Is this as good as it gets?

Ever since "Sleepless in Seattle," so-called chick movies have been in slow decline.

Published June 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

To get a sense of how desperate the state of contemporary romantic comedies
has become, all you have to do is flip through a few of the women's
magazines currently on the stands until you find the Virginia Slims ad that
shows a man snoozing in the background as his wife sits nearby on the
couch, enraptured by the romance movie she's brought home from the video
store. The joke the ad riffs on -- the tired notion that men are bored by
romance in the movies and women lap it up -- is just another version of
"Vive la diffirence," the exasperated eye-rolling that both sexes fall back
on when they realize they just don't understand each other. But when it
comes to romantic comedies, why should there be a difference?

The ad is part of a heinous new breed that allegedly speak the language of
modern women but really only reinforce the warped notion of some ad exec (who may even be a woman herself) about how simple and predictable women
really are. But taken in the context of how lousy most romance movies are
today -- specifically, romantic comedies -- the ad is insulting to both
sexes. Because romantic comedies have become so dismal, so laden with
lame humor and couples that barely spark and so transparent as flimsy therapy
substitutes designed to make women feel good about themselves (the
assumption being that we all feel bad to begin with), that it's often
surprising that anyone, man or woman, finds them acceptable.

In their glory days, in the 1930s, romantic comedies were made for, and enjoyed
by, men and women alike. In his perceptive 1987 history of the genre,
"Romantic Comedy," James Harvey writes about how the comedies of the early
'30s (movies like Ernst Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise") paved the way
for the later screwball comedies (such as Howard Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby,"
George Cukor's "Holiday" and Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve" and "The Palm
Beach Story"), which showed a more complicated view of love than they're
sometimes given credit for. "The comedies of the early thirties are
moving ... toward a romantic-comic version of love that is neither
sentimental on the one hand nor cynical and mocking on the other," Harvey
writes. "Toward a notion of love as something that is not only not
inconsistent with 'grace,' dignity, common sense, and self-respect -- but
that even somehow leads to higher, truer forms of all these qualities."
Romantic comedies weren't devised as strictly feminine entertainment (that
was the province of movies like "Imitation of Life," "Stella Dallas" and,
later, "Mildred Pierce"). The assumption was that you only had to be human to be interested in them.

Romantic comedies mutated over the years, but even as late as the '80s, it wasn't so hard to find pictures like "Tootsie" and "Moonstruck" that kept the essence of the genre alive. But sometime in the early '90s,
almost without warning, romantic comedies became ineffably stupid. Around
the same time, they also became vehicles targeted mainly toward women:
"chick movies," as Tom Hanks in "Sleepless in Seattle" derisively refers to
them. "Sleepless in Seattle" itself, released in 1993, could be considered
the mother of all chick movies, the hen responsible for any number of
subsequent rotten eggs -- from "While You Were Sleeping" to "You've Got Mail" to facile exercises
like "As Good as It Gets" and current stinkers like "Notting Hill" and "The Love Letter." With "Sleepless in Seattle," the earmarks of the modern romance movie started to
become drearily predictable. Their heroines tended to be cutie-pie moppets with impish grins (Meg Ryan) or dazzling brunets who needed to be
costumed in schleppy clothes so they'd seem more "real" (Sandra Bullock) -- women who could in no way be interpreted as "threatening" to either men or women. The witty repartee usually consisted of the female lead standing up to the male lead in an argument, possibly stamping
her foot for emphasis (a clear assertion that she's a "strong" character
who's not going to take any guff from a man). When things got a little slow,
there was always the obligatory Motown -- or, better yet, Aretha -- sing-along.

In "Sleepless in Seattle," Ryan's character was supposed to
be a modern, take-charge woman because she saw the man she wanted and went
for him, using the resources available to her as a newspaper employee to
find out where he lived so she could follow him around, everywhere, surreptitiously. In some quarters, that would be called "stalking": Think
how creepy a male character, even an appealing one, would seem if he used
the same tactics. But because this character was played by Meg Ryan -- she
of the crooked smile and undimmable twinkle -- no one thought twice about it.

There's an air of desperation about Ryan's character in "Sleepless in Seattle" that seems to have become not only acceptable but desirable in
most modern romantic comedies. On a good day, you might be able to convince yourself that writers simply want to give us women with real problems, real fears: It's not unnatural for unattached women (or men) to fear growing old
alone or missing the chance to have children. Nor is it unnatural for
married women (or men) to wish for maybe just a little more than they
actually have or, sometimes, just something different. But it's
gotten to the point where the mining of insecurities has become nothing
more than a slickly disguised marketing ploy -- as if we needed these movies to tell us, "See, this woman's a lot more pathetic than you are, and even she managed to find a guy!"

