Maybe we’re just not in the mood. Perhaps political argument has bludgeoned any penchant for witty flirtatious banter out of our current recessionist American moment. Maybe a decade of male POV sex farce and wedding-obsessed chick-flickism has debilitated a once-hardy genre, but whatever: this was a dismal year for romantic comedy. (A good year for Astas - named for the terrier who upstaged Cary Grant in such screwball classics as Bringing Up Baby - can be found here).
To cut right to the scoreboard, there was no Best Romantic Comedy of 2010, i.e. no one movie that struck a chord with the public and cognoscenti at large. This was a year of a few great moments, here and there – little glimmers of genuine artistry and hilarity in otherwise uninspired and incoherent movies.
Some of the best rom-com bits – and entire relationships – showed up in movies that were not romantic comedies, the former exemplified by a leading man falling asleep in the midst of hot sex (Steven Dorf in Somewhere), and the latter embodied in a lesbian-heterosexual triangle (Julianne Moore with Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right).
Regarding what passed for certified Romantic Comedy in 2010, before kind-of celebrating what was Not So Bad, we might as well get the worst out of the way. In this sphere, we have a clear, no-contest Asta winner.
The Worst Romantic Comedy of the Year – aka The Best Mercenary Marketing Ploy of 2010 – was Valentine’s Day, a movie of such soul-killing superficiality that it hurts a true genre fan to have to even try to remember it. The public showed up for the holiday, and for the package of stars, making it the most financially successful rom-com of the year, but here’s the most telling fact: Valentine’s Day also had one of the year’s biggest second-weekend drop-offs (a whopping 70%). In other words, we came, it sucked, and hardly anybody came after.
The rest of the worst ran the gamut from big-ticket bombs (Sex and the City 2) to ubiquitous negligible zom-coms, i.e. zombie romantic comedies that were dead before they were made (Leap Year, When in Rome, et al).
In the realm of Squandered Potential, we’re giving out a special new award this year, called The Jen in honor of Ms. Aniston, who true-to-form, delivered two awful rom-coms in 2010 (The Bounty Hunter, The Switch). This year’s Jen Award goes to Katherine Heigl, who only yesterday was a Great White Hope for rom-coms, but in 2010 wasted herself, and our attention, in both Life As We Know It (a could’ve-been-fun parental rom-com) and Killers (a heinous hybrid). Speaking of hybrids…
Biggest Rom-Com Missed Opportunity: Date Night. We so wanted to love this middling mediocrity of a concoction, we fans of Tina Fey and Steve Carell, two of today’s most appealing, often brilliant comedic talents, and the best everyone involved could come up with was… this, a disappointment that gave far too much credence to its disposable cops-and-robbers plot, and nearly allowed a buff, half-naked Marky Mark to walk away with the show, (occasioning Carell’s best line, “Will you, for the love of God, put on a f--king shirt?!”).
Fey and Carell did provide a few of those aforementioned moments (e.g. a minute of inspired mugging as they pretend to be pretentious hipsters at a too-hot restaurant). But will someone, for the love of the Gods of comedy, find these two a real f--king vehicle? In the meantime, here’s what we were left with as – if not the Best of 2010 – the Better, and the Okay.
Best Teen Rom-Com (That Was More of a Coming-of-Age Movie): Absolutely no competition in the teen sex comedy category this year. For sheer wit, cinematic snappiness, and all-around cool – and for introducing us to Emma Stone, future adult romantic comedy star, heading up a pitch-perfect ensemble cast – Easy A was this year’s next-best-thing-to-Clueless.
Best Rom-Com Hybrid: Living the RomCom realizes it may be a stone alone, but for our popcorn money, the much maligned Knight and Day provided the best smiles’n’stunts combo in 2010, giving Tom Cruise a good excuse to make fun of himself and giving Cameron Diaz a better workout than she’s had in some execrable straight-up formulaic rom-com fare (e.g. What Happens in Vegas). Not taking itself seriously for a second, this entertaining escapist trifle delivered just the right blend of Romance Lite and action thrills, which is more than can be said for some (see Date Night).
Best Video Game Romantic Comedy: I thought Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, a love-it or hate-it room-splitter, was a hoot, Style In Search of Substance though it may be. With great visuals from director Edgar Right, it earns a Best Supporting Buddy Asta for that young Master of Wry, Kieran Culkin.
Best Bromantic Comedy: Another thin field this year, suggesting that sublimated rom-com homoerotica may have (at least temporarily) run its course in Hollywood, and leaving us with the overtly gay I Love You, Philip Morris. An admirable performance from Jim Carrey, as a con man obsessed with Ewan McGregor, and a nicely stylized story that's a lot easier to swallow when you know it was based on the real-life exploits of one Steven Russell, a man who escaped from prison multiple times… for love.
Best Female Lead in a Rom-Com: Not many people saw, or warmed to, the darkly cynical depths of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, more of a dramedy than a comedy, but those who did came out singing the praises of Greta Gurwig. After proving her indie cred in such films as Hannah Takes the Stairs, Gurwig brought a fresh level of risk-taking naturalism, vulnerability and loopy comic timing to the mainstream screen; we hope to see more of her, and soon, please.
Most Valuable Player in Romantic Comedy 2010 goes to the ever-charming Paul Rudd, who gave his largely unsung conviction to the reviled James Brooks project, How Do You Know. Typical of this year’s disappointments, the bloated, indulgent and mostly wrong-headed Know (there's actually an intriguing idea for a movie buried in it) had one great set piece – a post-birth hospital marriage proposal scene done once, then reenacted for video – but otherwise would have been entirely unwatchable but for Rudd's enduring endearing-ness.
Best Chemistry in a Romantic Comedy: Yes, it’s a mess of a movie made of what feel like three competing movies, one-third awful, and one-third “Huh?” But the third of Love and Other Drugs that features Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal in various erotic situations (while doing their damnedest not to fall in love) is genuinely, believably sexy. They're great to watch together, and their lust, minus the old bedsheet-over-boobs, is portrayed with a modicum of realism, which is more than we got in most of 2010’s high-toned romantic dramas, thank you very much. Speaking of realism…
The Most Decent Romantic Comedy in a Year of Diminished Expectations: Its plot is pedestrian, its moves are predictable, but the only rom-com released in 2010 that made me laugh out loud heartily, and more than once, was Nanette Burstein’s Going the Distance. Its intelligent, cliché-tweaking script (by Geoff LaTulipe) is filled with dialogue that sounds like people who might actually exist in the real world talking. Leads Drew Barrymore – as a woman acknowledging her age, and having an understandable issue about it – and Justin Long, playing a guy whose flawed setup created the one truly shaky contrivance in the story (Dude, why don’t you just relocate?!) – make an unusually credible couple.
The film is anything but epic, and its bar is generally not set very high; in another few years, its small pleasures may have faded from memory. But as a believably representative picture of like, what the American rom-com culture was like in 2010, this little movie delivered the goods. You can either see that as a sad indictment of the state of this genre’s art, or as a reasonable rental for rom-com fans to spend a few hours with this winter.
Living the Rom-Com, thankful for such small favors, can only hope that things get bigger and better in the decade to come.