What does a woman want?
I always figured that a pretty good guess at the answer would be "Cary Grant," and according to Belinda Luscombe from Time magazine, this is still generally the case, now more than ever. In her article (brought to us courtesy of Chris Soth) Where Have All the Cary Grants Gone? she makes a very convincing case for the current crop of romantic comedy heroes falling woefully short of the long established Cary Grant standard:
They are, all of them, spectacular weenies... The men are about as useful as a pitcher of spit, while the women have careers and well-furnished apartments and vast freighters of wisdom.
She goes on to posit various theories for why the on-screen love interests for Uma Thurman, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Aniston, et al, tend to be unsuccessful slackers.
Is it because guys with real jobs and some sense of purpose, let alone captains of industry, simply aren't funny?
I'm gonna go with... no. Because there's actually a longstanding tradition of successful males being funny in rom-coms (Grant himself most often played powerful men; Wall Street hot-shot Harrison Ford in Working Girl comes to mind, and more recently, the service rom-com Hitch presented Will Smith as a very successful go-to guy).
Most of the men in these movies are under 40. Could it be that a generation raised by women who worked at paying jobs before pulling a second shift as homemakers simply find any situation in which women are not heroically gifted and energetic to be too much of a suspension of disbelief?
Again, I'm thinking... nuh-uh, because 40 Year Old Virgin, Wedding Crashers, 50 First Dates and any number of contemporary rom-coms have featured heroines who were not dynamos in the workplace.
What Luscombe is overlooking, I think, is a basic given of the genre: it was founded on a reversal (i.e. the screwball comedy's at-the-time novel and amusing notion of woman chasing man) and has always thrived on reversal variations to stay fresh. Thus, My Super Ex-Girlfriend's gag of the feminized male (Luke Wilson and Eddie Izzard left holding the handbags while their girlfriends fly off to save the world) and Failure To Launch's joke of "grown man as perpetual live-at-home adolescent," et al.
In other words, whatever the current norm seems to be in terms of gender role tendency, the romantic comedy will turn it on its head for a laugh... with the punch line, more often than not, an assessment of "how things really are." Mr. and Mrs. Smith, for example, while having fun with the reversal of "seemingly dull suburbanite couple as James Bond-like assassins" mirrors a familiar truism about contemporary marriages, where dual-income coupledom can lead to spouses living entirely separate (secret) lives.
Luscombe asks a more interesting question when she notes that the current crop of loser leading men brings movie fantasy way too close to reality:
But who... wants to be reminded of real men? Why do we have to keep seeing in movies the people we sneaked out of the house to get away from?
Well, again, most contemporary rom-coms are attempting to say hello to their demographic. Why shouldn't a current comedy reflect the cultural moment, where in fact the sexes are more polarized and confused than ever, as traditional gender roles are losing ground and the institution of marriage itself is embattled?
Yet I do get what Luscombe is missing. In a time where what a man is, or is supposed to be feels far less easily definable than it used to be, it's only natural that women (and men in the audience looking for role models) would seek refuge in a comforting romantic fantasy. The search for another Cary feels legitimate.
I think, however, that Luscombe is mixing up role with persona. Any actor can play a pirate (role) but only Johnny Depp can do it fey (persona). So it seems she's asking for the men in today's movies to be inhabiting different occupations, or places in the power hierarchy, when she really wants them to be... Cary Grant. Which is what, exactly?
Cary Grant, while always playing Cary Grant, actually had considerable range in terms of roles. He played weenie on occasion (e.g. his delightfully clueless academic in Bringing Up Baby) and could go dark and morally ambiguous (e.g. his tough, cynical government agent in Notorious). But implicit in his appeal, especially when he played successful men, was a uniquely confident quality of remove and independence. The reason so many women chased him in film after film was that he rarely chased. The quintessential Grant stance could be expressed as "come to me if you'd like, but it'll have to be on my terms."
Here's how I characterized the Cary Grant paradigm in Writing the Romantic Comedy:
Never too sophisticated to get slapstick silly, he was as calculatedly smart as he was capable of spontaneous lunacy; no matter how feminized he was forced to be, he remained fundamentally, admirably male to the core; and as involved as he may have gotten in the action, he maintained a certain ironic detachment, a cool self-awareness that made him an ideal audience surrogate.
And hey, if you can be All That and be convincing, then you can play a slacker, drifter, or bozo and still convincingly get the girl. I think the real question, in terms of whether or not current romantic comedies are fulfilling the needs of its audience, is not about the characters, the kinds of roles being written, but about the actors. I see the "where are the Cary Grants" question as literal, i.e. Who's on tap right now who can really fill those shoes?
Hugh Grant had a pretty good run as the Brit variation; Tom Hanks has done, but is perhaps done with, his all-American version. Is the bewildered, beleagured, perennially uncool Ben Stiller really the best we can do, as today's viable, believable romantic comedy lead?
In posts past, I've posited Rachel McAdams as a possible Next Julia. So who do you think might serve as the next Cary? Clearly we'll never have the original again, but who's around who can at least take a shot at the crown? Living the Rom-Com wants to know.