What the modern movies lack -- and what the older movies, even the ones with the happiest endings, always at least suggest -- is the sense that
romance is always about risk and adventure. In the real world, there are no guarantees of
happiness beyond the happy ending; the last line uttered in Gregory LaCava's "My Man Godfrey," just as the two central characters are about to
marry, is "It'll all be over in a minute." It's meant to be funny, but
there's an obvious shade of ambiguity to it. That's not to say that love
is a throwaway: If anything, it's a reassurance of how precious it is -- and a reminder that you have to take a chance to make it work.

But the new romantic comedies take such care to sew everything up so neatly -- to spell out in neon-bright letters that the lovers are so perfect for
each other that nothing could ever go wrong -- that they seem like a grappling insistence of love's permanence instead of a kiss for good luck.
And somewhere along the way, they've become repositories for all the things
women are said to feel most insecure about. Sandra Bullock's too pretty?
Put her in a sweater where the sleeves droop past her fingertips -- the
image I recall most vividly from "While You Were Sleeping" -- so the
audience will be able to "relate" to her. Romantic comedies have always
been designed to make audiences walk out feeling good -- that's one of the
things that make them wonderful. But in the '90s, that motivation has taken
a subtle and unpleasant shift. Now it's imperative that audiences,
particularly women, walk out feeling good about themselves -- as if
romantic comedies were now just the movie equivalent of mother's little helper.

That's not to say that all women fall for these movies, or that only women
fall for them, or that there's anything wrong with anyone's enjoying
them on some level. The fact that many of these movies become big hits
reflects the idea that audiences are still curious about romantic comedies,
still hoping they'll fulfill their expectations, high or low, of having a good time. I see these movies because it's part of my job, but I'd go to see them even if I didn't have
to. I'm so in love with the idea of romantic comedies -- as they've
been interpreted by the likes of Sturges, Lubitsch, Hawks, Cukor and
LaCava or, later, Jonathan Demme, Richard Linklater, Kenneth Branagh and
Danny Boyle -- that hope springs eternal. I can't help feeling that maybe
the next one will actually have some vitality, some crackle, and so I try
to see them all.

But time after time, I find myself hopelessly disappointed -- cast in the
"man's" role of yawning and looking at my watch, or averting my eyes in
embarrassment. I'm all too aware of the social expectation that women
"should" like these movies. When I panned "Notting Hill" in Salon Arts & Entertainment, for instance, I got a charming anonymous e-mail that said only, "What's up with your PMS?" As if the only reason I could possibly have for not liking the movie was that my
hormones had gone awry. A woman wrote suggesting that I didn't like the
movie because I'd never been in love and urged me to "go out once in a
while and maybe you'll find that person that will make you feel better
about yourself" -- right after she told me she liked "Notting Hill" so much
that she was "dragging her husband to see it." Men are often vilified for
not liking the same kinds of movies their partners do. But why should it be
considered a fatal flaw (or a shortcoming of one's sex, whether male or
female) to dislike a genre of movies that has gone so downhill in the past
10 years?

The hearts of men aren't easily understood (and I hardly envy them for
having to fathom ours). But I think that if we had the right
kind of romance movies -- movies that were well-written, where the
women know their own minds without having to wave a flag of clichis to
announce it, where the men could be tender, aggressive, heroic and funny
in whatever measures the story (or the love affair) calls for -- then most
men would enjoy them as much as we women are supposed to. I have a friend
who's enough of a man's man for anybody -- his laser disc collection of loud
action movies is unparalleled -- but the one movie he says he can watch
any time is "A Room With a View."

And the truth is, I desperately wanted to like "Notting Hill." London is a
city I love, and I've been charmed by both Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in
the past. But I couldn't get past the idea that both of them were playing
nothing more than caricatures; he the shy, shambling English guy (as if by
decree or birthright all Englishmen necessarily must shamble) and she the
caustically cool (supposedly a substitute for "strong-willed"),
successful-yet-sensitive film star who desperately wants a normal life. No
matter how much they twinkle and beam in each other's general direction, I
couldn't actually see Grant and Roberts falling in love. The fact
that she was a movie star and he was an average-guy bookstore owner seemed
the least of their problems. Roberts acts like little more than a spoiled
star (again, that's the signal that she's a strong, modern woman) with a
young man who, no matter what his failings, is clearly crazy about her, and
she yields too little too late. By comparison, Barbara Stanwyck's character
in the "The Lady Eve" is an all-around tougher character -- you could argue
that she's even further afield than Roberts in terms of being likable in
any soft "womanly" way. But unlike Roberts, Stanwyck -- an actress who was
ahead of her time, playing a character that sometimes seems to be ahead of
our time -- doesn't use hardness as an obvious effect, just so our
hearts can be warmed by her ultimate transformation. Her dominance over her
partner is a given throughout the movie -- which is why it means so much
when she finally meets him halfway.

