What Went Wrong With Romantic Comedies: Part 3

More critiques of critiques of my critique of modern-day romantic comedies

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Columbia Pictures

As promised on Friday, when I replied at length to Linda Holmes's smart (but, I think, inaccurate) critique of my essay on the decline of the romantic comedy, I'd like to respond to a few of the other thoughtful commentaries on my piece. (Apologies to those of you joining this program in progress. My essential argument is that a significant cause of the genre's decline is that the classic obstacles to a pair of lovers uniting—parental disapproval, difference in social class, prior commitment, etc.—have diminished over time, leading filmmakers to concoct ever-more contrived and esoteric obstacles of their own: e.g., she's human, he's a zombie).

In passing, I'd noted a couple of actors who seem built for romantic comedy, but have largely passed on the genre. One was Will Smith, who was excellent in Hitch, his only outing. The other was George Clooney, who demonstrated his chops early in One Fine Day; teased again in the small-bore, slightly offbeat hybrids Intolerable Cruelty and Leatherheads; and has spent essentially every day for the last 15 years or so evoking comparisons to Cary Grant. Over at Slate, Alyssa Rosenberg added a couple of female analogues:

Kate Winslet's starred in some great, weird movies that exist at the edge of romantic comedy, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the deeply, charmingly bizarre Romance and Cigarettes, as well as a more conventional one, the underrated The Holiday. ... Similarly, Cate Blanchett has generally been too busy playing queens, malevolent government researchers, or even campy Nazi scientists to spend time making the audience wonder will they or won't they.

I agree entirely regarding both actresses' gifts—and consider Eternal Sunshine among the best films of the last 20 years—but I confess I have little sense of how either would perform in a straightforward rom-com. (I've seen only part of The Holiday, and I was underwhelmed.) Which, I suppose, is the point: Who can tell, given that neither actress has given the genre much of a go? I'd add two other names to the coulda/shoulda list, though from opposite ends of the spectrum. First, Amanda Peet: Her career has been up and down, but she has dramatically outshone mediocre material in rom-commy roles such as The Whole Nine Yards (which she stole) and Something Like Love (which she tried valiantly, if hopelessly, to save). And, in the opposite direction, Meryl Streep: Following such dabbles as Defending Your Life and Mamma Mia, her performance in Julie & Julia was a genuine revelation—perhaps the most open, and witty, and sexy (in the real sense, not the typical Hollywood one) performance of her career. In my preferred alternative reality, there's a 90-minute cut of her Julia-Child storyline (featuring the also-tremendous Stanley Tucci) unadulterated by the unappetizing (and unworthy) Julie Powell narrative.

Rosenberg also points out that my diminishing-impediments-to-true-love argument is not (of course) all there is to say:

[A] point I think Orr misses is that the genuinely strong romantic comedies of the last decade or so have ventured inward for obstacles, rather than inventing ludicrous external ones. ... Part of what made Bridesmaids so wonderful was that Annie Walker (Kristen Wiig) wasn't an essentially perfect woman barred by class or reputation from pursuing true love. She was a self-loathing mess grieving the loss of a relationship and her professional dream who had to fix herself before she was capable of loving someone, rather than overcoming external obstacles to be with someone she already loved. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Andy (Steve Carell) had to overcome his deep-seated terror of sex, and of growing up, to be able to form an adult emotional relationship. If romantic comedies have gotten harder to do well, maybe it's actually not because so many barriers to finding love have fallen, but rather because modern love's gotten more difficult, and more difficult to capture.

I agree completely, with only the miniscule quibble that I suspect the difference is less that love has gotten more difficult than that it's become more central to the definition of a good relationship. Companionate pairings, marriages that are more practical than passionate—anything less than ongoing romantic love is held in relatively low cultural esteem these days. Like most, I consider these higher expectations a good thing. But, as Rosenberg suggests, higher expectations can also lead to greater disappointments.

I'd add, too, that while the suggestion of internal, rather than external, romantic impediments definitely characterizes many of the better contemporary romantic comedies, the theme has been there from the beginning. One prominent example is the fascinating subgenre of the "comedy of remarriage," exemplified by The Philadelphia Story but including numerous other classics from the 1930s and '40s. Another is the work of Woody Allen at his 1970s to 1980s peak. He may have mined the Jewish-gentile divide for material, but he never suggested it was a primary obstacle to romantic fulfillment: The fundamental problem, he made clear, was that he (or at least his onscreen persona) was neurotic, narcissistic, and impossible to live with. And while I'm on the subject, let's just throw in most of the Albert Brooks oeuvre as well.

On to Noah Berlatsky's response to my essay here at TheAtlantic.com. Berlatsky cites at length Cameron Crowe's Say Anything, of which I too am a great fan. "When I watched it recently," he writes, "Say Anything didn't seem like a quaint relic of some past time when parents were nervous about their kids dating." I agree completely. But what if the young lovers weren't quite so young—say, in their mid-to-late 20s rather than their teens—wouldn't her father's disapproval seem a somewhat outdated obstacle? Berlatsky anticipates this line of reasoning, noting "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." Which is, yes, very much what I'd argue, and to my mind a big reason that romantic comedy has been trending toward high-school storylines for a good long while. But Berlatsky continues:

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.

But I'm not arguing that we've become more equal; I'm arguing that the many cultural taboos regarding romance—including the taboo about marrying beneath one's station—have diminished over the last 70+ years. And I don't think Berlatsky's data suggest otherwise. There are any number of clear factors to explain the long-term trend of like marrying like: the historic increase of women in higher education and the workforce(!), the relative ease of geographic relocation and tendency toward cultural clustering, etc. The idea that these statistics instead reflect a steady or growing taboo against marrying outside one's own economic subgroup (let alone cultural, religious, racial, etc.) strikes me as extremely unpersuasive. To put it another way, the fact that many people are making the same choice in no way entails that their range of choices has diminished. But I'm obviously no sociologist.

Finally, a quick shout-out to Billy Mernit, author of the book Writing the Romantic Comedy and the blog Living the Romantic Comedy, who in a generous post notes

So to Christopher Orr, with whom I couldn't agree more, I say, Welcome to my world, and I'm glad you're putting in establishment print what I said in the blogosphere over two months ago: Silver Linings Playbook and Moonrise Kingdom were indeed the best romantic comedies of 2012.

Aargh! Sure, a million people cited Silver Linings Playbook as the best (or one of the best) romantic comedies of the year. But I imagined that my inclusion of Moonrise Kingdom in the category was a relatively original thought. Alas, like pretty much all my other thoughts, it was thunk by someone else first.

In any case I'm glad it helped acquaint me with Mernit's site, which is dedicated to the twin propositions that a) the formulaic, narrowly defined rom-com of the Kate Hudson-Matthew McConaughey variety has run its course; and b) there are plenty of inventive, touching, and witty avenues out of this particular cul de sac. If you care at all about the genre, his site merits visiting.