Well, yuh, we might say -- those of us who haven't come as late to the party of Ragging on Rom-Coms as the esteemed New York Times critic A.O. did in his "A Fine Romance" piece a week or so ago. Scott's had it with the same stuff we've been reviling for awhile now, and it only seems appropriate on Valentine's Day 2008, that Living the Rom-Com should address the ostensible living death of our beloved genre.
As Scott accurately points out, the paradigm for what's generally known as "romantic comedy" today follows a painfully predictable course:
A single woman, courted by two eligible men, will be drawn toward the man who is superficially right but ontologically wrong for her before choosing, in the final 20 minutes, the man with the opposite qualities. Or, more rarely, a single man will face the analogous predicament. Or an incurable skirt chaser will be cured, usually by a lady who at first had seemed to be repelled by his irresistible manly charms. Or a couple on the verge of splitting — or already split — will discover that they were meant to be together after all... If the protagonist is male, his best friend will be either a geek or a boor; if female, her sidekick will be either a prude or a slut.
Scott cites a common answer to "how did this genre fall so far?" i.e. from contemporary relevance and into lackluster movie boredom: the idea that "the rituals of heterosexual courtship no longer provide as flexible or adaptable a framework as they once did" (i.e. post-Sexual Revolution, the rom-com is essentially forced to play tennis without a net). But this, as Scott points out, can't really be the problem, since the "naughty R-rated sibling" of the romantic comedy (e.g. the Judd Apatow ouevre) doesn't fear to tread, however coarsely, a more explicit -- i.e. modern -- path.
Noting another obvious issue -- that many of today's romantic comedy stars lack the substance and sophistication of their forebears -- Scott quickly glosses over the huge success of last year's Knocked Up and Juno as "hardly the norm"; conversely, Scott cites 27 Dresses as being typical of run-of-the-mill rom-com "movies whose notion of love is insipid, shallow and frequently ludicrous."
I'm with you there, A.O., but let me say this about that. Knocked Up is a romantic comedy (while also being a high concept coming-of-age farce) and Juno (coming-of-age dramedy) is a romantic comedy. That these two "exceptions" are the genre's biggest recent successes (along with a more traditional hybrid, Enchanted) speaks to a development that takes some of the air out of Scott's screed: the genre is already transforming.
Yes, there's a lot of rom-com crap out there, as has always been the case -- just as there have always been tons of godawful sci-fi movies to one The Matrix (Part 1), thousands of terrible character-driven ensemble films next to Little Miss Sunshine, et cetera ad infinitum. There are always memorable movies that transcend their genre alongside a stream of biz-as-usual pics that don't even try. The list of truly "great" romantic comedies is an unusually slim one -- a testament to how truly challenging this deceptively simple-looking genre has always been (do try this at home: see how many Inarguably Great Rom-Coms you can add to this list; I'll bet you can't come up with more than another dozen).
Studios keep grinding out the Dated Traditional Date Movie because it's cheap to make, it fills a demographic slot, and once every blue moon or so, they catch lightning in a bottle (see Hitch, for one notable example -- the biggest trad rom-com opening weekend to date). But if the audience stops showing up for negligible shite like Good Luck Chuck (which deservedly tanked), the studios won't make so many of them as a matter of genre course.
What will they be inclined to make instead? More Knocked Ups and Junos, of course, but also more high concept romantic comedies like 50 First Dates and What Women Want; more character-driven rom-coms like Jerry Maguire and As Good as it Gets; more hybrids like Enchanted and Mr. and Mrs. Smith; more Take-a-Chancers like Something's Gotta Give; more indie-bent benders like Eternal Sunshine...
If there is any one through-line or commonality I've found in good, memorable romantic comedies that get made, it's that they don't arrive at the party with "I'm just an old-fashioned rom-com" tattoed across their foreheads. They don't start out with "she's looking for Mr. Right" as their premise; they put their distinctive protagonists in the midst of an extraordinary story where love is a surprise, not an inevitability. Even the Trad Rom-Coms that have been successful in the past decade have come jerry-rigged with some kind of high concept hook; witness Wedding Crashers and How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
This is why I keep telling students, clients, execs and anyone who'll listen (that would be you out there) that romantic comedies that don't even look like romantic comedies (e.g. Groundhog Day, Zelig, Juno) are the smartest way to go -- funny love stories that don't slavishly follow That Formula, and wisely wrap their romances up in a larger movie idea. Thinking outside the romantic comedy Same-Old box is the surest screenwriting path I know to Different.
Originality and passion -- as opposed to dutiful fill-in-the-numbers hackwork -- is the hallmark of great work in every movie genre. So if you're a screenwriter with something to say about love or people and/or both, don't dump your potential rom-com gold into that dusty overused mold Scott described. Surely you can find a way into that material without relying on the hoary, threadbare genre model that's scandalized A.O. and bored rom-com lovers like me to tears.
One such a movie is opening this Valentine's Day. I have to recuse myself from saying too much about Definitely, Maybe because its writer-director Adam Brooks (French Kiss, Wimbledon) is an old friend of mine, but it's a romantic comedy that consciously tweaks the established conventions. And I'll be posting an interview with Mr. Brooks this weekend, to investigate how his genuinely heartfelt attempt to do something different came about.
Vive le difference, y'know? It is, after all, what makes the world go round.