February 4th, 2008

carole lombard 01
  • vp19

I'll take romance...but not today's romantic comedies

Kate Hudson (shown above) is an attractive, charming, talented actress, and as the daughter of Goldie Hawn, she certainly has the bloodlines. In a just world, she should be racking up one romantic comedy hit after another, like her mom did a quarter-century ago. Instead, the genre is mired in the doldrums, doing a disservice to her and many other actresses.

What went wrong?

A.O. Scott, film critic for the New York Times, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard -- but don't hold that against him. In Sunday's newspaper, he wrote a perceptive column on the troubles of the romantic comedy, one worth reading by anyone who loves the genre (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/03/movies/03scot.html?ex=1359781200&en=e28f5e6b9cd50865&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink), and while he cites several reasons for the current state of the genre, he believes the primary cause is timidity.

"...the movies made under the old taboos of the Production Code are far more sophisticated, and far less timid, than what we see today. The standard PG-13 romantic comedy nowadays treads so delicately in fear of giving offense to someone somewhere that it wonders into blandness and boredom. Its naughty R-rated sibling, meanwhile, will frequently wallow in coarseness at the expense of subtlety or wit, mistaking grossness for honesty."

It's strict by-the-book demographic filmmaking: innocuous, unthreatening PG-13 stories for the gals (don't forget that karaoke scene), coarse R-rated fare for the guys ("raunchy but sweet"). Sophistication for either gender? Forget it. Judd Apatow yes, Ernst Lubitsch no.

Scott also notes today's romantic comedy actors and actresses aren't allowed to have a sense of risk about them:

"The actresses are spunky and sweet, but lacking in the vinegar that made Barbara Stanwyck in 'The Lady Eve' or Claudette Colbert in 'It Happened One Night' so definitively sexy. Those ladies were not always nice, and neither were their gentleman counterparts, who could be sarcastic, brutish and domineering when the mood struck.

"By contrast, the romantic comedy leading men of today are the kind of nice guy -- the Ralph Bellamy type -- whom these earlier heroines would have triumphed by rejecting. The vision of love they embraced was not comfort and affirmation but a kind of grand, spirited struggle, what used to be called the battle of the sexes."

There are no characters in romantic comedies today that truly capture the spirit of Stanwyck, Colbert or Lombard (shown below in a scene from "Mr. & Mrs. Smith") among actresses and William Powell, Cary Grant or Fred MacMurray among actors. And it's not so much the actors' fault as it is the executives overseeing these films, who have all sorts of audience research at their command, but sadly have no soul nor sense of moviemaking. The result: formula.