting someone go I’ve seen.

As for “Friends with Money,” I think it suffers from a hefty dose of hyperbole. But she is a sly one: every relationship seems to be a comment on a type familiar from the current zeitgeist, including the ultimate in (puzzling, to my mind) willowy beauty with the pot-smoking schlub but in this universe, he’s a zillionaire, so she can keep herself in the best of aging creams and shapeless designer clothes. It’s a brilliant gag—the equivalent, really, of Emily getting all googly over SR in a tux. C’mon, E! You know they turn all men into James Bond.

Here’s my issue with the Denby essay: I hate that he finds women who are ambitious, smart, driven, and focused soulless and empty. Fact is that women in this day and age have to be focused and driven and all those things just to keep heads above water, get promotions, get and keep power, and fight off the constant and remorseless assumption from just about everyone around them that eventually they’ll give it all up and go have babies. I thought Heigl’s character in KU was totally believable because she was trying to figure out how the hell to maintain her sense of herself — something that was tied up tightly with her career, but don’t tell me that’s not realistic — while also grappling with whether to be a mother. The relationship part was, to me, secondary. The guy is a factor because he’s the father of the kid, and she decides it’s probably important to be with him so the kid will have a dad around. I really think that’s her primary motivation. That there’s eventually some romance, believable or not, is a bonus. It kind of reminded me of “Green Card” (another movie about a totally mismatched couple) about which my friend Daniel used to say that it was evidence that relationships are 90% logistics and timing.

My point is that women in today’s movies aren’t soulless — they’re rational beings looking to get ahead with their own lives, and hoping to find some love along the way. What’s so wrong with that? Unlike the heroines in the movies Denby loves (and I do too, I admit), they’re not rich, they’re working women who need and want to work. It’s a different world.

Oh, and I note that Denby omits a modern movie that’s often been compared to the old romantic comedies: “Laws of Attraction” with Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore. Lots of witty repartee there.

notbatgirlJuly 23, 2007
From the review of Knocked Up in Salon by Stephanie Zacharek (who, in my opinion, would perfectly round out the team of New Yorker film critics):
It’s clear that Apatow doesn’t intend “Knocked Up” as a right-to-life tract, and I hope it won’t be celebrated — or decried — as such. The movie is simply delicate-handed enough to know that neither it nor the Supreme Court can dictate what a woman’s choice should be. And it’s intuitive enough to know that such a complicated choice can’t be easily explained — at least in terms that will satisfy anyone’s politics.
This is true, and I think my offhand reply to P’s quip about how obvious the choice to abort should have been came off as inappropriately flippant. Stephanie goes on:
He’s cast many of them in this picture; it’s clear how attuned they are to his sensibility: Rogen is an unlikely romantic-comedy lead whose charms sneak up on you gradually but persistently. Heigl is wonderful here: She gives Alison just the right mix of youthful vulnerability and fierce, mom-to-be determination. Heigl can pack a world of conflicted feelings into a single, brief take: At one point we see her exasperation at Ben’s being an immature jerk segue into a realization that sometimes even an immature jerk can be a lot of fun. Just as Alison nudges Ben toward recognizing that there’s more to life than just horsing around with his buddies, he frees her from the constraints of being too responsible.
And finally:
“Knocked Up” doesn’t trade in easy platitudes about the joys of parenting: When Alison and Ben venture out to that first OB-GYN appointment, Apatow’s camera shows us the weirdest-looking babies, not the most instantly adorable ones. This is, after all, a movie about facing your worst fears, and recognizing that even when we take a chance on love, happiness is never guaranteed. That uncertainty is what links it to the great American romantic comedies: It’s not as elegant as, say, “Holiday” or “The Lady Eve” or “The Palm Beach Story,” but it’s wise enough to know that the false promise of happily ever after is more depressing than it is uplifting. Better to acknowledge the bumpiness of the road ahead than to fool yourself into believing you can iron out its kinks.

