A Tenth Anniversary Re-Post: June, 2010
An unhappy truth about living in this world is that not everyone will agree with you. It's why "Best" lists drive me nuts.
Passions run hot when we assess the value of movies. I've seen supposedly rational people battle over the merits of disparate film directors with an intensity that puts any Democratic-Republican conflict to shame. That we take it so personally - the art and entertainment that we love or hate - speaks to the heart of the "Top Ten" conundrum. All such lists are an attempt to objectify what finally must be subjective assessments. Because really, when we talk about best, we're talking about many things, and often what gets confused is the difference between most popular, most artful (i.e. aesthetically impressive, thematically substantive), and... my favorites.
In film criticism, most generally accepted arbiters (e.g. the American Film Institute) go the democratic route, polling a wide group of aficionados. But even here judgment calls shift with the sands of critical time. Up until AFI's anniversary revamp in 2007, D.W. Griffith's racist polemic Birth of a Nation was on the Top 100 list; now the substituted Griffith entry is Intolerance - a movie that, despite its historical significance and awesome production values, is in large part unwatchable (Have you sat through it recently? Would you, again?).
It's for these reasons that when I had to assemble a "top 100" for the index of my Writing the Romantic Comedy, I took pains to avoid "Best." As Hugh Grant tells Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings, after his hilariously incoherent declaration of love ("... in the words of David Cassidy, in fact, while he was still with the Partridge family..."), I thought it over a lot, you know; I wanted to get it just right. So I ended up with "100 Noteworthy Films of the Romantic Comedy Genre and Beyond." Noteworthy, as in worthy of earning the rom-com screenwriter's familiarity, and "beyond," to acknowledge that whole thorny issue of hybrids (see last week's post).
Meanwhile, some romantic comedy titles that end up on such lists aren't even proper romantic comedies. I believe that a romantic comedy is a comedy motored by the primary question, Will these two individuals become a couple? By this standard, My Big Fat Greek Wedding doesn't cut it.
Romantic comedies are courtship comedies (even when they involve courtship between the formerly married), and we go to them to vicariously enjoy the joys and pains of falling in love; their primary focus is gender relations: a good rom-com has fun with women being women and men being men (or men being women, as in Some Like It Hot) while they're being coupled up.
The question posed by Big Fat, as my commenters E.C. and Christina astutely pointed out, is "Can two people's love survive the bride's family?" or "How can the bride keep both a husband and her family?" While some of the best laughs in Big Fat do involve courtship (e.g. Nia Vardolos's physical slapstick in the office as she spies on John Corbett), it's really a hybrid - a family comedy in rom-com drag. And because there really is no conflict between Nia and John (who's made a career out of being Mr. "I'm Okay With That"), and such conflicts are, to me, the meat and potatoes of the genre, this is not the movie that will ever truly satisfy my rom-com jones.
What My Big Fat Greek Wedding is, undeniably, is one of the most successful or popular (so-called) romantic comedies of all time. That's not necessarily the same as best.
The need for such distinctions was brought home to me by a recent online list. Writer/blogger Jennifer Crusie has compiled a definitive list of American Romantic Comedies, and for anyone interested in the genre, all of her posts on the subject make good reading. Ms. Crusie, an engaging and successful writer with a hearty following, wisely left "Best" out of the title of her list, though it seems the tacit agenda. I agree with most of her selections. But one exclusion and one inclusion helped crystallize my thoughts on this list issue: Crusie and her readers put in Desk Set, while they left out Annie Hall.
You can hate Woody Allen personally; you can wish that as filmmaker he'd packed it in twenty years ago; you may simply not respond to his brand of humor. But a definitive American Romantic Comedies list that leaves out Annie Hall is like a Greatest Rock'n'Roll Albums list that leaves out Sgt. Pepper.
Setting aside Hall's historical Oscar sweep, it's been the singularly biggest influence on its genre for over 30 years. Without Annie Hall, you wouldn't even have beloved classics like When Harry Met Sally... (since that entire movie, from its opening white-on-black-screen credits with a tinkly jazz soundtrack to its lovers' strolls in artfully filmed Central Park to Harry's "dark" persona is clearly, um, homage); Hall's sensibility created last year's indie darling (500) Days of Summer, and is still apparent in rom-com spec scripts I presently read on a weekly basis.
The Desk Set inclusion perplexes because while it wouldn't be the last Tracy-Hepburn movie a lover of same would take to a desert island (the abysmal Without Love gets my vote), most fans would go with Adam's Rib or the quirky Pat and Mike. Desk Set isn't generally a rom-com devotees' pick. Crusie justifies the choice as a personal favorite... and ah: there we are.
It's her prerogative, of course (and she's not invoking "Best"), while I'm admittedly as guilty as the next list-er in this regard (see my two Top 10 lists here): I've been as myopic as anyone in my own choices (fans have decried the thoughtless exclusion of any Harold and Maude mention in my rom-com book). What I'm lobbying for now, in the general critical discourse, is something more specific and useful in our list designations.
How about "Favorite Romantic Comedies" (supply your idiosyncratic selections)? Or "Best Guilty Pleasure Rom-Coms" (I'll never be able to defend watching Pretty Woman or My Super Ex-Girlfriend, but nonetheless...)? Or...
"Most Original Romantic Comedies" (Eternal Sunshine, Groundhog Day, What Women Want, etc.)
"Best Female-Driven Rom-Coms" (Bridget Jones's Diary, While You Were Sleeping, Moonstruck, etc.)
"Best Male POV Rom-Coms" (Tootsie, 50 First Dates, 40 Year-Old Virgin, etc.)
"Best Mixed-Genre Rom-Coms" (Romancing the Stone, Prizzi's Honor, Jerry Maguire, etc.).
As for "Best," who knows? Best by what standard? Harold and Maude (the one I forgot) is on AFI's Top Ten Romantic Comedies list. I suppose that all I'm saying is: the next time you find yourself debating with someone what "the best romantic comedies" are, take a moment to define your terms. One woman's Best (say, The Holiday) may be another man's Woa, That Really Is a Chick Flick. Apparently one of the only things both sexes can agree on is that Clueless rocks.
And so our daily romantic comedy lives on.