A little late to the ongoing schadenfreude-laced pity party, the Hollywood Reporter has announced “R.I.P. Romantic Comedies: Why Harry Won’t Meet Sally in 2013.” But despite the attention-grabbing headline, they’re wrong: Harry has already met Sally at the box office this September, and will continue to do so, thanks – just not in quite the same diner, so to speak, nor wearing the same late ‘80s clothes and hair-dos.
Not to sound like a broken record, but we’ve gone over this turf before, most recently here and here. What’s actually happened is that a specific golden goose has met the axe. A one size fits all, cookie cutter chick flick that began with a meet cute and ended with a run to the airport seems to have finally laid its last egg for the time being. This formulaic brand of rom-com, which I call the Career Girl Gets Alpha Guy movie, mercilessly foisted upon the public since its heyday in the Eighties, achieved its over-saturation point toward the end of this past decade. Now it’s no longer as bankable, and the Reporter article provides details.
But does the lack of another Just Go With It, The Bounty Hunter, The Ugly Truth, What Happens in Vegas, or License to Wed, et al, and the dearth of such negligible vehicles for Katherine Heigl, Reese, J-Lo, Jen, and the rest truly signify the end of entire genre? No, and in fact, as Film School Rejects’ Scott Beggs eloquently argues, The Death of the Traditional Rom-Com is Probably a Great Thing.
Agreed! Here at Living the Rom-Com, I persist in defining a romantic comedy as a comedy in which the central story-driving question is: Will these two people become a couple? And in this regard, the romantic comedy genre, though clearly challenged and in flux, is in no way deceased. Last year’s Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook is a prime example of a movie which, while not packaged and sold as a romantic comedy, can proudly join the ranks of the contemporary great ones, and hey, I saw another one of these last night.
Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, while clearly gaining some recognition on the basis of its featuring one of James Gandolfini’s last roles, has gotten rave notices and has opened well for a low-budget boutique studio release. Why not? It delivers everything one would want in a romantic comedy: lovable protagonists, witty banter, comedic high jinks, and real heart at its core; it’s also about something, and therein, methinks, lies the future of the rom-com genre.
Writer-director Holofcener, a keen observer of human behavior, has been making good movies for quite some time now – smart, deftly crafted ensemble dramedies (e.g. Friends with Money, Lovely and Amazing) that are not unlike modern-day Balzac novels in their clear-eyed insights about the life and times of our contemporary upper-middle class. This time out, she’s chosen to restrict her focus to one central protagonist, and has written a more straightforward love story.
Here’s the thing: with Enough Said, I don’t believe that Holofcener (pictured below with stars Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus) set out to “write a romantic comedy.” I’ll wager that, based on personal experience with her own social circle of a certain age, she became intrigued by the phenomenon of second marriages: a present day reality in which people, united by having had children together, still have to contend with their former mates, even after moving on to other relationships.
Enough Said is about a woman who discovers that the guy she’s going out with is her new friend’s bitterly detested ex-husband. The movie explores post-divorce questions of perception: Did the marriage fail because my mate was a screw-up, or did I screw it up? Does my inability to live with someone mean that this person is truly unfit to live with anyone else? Are there really such things as “losers” in this wholly subjective realm?
There are other areas of inquiry in this richly entertaining construct – it’s the kind of movie that keeps you musing over key moments and resonant little bits of dialogue – and one has to do with how we try to control our romantic future, based upon our past. How do you determine a relationship’s viability? Should you try to forestall another unhappy ending via information you’ve gathered that’s based in part on other people’s perceptions – or is taking the risk and just jumping in the best way to go?
It’s a hefty thematic matrix for a comedy to mine, and Holofcener manages it beautifully. The well-reviewed Don Jon, opening today, raises questions about female romantic fantasies (i.e. rom-coms) versus male (i.e. pornography). These are both movies that were clearly not designed as date movie vehicles for a flavor-of-the year actress. They come from a personal place, they’re about something, and they’re not trying to plug in a well-worn formula to fill out a studio slate and make some quick bucks.
These neo-rom-coms may not look like a 1990s chick flick, nor should they. But as funny movies about love, they’re films that an audience starved for substance will hopefully gravitate to and support. The romantic comedy genre is alive, and will continue to thrive as long as it keeps evolving – a promising and viable survival strategy, it seems to me.