Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Has the dreadful rom-com passed on?

One of the great mysteries of contemporary cinema concerns the decline of the romantic comedy into the most (justifiably) reviled of all mainstream genres. Many of the greatest films ever made in Hollywood fall into that category. It Happened One …

Fri, Sep 10, 2010, 21:12

   

One of the great mysteries of contemporary cinema concerns the decline of the romantic comedy into the most (justifiably) reviled of all mainstream genres. Many of the greatest films ever made in Hollywood fall into that category. It Happened One Night, The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday, Annie Hall, The Shop around the Corner: establishing a list of rom-com masterpieces does not much strain the average cineaste’s memory cells.

“Ha, ha! I love pretty things and vulgar weddings.” “Ha ha! I like to burp during sex.”

Yet, somewhere in the 1990s all the sauce and vigour was stripped from the form. Rather than exploiting individual gender wars to comic effect, the pictures became about caricaturing such disputes — men like sports and burping; women like shoes and vulgar weddings — and providing punters with a degree of dreary wish-fulfillment. All romances, it seems, end with white doves being released at a ceremony carried out by Robin Williams. Last Christmas, when detailing my worst films of 2009, I suggested, not entirely facetiously, that all five could have been American romantic comedies. This was, you recall, the year that The Ugly Truth, Bride Wars, Couples Retreat and All About Steve were released.

Who is to blame? The marketing men, I guess. Offering viewers women as complex as those in The Lady Eve or His Girl Friday is now regarded as a risky move. Why, timid, frail little cinemagoers might get frightened by the big scary ladies with their eccentric habits and singular ambitions! Moreover, characters such as those played by ¬†Doris Day in Pillow Talk or Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story seem a little too content in themselves. It’s almost as if they could — should circumstances dictate — get by perfectly well without a man in their lives. This is not an attitude Bridget Jones would understand.

The good news is that the failure of several recent high-profile romantic comedies — The Switch, Going the Distance — suggests that film enthusiasts might finally be waking up to the atrociousness of the modern lovey-dovey comedy (actually The Switch was okay, but never mind). Could it all be over? Well, we have to wait and see if some bright spark can turn a genuinely smart romantic comedy into a proper hit. That’s quite a challenge.

To return to an issue above, I think one of the great underrated romantic comedies remains Pillow Talk (1959). True, it all ends with Doris giving in to Rock and his evil ways, but the chase is delightful and, as suggested above, it is interesting how solidly independent Doris’s character seems. Also, irony fans will adore the scene during which Rock Hudson, the ¬†unseen priapic songwriter who shares a partyline with the heroine, suggests that her new boyfriend – who is, of course, Rock himself posing as a Texan — might be one of those men who “like to exchange cooking recipes” and are “very devoted of their mothers”. You get my drift.

Enjoy…

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