Friday, February 05, 2010

What happened to the romantic comedy?

This week I reviewed Arts in Motion's production of the romantic comedy “Almost, Maine,” which got me thinking about the current state of the genre within the world of film. As an avid fan of the romantic comedy, I can tell you it is pretty bleak out there.

It has always irked me that most of the time examples of the romantic comedy are dismissed as much maligned chick flicks. The pleasures of a good romantic comedy transcend gender, but unfortunately most of what is now passed off as representatives of the genre do target a primarily female audience.

The romantic comedy as we know it today has roots in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. These films were marked by slapstick antics, misunderstandings, double entendres, innuendos, rapid-fire dialogue and a sense of anarchy.

The conclusion of these films, in which the two people the audience has been rooting to get together finally get together, were often tagged on, seemingly arbitrarily. Here in lies the key to the screwball comedy: The ending doesn't matter. It is how you get there that counts.

A lot of people will complain that they don't like romantic comedies because they are predictable, but that really misses the point. Of course the two people who hate each other at the beginning of the film will fall in love by the end of the film. Part of the reason we go to these films is for the comfort that love always prevails, if only for 90 minutes.

What distinguishes a romantic comedy is how it works within its familiar formula. The problem with a lot of romantic comedies today is not only are they borrowing the template from previous films, but the content too. The journey to the ending, the part of the film that needs to be fresh and original, is being telegraphed from other, better films.

Take for example, “The Ugly Truth.” There is a scene that involves Katherine Heigl orgasming quite loudly in a restaurant. The scene can't help but recall a similar classic scene from “When Harry Met Sally.”

“Leap Year” is another prime example of a film that wastes the considerable charms of its leads, Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. The plot is essentially a lift from 1934's “It Happened One Night” with two strangers becoming unlikely partners on the road in hopes of getting the female lead to her true love.

It isn't the plot that is problem, but the fact that there is not a single scene that hasn't been seen before. There's even that oh-so-familiar scene where the two people who hate each other have to pose as a married couple because of some plot contrivance. This leads to them inevitably being forced to kiss each other only to realize, oh wait, that actually felt good. Can we please, please, please retire this scene.

It isn't all bad. Writer/director Nancy Meyers' “It's Complicated” involves a love triangle between Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin and while there are definitely scenes of familiar comedy, there also scenes of real humor and tenderness.
Meyers remembers to write actual characters rather than cogs in a plot. Her films, which also include “Something's Gotta Give” and “The Holiday,” aren't perfect, but she has characters that approximate real human behavior.

Not that they are requesting it, but my advice to aspiring screenwriters who choose to write within this genre is to go back and watch movies like “Bringing Up Baby,” “You Can't Take It With You,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Annie Hall,” When Harry Met Sally" and an assortment of others. Study these films, but don't steal from them. Look at how the dialogue is written and notice how the characters, even if they are archetypes, aren't one-dimensional. At the end of the day, you have to have characters you actually care about.

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