Even so, “Knocked Up” is shot through with rays of optimism, suggesting how we can put our bewilderment and confusion to work and learn how to be better, more compassionate grown-ups. The characters in “Knocked Up” get a shot at becoming their best selves — by the seat of their pants, but if there’s hope for them, there’s hope for the rest of us, too. To err is human, to forgive, divine. And sometimes the biggest leap begins with a single, half-assed baby step.

I’d choose Zacharek over both of the current incumbents.

I think Denby is a fine critic, and I’m glad he wrote this piece and asked these questions, which are clearly important to many of us. It’s certainly not my position that he’s read this movie all wrong or is embarrassingly out of touch, just that the sexual dynamics and discourse on which romantic comedies are wont to draw have gotten dumb and dumber. Or maybe just shallower, Hal. The feelings of Kids Today are the feelings of Beatrice and Benedick, but the forces conspiring to keep heroic lovers from their anticlimactic rutting, and keeping the two excitingly entertained and entertaining as a result, are down to nearly nil. Although it did occur to me that Katherine Heigl’s character would almost certainly have run to get an HIV test (and scheduled another one for six months on) even before she realized her swimmy stomach probably meant a little Seth.

Like P, I saw Manhattan at Film Forum recently, and was struck by how everyone in it lives among and talks about their friends (and the specters of their exes) all the time, just like in real life. As other critics have pointed out, where are the Heigl character’s pals? She and Ben run into a gaggle of Mean Girls from whom she wants to hide the fact of her delicate condition. If these are actually friends, surely Heigl would have told them a little bit of the situation?

And the pairing of Diane Keaton and Woody Allen is, as always, lovely and believable despite the fact that (as her Mary keeps reminding his Isaac) she’s a beautiful woman. It’s no revelation that the woman in most straight couples is the more presentable, better-groomed one, but surely it’s reasonable for female viewers (who’re entitled as much eye candy as men anyway, don’t you think?) to want the lead in their romantic comedy to have at least some appealing qualities. My problem with Ben Stone, as I mentioned above, isn’t his looks but his near-catatonia and Alfred E. Neuman smirk. If he were the fulfilled, energetic proprietor of a functioning girlie site, we might be having a somewhat different conversation, and he’d still have to be a happier guy than Mr. Friends With Money millionaire to make him attractive to me, by the way. Sure, Ben’s full of potential; that and two bucks’ll get you uptown. Of course, he makes some changes by the time the baby’s born, and I think he’ll be an OK dad—it’s not the worst parental setup of all time.

I was musing on matters Knocked Up-related as I drifted off to sleep last night, and dreamed of a sunny beach on which a seemingly harmless, low-key cobra suddenly turns vicious and strangles the leopard—that is, Baby—from Bringing Up Baby. Make of that what you will! (And if you’re not too squeamish, make a baby, sort of, with the Universal online promotion “Knocked Up Babymaker.” If the images it generates won’t keep people from drunken one-night stands, probably nothing will.)

Friend of Emdashes James Wolcott has some penetrating reactions to this very thread (among other things). A few quick hits: I agree that Denby’s invocation of evolutionary psychology is a little silly, but I don’t reject it out of hand as an explanation for Cary Grant hanging off the scaffold at the end of BUB or the frisson we feel when we watch Ginger and Fred. It’s not self-evidently ridiculous anyway. As to Nick and Nora, that someone decided they had to have children at all is probably a more compelling point in Denby’s favor.

I totally agree about both the Transformers point and also the relative lack of event movies (the iPhone kind of took that space over, although so recently has the 16th-century technology of books, courtesy of J.K. Rowling and, ecch, Dan Brown).

But aren’t there directors who work well with women today too? What about Curtis Hanson? He won an Oscar for Kim Basinger, scored a hit for Rebecca De Mornay in 1990 as a scary nanny, probably even got good things out of Kate Holmes in Pittsburgh once upon a time — and probably improved on Jennifer Weiner. What’s not to like? (And I’ll bet there are other directors I’m not thinking of.)

