What Went Wrong With Romantic Comedies: Part 2

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Critiquing a critique of my critique of modern-day rom coms

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Several writers have offered thoughtful responses to my essay in the current print magazine on the decline of romantic comedy, and I'd like to respond in kind to a few of them, including Alyssa Rosenberg (Slate), Noah Berlatsky (here at theatlantic.com) and Billy Mernit (Living the Romantic Comedy).

But I thought I'd start first with the longest—and most critical—rejoinder, which comes courtesy of Linda Holmes, who writes the Monkey See culture blog for NPR. It's a sharp piece by someone who obviously has given a great deal of thought to romantic comedy as a genre, but I think she believes we disagree about a good deal more than we actually do.

Holmes's first major perceived disagreement is over my contention that a central factor in the genre's ebbing fortunes is the gradual erasure of the cultural barriers that once served to reliably keep would-be lovers apart until the final reel: parental disapproval, economic status, prior matrimonial commitment, and so on. As Holmes writes:

[If] you really examine these films, what you'll find is that ... story-wise, they're resoundingly silly. They are exercises in flawless scene-level execution, not storytelling -- the stories, such as they are, are really just frames to hang great conversations on. ... In other words, many of the romantic comedies we revere have always had something in common with the ones we don't: something I used to call the "hum-through plot," meaning that you just hum really loudly and ignore how dopey it is until you get back to the great scenes where people are talking to each other.

I agree completely! My argument was not that the classic storylines of the romantic comedy were clever, or inherently witty, or in any way innovative. Quite the contrary: It's that they were easy. Filmmakers didn't need to waste their limited screen time (or brainpower) inventing brilliant new foils to connubial bliss. They could pencil in inappropriate match for reason x and focus on writing good scenes. As I noted in my essay, part (but certainly not all) of what ails the romantic comedy today is the pressure to come up with some brand-new, never-before-seen impediment to the protagonists' cohabitating happily 15 minutes into the movie. To cite a very recent, if unexpectedly successful, example: she's a human being, he's a flesh-eating zombie.

Raymond Chandler once wrote (and many filmmakers have recently rediscovered, thanks in large part to Quentin Tarantino) that the key to the hard-boiled crime genre was that "the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one that made good scenes." That was, and still is, true of romantic comedy as well. The problem, as I see it, is that so much effort is expended on inventing new romantic obstacles to be overcome and so little (at least relatively speaking) to writing scenes worth watching.

Holmes also takes issue with my (brief!) contention that geographic distance is no longer a substantial impediment to love—and, of course, she's right. But I stand by the idea that though we may now be more likely to get to know people from a distance, the distance itself ultimately proves a smaller impediment than it did ten years ago, let alone 30 or more. Many, if not most, of the couples I know spent time in different cities at some point early in their relationships (including my now-wife and I for four long trans-coastal months in 1996). Skype and email and online chatting may be lousy substitutes for physical proximity, but they beat the hell out of costly long-distance phone calls.

For what it's worth, I am entirely of a mind with many of Holmes's observations, including those regarding Pretty Woman, Silver Linings Playbook, Notting Hill, About a Boy, and several other films. (On Two Weeks Notice, by contrast, we'll have to agree to disagree. Fond as I am of Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock, I found it nearly unwatchable, and its signature "What baby?" scene appallingly unfunny.)

There is one other implicit contention Holmes's piece, though, that I think bears specific rebuttal. In an asterixed footnote to the very first sentence of her 3,000-word essay, Holmes notes snarkily:

Because we apparently remain in a cultural 2009 where everything that anyone doesn't like is Katherine Heigl's fault, the subhed [of Orr's article] is "The long decline from Katharine Hepburn to Katherine Heigl." If the same piece came out in six months, it probably would have said "The long decline from Audrey Hepburn to Anne Hathaway."

Now, as Holmes no doubt knows, writers don't choose their own subheds, and the purpose of those subheds is not to explain the central argument but to draw readers in such that they might be persuaded to read said argument. As a writer, I might have preferred "Has the erosion of obstacles to nuptial bliss sunk the romantic comedy?" (or something along those lines); as an editor, I recognize the pithier Hepburn-Heigl comparison to be a better hook—not because Heigl is uniquely unlikable, but because her name and Hepburn's are similar.

But beyond such inside-baseball journalistic distinctions, I think her parallel makes very little sense. Heigl, for better or worse, is intimately connected to the romantic comedy genre, having barely worked outside of it. Anne Hathaway has had a rom-com bite here and there, but it's not remotely what she's best known for. The idea that Hathaway would be a suitable update for Heigl might make sense for a piece that was about irrational actress hatred. But that's not what my piece was about: It was about romantic comedy—as was, ostensibly, Holmes's response. I mentioned Heigl precisely twice: once in summarizing A. O. Scott's thoughts on the decline of rom-com star-power (that's where the subhed came from) and once noting that she was the protagonist of the abominable 2009 movie The Ugly Truth. Holmes leapt not only on the former, but on the latter as well, writing:

If you believe that what was wrong with The Ugly Truth was Katherine Heigl, you didn't see it. That movie was cancerous and revolting from the outset, and you could have resurrected Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn and both of them, one standing on the other's shoulders, wrapped in a giant trenchcoat, and that movie would not have been any better. ...What's most profoundly wrong is the terrible, mean-spirited scripts that are getting made, that are making people feel justified in using "rom-com" as an eye-rolling insult, and we've got to stop that first. .... I also must admit to another fairly firm belief: that we're not going to enter another "golden age" until we address the epidemic of weirdly aggressive actress-hating that seems to befall anyone who trades on straight likability.

I've condensed her comments on the subject, but their clear implication is that my article is part of a larger trend of actress-hating that is harming the romantic comedy genre. But here's the thing: I did see The Ugly Truth, and I don't believe Katherine Heigl was what was wrong with it. Again, Holmes and I are on the same page here. My review of the movie didn't focus on any shortcomings by Heigl (though it noted in passing her abrupt and mercenary metamorphosis from outspoken Hollywood feminist to high-paid frontwoman for remarkably sexist films). Rather I focused on the film's grotesque misogyny and the fact that Heigl's character was a "pitiless sexual caricature." If that wasn't enough, in my 2009 end-of-the-year roundup I gave the film a special award as "Worst Movie (Misogyny Pretending to Be Feminism Category)."

In short—though I suppose this reply has been anything but—I agree with Holmes that there's a peculiar and somewhat disturbing tendency to pile on certain actresses for being "unlikable." But I disagree that my piece was in any way an example of the phenomenon.

Coming soon (I hope): responses to Rosenberg, Berlatsky, and Mernit.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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