Now that we’ve danced on the grave of the romantic comedy genre, which has been pronounced over and done with in so many circles, let’s take a look at the romantic comedies that are being released this month.
Have the studios not gotten the message, has the stubborn public gone brain-dead? No, and no. In this new decade a particular kind of formulaic rom-com has outlived its usefulness and appeal for the mainstream audience, in part because the studios kept plugging stars into it without questioning its dated, predictable nature. This Career Girl Gets Alpha Guy movie started with a contrived “meet cute” and ended with a dash to the airport, and its demise is a good thing.
In its place, what’s emerging are films that don’t necessarily yell Romantic Comedy in their pitches (e.g. Silver Linings Playbook), films that are rom-coms set in other genres (e.g. the zombie-com Warm Bodies), and films that are actually – hold onto your iPhones – more realistic in their approach to contemporary romance, i.e. movies that are about something relevant to real people living in the real world.
Two prominent cases in point: Don Jon, written and directed by its star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is about a New Jersey guy who meets his ideal Jersey girl, played by Scarlett Johansson, and it’s all romantic and comedic until she discovers that he’s obsessed with pornography. And Thanks For Sharing, written and directed by Stuart Blumberg, stars Mark Ruffalo as a guy who meets his perfect woman (Gwyneth Paltrow), and it’s all funny-lovely except he’s a reformed sex addict, which means true love is his ultimate challenge.
When’s the last time you saw “romantic comedy,” “porn,” and “sex addiction” in the same sentence, let alone in the same movie? I have a strong suspicion that neither Gordon-Levitt nor Blumberg said, “I’m going to write a romantic comedy” when they began these projects. Most probably they began writing stories about a subject and characters that mattered to them, and such categorizations came after. Such choices, made by storytellers with personal stories to tell, result in movies of substance that defy formula.
The romantic comedy is alive and well. What’s dying is the pre-fab one size fits all cookie-cutter rom-com, where every move in the mix is a foregone conclusion. And the failure of this formulaic form to connect with us, in 2013, reflects how the ways we connect romantically have shifted and changed in the new century.
Two other September premieres (do four studio romantic comedy releases in one month spell “genre death?”) speak more subtly to the emergence of a realistic, post-modern rom-com.
Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said puts divorced single mom Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a pickle: she’s just made a great new friend in divorcee Catherine Keener, only to find that the great guy she’s fallen for (James Gandolfini in one of his final roles) is Keener’s bitterly hated ex-husband. The story’s point of entry is unconventional, everyone involved in this romantic roundelay is well over thirty, and knowing Holofcener, the line between comedy and drama will be blurry and the conflicts deliciously sophisticated and complex.
In its pitch, David E. Talbert’s Baggage Claim is admittedly the most Old School of the batch: it’s about a flight attendant (Paula Patton) who’s got 30 days to get engaged before she shows up at her younger sister’s wedding. But given the ethnicity of Patton and her suitors (Taye Diggs, Trey Songz, and Djimon Hounsou), we’re at least in a territory that’s sorely in need of further exploration: the African-American romantic comedy.
The ever-evolving rom-com has already infiltrated American independent cinema: both The Spectacular Now and Drinking Buddies, low-budget art house films (the latter, pointedly anti-studio in its mumblecore ethos) are combo-platters with romantic comedy story lines and Larger Issues on their respective plates. Both defy easy genre categorizations… which is what makes them all the more intriguing and enjoyable.
Funny Love has already found its way into the current day, evidently. Coming this month to a theater near you.