In the end, directors are nice, but it’s all about the writing. As Pauline Kael memorably argued, the Algonquin Round Table (to return to the raison d’etre of this blog) moved to Cali and we got a decade’s worth of crackling movies, including not a few that handled the war between the sexes with wit and verve. If we get their like again, the movies will follow.

Wow, this is just like going to the movies. I had to go for popcorn and a pee in the middle of the thread. 4 stars!

I recommend “Broken English,” Zoe Cassavetes new film. It definitely rips off Linklater and heaps on the sugar in the end, but Parker Posey has some searing moments that make it really worth it. It’s also nice to see a love story from a woman’s perspective every now and then, instead of just gaping at her vagina (like in KU).

I would like to see a romantic comedy about a young man and woman who meet, have an intense romantic adventure, and then realize that despite the love they feel for each other, life is so much more enjoyable without the drama, and better alone, with some friends on the side, a book, a cup of tea. They shake hands, cry a few nostalgic yet unwrought tears, and happily stroll back home, where, in their re-discovered solitude, can talk to themselves or their cats, in the nude, while dancing the rumba. Yes, a story of a man or woman’s love of being alone with his/her thoughts.

Well, I also mentioned Broken English, but did I mention the movie that Zoe Cassavetes refers to in BE? Minnie & Moskowitz, directed by her father, and starting her mother, the young and beautiful (still beautiful today) Gena Rowlands? A movie to see, definitely, a totally different kind of romance, wherein the unlikely couple actually are painful to watch, they seem to be bopping off eachother dangerously, reeling and careering, and yet they somehow unite, despite all odds. It’s ostensibly about the unfathomability of love. Why are some people together? Who knows? But they are! :)

I did like Broken English, though I was all primed to hate it, having been forewarned of a movie ending by some cynical critic (a woman, I forget who). But after all, it IS a movie, and when I think of it, it’s the kind of movie ending I’ve often had in my real life. So I bought it, gladly. Especially since Zoe did portray some of the more humiliating moments we girls go through, as we undertake the often rather demoralizing triage in between happy times.

I love all you people, can I take this opportunity to say that? It’s a bit of a comedic romance, me and this blog, but one I seem to want to rewind and rewatch day after mysterious day. So thanks!

Speaking of the peachfish-gaping Caitlin mentions, it would please me to no end if movie cameras could stop establishing shots of every woman by zooming up their legs like little Robert Crumbs, briefly lingering on their boobs and then finally resting on their faces. Come on, guys. Even the many men who, gripped by their manifest destinies, do this daily with their eyes have learned to be a little discreet about it. Also, could every movie not have a urinal or similar peeing scene? I know it’s a crucial site of male bonding, but couldn’t you mix it up with a poker-game or commuter-train conversation from time to time?

By the way, a friend who knows his way around a movie house just pointed me to the Stuart Klawans review of Knocked Up in The Nation. Stuart, who kicked ASME at the National Magazine Awards this year, writes:
Whatever changes Gable and Grant had to undergo in their comedies of remarriage, they didn’t need to learn to accept minimal adult responsibility. You may judge the distance between their era and ours by the fact that Rogen’s education in Knocked Up barely rises to adult topics. He mostly learns to bathe, dress neatly, tidy his room, eat properly, engage people in conversation and read: training for a 6-year-old.

Meanwhile, what process of education does writer-director Judd Apatow propose for Heigl? On the most obvious level, none. She must learn to overlook the unappetizing exterior and love Rogen for the sweet, funny guy within—a task she’s already proved she can accomplish, right at the start, given enough beer and tequila.
But you gotta read it for yourself. Sturges bless you, Stuart!

Michelle Orange has a smart review at The Reeler:
(How do I link in this context?)

By the way—am I just a total slut or did anyone else find Heigl’s objection to alternative sexual positioning added to the overall conservatism?

The link works perfectly—thanks for posting it! I thought the same thing about the whole position debate. Maybe her character really doesn’t know many other people her age.

Belatedly, sfmike: I don’t care if Mark Ruffalo is a tape dispenser, I love him!

A question: In what universe does a Quentin Tarantino film inform sexuality for Gens X and Y? How? Love, maybe perhaps … but sex?

