Premarital sex, changing social mores, and fantastical premises probably aren't real obstacles to making good romantic comedies. But Hollywood's fecklessness probably is.
Probably my favorite modernish rom com is Say Anything. A big part of what's great about the film is that writer/director Cameron Crowe manages to create a plot in which the young lead characters, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) and Diane Court (Ione Skye), are not assholes. Crowe does this in large part by turning Diane's father Jim (John Mahoney) into the film's main antagonist. It's Jim who keeps the lovers apart; it's Jim who provides the barrier to their love. As a result, Lloyd doesn't have to cheat on Diane, and Diane doesn't have to keep mooning after him even though he treats her like crap. You can fall in love with both of them without feeling dirty—which, surely, is the entire point of a romantic comedy.
On the one hand, then, Say Anything seems to confirm many of the points Christopher Orr makes in his recent Atlantic piece about the dreadfulness of recent rom coms. Orr argues that romantic comedies these days are so bad because it's harder and harder to find a convincing "obstacle to nuptial bliss." Class, profession, race, parental disapproval—none of these, Orr says, are any longer realistic bars to happiness. Romance must have either serious dilemmas like illness—which ditches the comedy—or else hyperbolically ridiculous ones, which make for bad storytelling. Or (as an alternative Orr does not specifically address) it must keep the protagonists separate by turning one or the other or both into horrible people, which makes the ending repulsive rather than satisfying. (Does anyone think that Eddie Murphy's character getting the girl in Boomerang was a happy ending? Anyone?)
But if Say Anything in part confirms Orr's thesis, it also calls it into question. It's certainly true that the '80s were a while ago, but has the ideology of true love actually changed all that much? Is it really more difficult now to imagine a protective father with an honor student daughter being leery of an intellectually and economically downmarket suitor? When I watched it recently, Say Anything didn't seem like a quaint relic of some past time when parents were nervous about their kids dating. Parents are still nervous about their kids dating, surely. If you could have a romantic comedy about that in 1989, you could have a romantic comedy about it now (albeit with more cell phones).
You could argue that Say Anything is only workable because its protagonists are young, and that romance for older people, at least, has become freer and less constrained. The available statistics, don't support that line of thinking, though. A 2010 study found that between 1967 and 2005 high-earning individuals in the US became more, not less, likely to marry other high earners, and low earners became more likely to marry low earners. A 2005 study found that the likelihood of individuals marrying someone with similar educational achievement increased between 1960 and 2003. The trend is similar in Britain (a sometimes source of rom coms). For those born in 1970, 45 percent married into the same class; for those born between 1976 and 1981, that number increased to 56 percent. When you add in growing income inequality generally, it seems clear that we've become less, not more, equal, and that dating patterns reflect that. It's true that barriers to interracial marriage are collapsing—but how many lasting rom coms about interracial dating outside of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner have been made anyways? If anything, you'd think that the lowering of the taboo would open the possibility for the movies to present interracial differences as humorous barriers to be overcome, rather than (a la Jungle Fever) as serious issues to be addressed in problem films.
In addition to the demographic data, there's another bit of evidence that undermines the thesis that society has rendered rom coms obsolete: rom coms themselves. Not Hollywood rom coms, but rom coms in other media. The long-running television mystery/rom-com Bones, for example, derives its frisson from the social and intellectual differences between its brainy anthropologist female lead and its regular-guy FBI agent male lead. Similarly, the Big Bang Theory's romantic tension is built around the intellectual/class differences between geeky physicist and middle American cocktail waitress—which doesn't seem all that different from the nerdy paleontologist/wealthy goofball pairing in Bringing Up Baby.
The main obstacle in Janet Evanovich's long-running Stephanie Plum mystery/rom-com series, on the other hand, is Plum herself, whose life, including its romantic aspects, is simply one big scattered mess. The main obstacle in Gail Carson Levine's delightful 1996 novel Ella, Enchanted is a curse of obedience on Ella which makes her a danger to her Prince—she needs to sort out her own issues, in other words, before she can love someone else. Orr says that outlandish plot twists like this are part of what's wrong with rom-coms these days—but Levine's novel, and the 2004 film based on it are both delightful. The fantasy is inventive, not decadent.
Both the Stephanie Plum series and Ella Enchanted are built around internal barriers to romance. Alyssa Rosenberg argues that a focus on personal failings such as "indecision, self-doubt, and even arrested development" is the hallmark of the modern rom com in contrast to earlier versions. I'm not convinced, though. After all, the main barriers in Pride and Prejudice are, like the title says, pride and prejudice—Darcy's overweening self-regard and Elizabeth's stubborn insistence on sticking by her initial snap-judgment of his character. It's true that there's an errant aunt who opposes the match for class reasons, but mostly the problem is two protagonists determinedly getting in the way of their own happiness. As with Say Anything, there's no particular reason Jane Austen's rom coms couldn't work today—and, indeed, Clueless' updating of Emma was one of the rare entertaining rom coms of the '90s.
As Orr says, premarital sex in the 1990s was an option in a way that wasn't the case in Emma. But that didn't hurt Clueless, nor Say Anything. Both of these focused on young characters, admittedly, so sex was still a taboo and a tension. But what about Bull Durham? Or Annie Hall? Or Broadcast News? Or Moonstruck? The surprisingly not-awful Mr. and Mrs. Smith even featured a romantic couple who were already married. Yet all these films managed to survive—and even arguably to enjoy and use—the fact that they were able to show consenting adults consenting. Premarital sex (and of course postmarital sex) has been pretty thoroughly validated in rom coms for a long time. Why should it suddenly be a narrative problem now?
So if there has not been any sea change in love in the last 20 or 30 years, why are rom coms so lousy now? I don't have a single answer. Perhaps there hasn't been a falling off, and we're just remembering rom coms past (like the execrable Pretty Woman) through the haze of retrospective nostalgia. Perhaps Hollywood, in its eternal pursuit of the young male demographic, has just stopped being interested in more women-focused pictures. Perhaps it's just one of those genre phases, and in 10 years when we're tired of superheroes, rom-coms will make a comeback again. Perhaps it's a combination of all those factors. But I am sure of one thing. The rom com genre hasn't been destroyed by a national outflowing of tolerance and affection. If there are fewer decent rom coms, it's almost certainly because Hollywood has gotten worse, not because we've gotten better.
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