The Best in Romantic Comedy 2012
2012 was either a godawful year for the genre or an inspiring, watershed year for it, depending upon how you define the term "romantic comedy." In this regard, 2012's Astas serve as a response to the article by Vulture (New York magazine) writer Claude Brodessor-Akner, Can the Romantic Comedy Be Saved?, which despite its dire-sounding title is required reading for anyone interested in the form.
Brodessor-Akner's thesis, in its essentials, is that "the romantic comedy" - i.e. the kind of studio-produced rom-com programmer vehicle for two stars that reached its contemporary peak popularity before the turn of the century - is on its last legs, if not over, as a viable moneymaking proposition for Hollywood. Look at Brodessor-Akner's box office numbers, and by his definition, the premise is hard to argue with. And the reasons for this palpable decline, from sociological (e.g. the end of the traditional nuclear family) to star-centric (e.g. Where's the new Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts?) make sense.
But from Living the Romantic Comedy's point of view, this is a glass half-full situation. Do I care that such brain-dead zombie rom-coms as this year's This Means War and this month's tanker Playing For Keeps have failed to find an audience? In fact, I'm cheered. I've long argued that this beast must die. The genre needs to evolve to survive - as it's been doing, subversively, for years. And this calls for, in part, a change in perception on the part of studios, critics, and the audience.
What Brodesor-Akner is calling romantic comedy conflates a certain kind of conservative, formulaic chick flick (its typical plot: Career Girl Chases Alpha Guy) with a love story that's comedic. Which is why his article - one that I admire, given that he's making many of the same points I've been making on this blog for the past near-eight years - omits mention of the Best Romantic Comedy of 2012: David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, an Oscar contender that many people don't even think of as being a romantic comedy.
But Manohla Dargis nailed it, in her acutely observed NY Times review: What starts out feeling like a dysfunctional family dramedy is actually an obvious heir to the screwball comedies of the genre's golden age, complete with two "crazy" protagonists who turn out to be the sanest people in a world of the even crazier. The film features 2012's Best Rom-Com Female Lead - a strong, sexy, marvelously complicated Jennifer Lawrence - as well as a Best Rom-Com Supporting Role in Robert DeNiro, thankfully not phoning it in, this time. And if you're not getting that this is romantic comedy... as DeNiro says in a pivotal scene, you "gotta rethink this whole thing."
Romantic comedy by my definition is a largely comedic story that asks the question, Will these two people become a couple? If answering this question is the movie's primary preoccupation, it's a rom-com. Which is why 2012's Best Rom-Com Screenplay goes to Wes Anderson, for his magical coming-of-age/rom-com hybrid Moonrise Kingdom.
You may say "twee," and I say "moved to tears," since I found this delectably crafted evocation of the world of adolescence to be one for the ages. This, I should note, is what the Astas are about: not what made the most money in a given year as the ultimate arbiter of significance, but which romantic comedies are most likely to endure beyond the moment.
2012's Best Rom-Com Male Lead goes to obsessed newcomer Jared Gilman. Moonrise also ties, in 2012's Best Rom-Com Ensemble category (it included Bruce Willis's best work in years, among other pleasures) with what I'll call the year's Most Underrated Romantic Comedy: writer-director-star Jennifer Westfeldt's Friends With Kids. This was a room-splitter of a movie, but I loved the rhythms of its dialogue and the stinging sharpness of its observations, with a memorably entertaining cast that included Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig. Stars Westfeldt and Adam Scott were also 2012's Most Credible Couple, and the movie is as filled with resonantly provocative moments as a certain great talent's latest is not.
2012's Most Popular Romantic Comedy was Think Like a Man, by box office standards, unless you'd like to include the hilarious Ted (which I see more as a bromantic comedy about a man and his best friend teddy bear, with a rom-com subplot involving the human Mila Kunis).
Honorable Mentions: The lightly likable Celeste and Jesse Forever, the fatally flawed Ruby Sparks, and the quirky indies Safety Not Guaranteed and Your Sister's Sister. But if you want to take a look at the romantic comedy's main event in 2012, you need to turn to the smaller screen.
Again, a matter of perception. From my point of view, this was a fantastic year for the genre because the best, most genuinely fresh, progressive romantic comedy work could be seen in all its jaw-dropping glory on two great season-runs of television: Season 3 of Louie and Season 1 of Girls.
As it is with the character-driven drama (from Breaking Bad to Mad Men, et al), TV is where the action is. While Newsroom worked a clunky and contrived Old School story line with its two leads, network shows like Community, The Mindy Project, Parks and Recreation, New Girl (in its back end), and even Happy Endings kept the How We're Dating and Mating Now ethos alive and kicking in 2012.
But hands down, 2012's Future of Romantic Comedy Asta Award goes to Louie C.K. and Lena Dunham, who between them have done more to push the genre envelope than anything that's been seen at the multiplexes to date. Both Louie's third season and Girls' first, if viewed as serial long-form features, delivered the year's funniest, saddest, deepest and most truly contemporary takes on the anxiety, confusion, and conflictedness found in today's romantic relations. I look forward to whatever these two auteurs do next, in whatever form it may take.
For while its formulaic products may be flatlining, the form itself is evolving. Is the "romantic comedy" dead? Perhaps. But long live romantic comedy.