Yes, Ruffalo is short. He’s also a great guy who is getting everything he deserves.

I have no plans to add KNOCKED UP to my viewing schedule, however, if someone claims there are as many laughs in it as HOT FUZZ maybe I should rethink …

I do have to disagree with you ladies about Seth Rogan. I am roughly the same age and make of Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, and I thought Seth was too cute for words! Everything he said and did was exactly right to diffuse the situation. It’s because we of the Sex and the City generation, all smart powerful up-and-coming gals about town, are jonesing for the Beta Male (Jim from the Office, for example). We want the guy who will support us in tough times, diffuse situations and make us laugh. You can make your own money, but it’s tougher to make yourself laugh. This is preferable to the Alpha Male who takes up too much relationship real estate and tries to take your dreams from you.

But Jim from The Office has a real job, and although he loathes it, as we know from the show, he’s capable of being promoted and even moving far away from Dunder Mifflin. He’s respectful, self-sufficient, appears to wear clean clothes, has his own apartment, and…why am I making this list? Jim is a little depressed but otherwise a great catch in anyone’s book. Beta male he may be, but there’s no lumping him in with Seth Rogen’s character—again, I said character, not essential self. Rogen the actor now has plenty of interesting work, tuxedos (see above), dough, presumably lots of great friends you’d want to have a dinner party with, is Canadian, and on and on.

Nevertheless, since we’ve all lowered our standards to “he makes jokes and isn’t a junkie,” I suspect the fond smiles and sexual favors bestowed on characters like those in Knocked Up will indeed continue to, ah, diffuse across the general population!

First: I love this thread. I had written my own screed on my blog but instead will just link to this page… Also: Nick, I love your movie idea. Alone with a book and some self-reliance. Now THAT’S a fantasy. And Martin, yes please, let’s talk about the writing!

Denby hints at the stale state of the Hollywood system when he chastises current-day romantic comedy makers for being all-male (um, yeah dude, because men never USED to rule Hollywood?), but it’s a one-off, an aside, when it could have led him to much much deeper Hollywood waters.

Here we are, contemporary moviemaking: we have men, always men, STILL men, making movies that are pretty much geared toward men. Hence the ubiquitous beauty/loser dynamic (although for the record, I too think Seth Rogen is attractive). These men are basically making the same movie, over and over again, replicating whatever was once successful—a pattern that goes all the way back to Denby’s Golden Era of top hats and tails. Except the industry has now taken good writing out the equation. Add the increased load of focus groups and target audiences and etc., etc., and voila: the not-great state of Movies Today. So perhaps it’s not really a question of quality, of then-vs.-now—it’s more a question of transparency.

When the writing was good, we didn’t care so much that the fantasy was… well, fake. But when you increasingly make only movies are written by committee, by producers dictating outlines to writers, by endless rewriters who are called in after focus group data changes the entire plot, by advertisers, etc etc., then it’s just awful. Put another way: Screwballs had coarseness and sexism, too, it was just better disguised; at least Apatow wears his on his dirty, cotton sleeve. I personally find the father’s “it’s your fault I cheated because you were a bad daughter” speech in The Philadelphia Story to be much less classy than anything in Knocked Up.

But I mostly just think that Denby (and his should-be-equally-if-not-more-taken-to-task editor) muddied his argument when he chose the wrong movie to knock. Knocked Up (which I wouldn’t even classify as a romantic comedy, because its entire thesis is anti-romance… but that’s another debate) is arguably the most interesting/intelligently written film to come out of Summer Blockbusterland lately. Denby might prefer what he considers such “equal” pairings of leads as Richard Gere and Julia Roberts (really? Pretty Woman? A hooker and a billionaire? Seriously?)—but I prefer Knocked Up to any comedy that simply tries to replicate a previous hit. Granted, the premise of Knocked Up is ludicrous, and the film is packing an underlying hostility, especially towards women, that seriously creeps me out. It’s also a more-true battle of the sexes, told from the point of view of the boys: the archetypal junior high dance, where the boys are one side of the gymnasium at the dance and the girls are on the other side, and never the twain shall meet. But subtext aside, Apatow’s dialogue is really interestingly crafted and rather unique. People in this movie say things that people might actually say, and those things are often so surprising and so awkward and exposed and over-the-top that you kind of have to laugh. It’s good writing. Or at least good dialogue. And it’s at least good enough to spark months of blog posts and criticisms and heated arguments about an otherwise average summer comedy.