Good chemistry between lead actors, hard enough to get on its own, means
little without good writing. I think of the dialogue in the best romantic
comedies -- say, "The Palm Beach Story" or "Holiday" -- as somehow needing
to "catch." That catch can be breathtakingly perfect, like a sprocket
clicking into place, or just a little discomfiting, the way a swirling
float of fabric might snag itself on a nail. Take the moment in "The Lady
Eve" when Stanwyck and Henry Fonda -- they're on a ship together, they've
just met, he's a shy reptile specialist who's been off collecting snakes in
the wild, she's a wily cardsharp who's well on her way to seducing him --
are just about to part for the evening: "You certainly are a funny girl for
anybody to meet who's just been up the Amazon for a year," he says. "It's a
good thing you weren't up there two years," she volleys back, an easy
backhanded toss.

That line is just a few ticks of the clock off. It makes no sense until it
circles back on you a second later, by which time it makes perfect
sense. It's the sort of exchange you can't imagine Richard Curtis (who
wrote both "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill") or Nora Ephron
(the evil mastermind behind "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail")
coming up with. In fact, when Ephron needs snappy dialogue, she handily
adapts it: "You've Got Mail" is based on Lubitsch's lovely 1940 film "The
Shop Around the Corner," written by Samson Raphaelson. Raphaelson's name
is included in the credits of "You've Got Mail." But it's still
interesting that in the movie's pivotal scene, where Hanks and
bookstore owner Ryan meet in a cafe (they've been e-mail pen pals
for a while; Hanks knows her identity, but she doesn't know his), the
dialogue obviously parallels that of Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in
"The Shop Around the Corner." (Even worse, Ryan is clearly aping Sullavan's
light-as-raindrops delivery, and she can't pull it off.) In the hands of a
more skillful writer, the sequence could have been pulled off as an homage.
But Ephron flattens it out so much that it seems like nothing so much as
old-fashioned laziness, a way to catch a free ride on the earlier movie's

The problem isn't that these new romantic comedies rely on formula. The
best romantic comedies ever made were built on a dependable structure: Boy
and girl meet, hate each other and spend the rest of the picture
discovering they're perfect for each other. That's the armature for all the
jokes, the sly flirtations, the heated arguments and tender reconciliations
that make the genre what it is. And as hateful as it is when old codgers
(or young ones) prattle on about how much better movies were in the old
days, the simple truth is that romantic comedies just were better in
the '30s and '40s. There are no contemporary equivalents of Sturges,
Lubitsch or Hawks, people who could brush the everyday travails of
courtship with so much wit and magic.

Yet there are directors who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to
revive the spirit of the old romantic comedies, giving them a modern, edgy
twist: Jonathan Demme with "Something Wild," Kenneth Branagh with "Dead
Again" (really more of a thriller than a comedy, strictly speaking, but one
that's both lyrical and jazzily syncopated in its romanticism), Danny Boyle
with "A Life Less Ordinary,"
Richard Linklater with the exquisite "Before Sunrise."

Mainstream audiences may consider some of those movies too offbeat. But
even mainstream romantic comedies, with the right kind of writing and some
creative casting, could be so much sharper, smarter and funnier -- not to
mention more romantic -- than they are. There are too many good actors who
go untapped for these roles: Daniel Day-Lewis and Ewan McGregor have both
been terrific as romantic leads, and I get the sense they could be funny as
hell in a romantic comedy. It's time for John Cusack -- a fabulous lead in
teen romantic comedies -- to get more of those roles in movies geared
toward adults. George Clooney has already proved how perfect he is for the
genre in the otherwise depressing "One Fine Day." Rupert Everett, an actor
who understands instinctively the difference between smoky eroticism and
your basic garden-variety sexiness, is devastatingly funny (and deeply,
deeply romantic) in Oliver Parker's upcoming adaptation of Oscar Wilde's
"An Ideal Husband."

Angelina Jolie, astonishing in "Pushing Tin," has sex appeal and feline wit in spades. Cameron Diaz -- whose good timing in "There's Something About
and "A Life Less Ordinary" is more than a match for her good looks --
may be one of the few modern actresses capable of doing screwball roles
without making them shrill and unbearable. Anne Heche, Julianne Moore,
Regina King, Marisa Tomei (who seems to be making riskier choices these
days, on the basis of her roles in "Welcome to Sarajevo" and "The Slums of
Beverly Hills"
), Angelica Huston, Sharon Stone (whose understated, foxy
sense of humor has always been underappreciated): They're all
actresses who know how to swing -- 5/4 to Meg Ryan's 4/4.

With talent like that, there's no reason this shouldn't be a terrific time
for romantic comedies. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of contemporary
moviegoers who hope -- as well as deserve -- to see something good
now. Something that reflects their own experience but, even better
yet, elevates it, showing them a world in which people are smart,
funny and pleasing to look at but still have to master the elaborate,
excruciatingly lovely minuet that goes with falling in love, just as the
rest of us do. Why are these movies so few and far between? Are "Notting
Hill," "You've Got Mail," "While You Were Sleeping" and countless others
the movies we really deserve? Or do we accept them because they're about as
good as we can expect to get?

Going to the movies is a lot like love. You can always settle for less. But
why on earth would you want to?

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

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