I just think that maybe Denby’s arguments would hold up better if he didn’t fail to see the craft for all the crudeness. Then maybe, despite his personal taste, he could congratulate the people (like, I believe, Apatow) who, within the obvious setting of mainstream boy-Hollywood, are writing scripts that are A) pretty funny and B) kind of interesting. And interesting, at least, is a start.

More to say, but should stop now.

Manjula — this was the reason I invoked Anchorman. Anchorman is a funny movie, and I had meant the word “inane” to be judgment-free, if you will — it’s inane whether you enjoy the hell out of it or not. The rise of Apatow has to be considered an improvement over that — if your stated goal is the Hawksian frisson or Cukorian elan, that is.

So yeah, it makes it a strange occasion for complaints. But then that gets me thinking that Knocked Up at least raised the stakes. You’re more likely to write a thinkpiece about Knocked Up than you are about Dodgeball, you know? Knocked Up might be better or more nuanced, but because it seems to ask for more, it can more quickly be found wanting (if that’s your bent, as it was Denby’s).

I’m glad you invoked that scene from The Philadelphia Story (a scene I do not recall); it’s a movie I find a tad overrated, as I do The Awful Truth. (I prefer Holiday to both of those.) I’m glad you invoked it because the yearning for such movies is well-nigh inseparable from retrograde political tendencies, and we might as well admit such things. Sure, Rogen’s character in Knocked Up was a schlubb, and, as I said before, I don’t notice that his critics have any particular tendency to wear ties or anything. (Meaning, let’s be explicit here, that if you hanker for 1937 you have to take it all, lock, stock, and barrel — you can’ t pick and choose. And that means no iPods, no Internet, no casual Fridays, no 1965 Civil Rights Act, etc. etc. You may find that deal attractive, or Denby might, but most people wouldn’t.)

And I also don’t notice comparable paternalistic speechifying in Knocked Up, so I mean, thank goodness for small favors! There are reasons we prefer Knocked Up to the sub-Holiday fare of yore, and not all of them are bad ones.

Revisiting, having just read the review in the L.A. Times by the splendid Carina Chocano; I came to it via this thoughtful post (whose author points out, quite rightly, that Apatow could have written a somewhat more nuanced character for his wife). Chocano writes in part, and it’s worth reading the whole review:
Alison, meanwhile, dwells in splendor and isolation in Debbie and Pete’s backyard guesthouse; Alison exists on the margins of her big sister’s life. She’s never made to suffer the indignity of explaining her situation to her actual friends because she doesn’t appear to have any. Until Ben comes along, there are no men in her life, and her only friends, glimpsed for a second, appear to be a trio of catty frenemies she hasn’t seen in months. Her first visit to a gynecologist comes only after her first missed period, and she finds the experience as alien as Ben does.
Chocano also points out, as have others, that Kristen Wiig, “as the most terrifyingly passive-aggressive boss ever to schedule a meeting,” is a (chilling) joy to watch. Maybe Apatow—who, I want to say one last time, demonstrated every single week how great his female characters could be on Freaks and Geeks—can extend that smart social satire to his next film, and make a cast of men and women who all have something to offer as characters, whether evil or hilarious or sweet or dim-witted. He’s better than such unnecessarily shallow stand-ins.

Try Ira & Abby.

I saw (and loved) Ira and Abby—David isn’t here to be thanked now, but this was a typically perfect recommendation, and I’m glad I took it.

In a happier development, I’ve learned that this post is now part of the curriculum in NYU’s Expository Writing Program (where I used to teach). If I get hold of any of the student responses, I’ll ask their permission to post them!

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree