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Social Change Didn’t Kill the Romantic Comedy

Yes, most aren't very good, but it wasn't the sexual revolution that made it so.

It feels like at least once a year, someone writes an article wondering what happened to the romantic comedy, and why we don’t make ’em like we used to. And usually, that article concludes that social change is a primary culprit. Thanks to the upending of hoary class and race divisions, thanks to feminism, thanks to the sexual revolution, there are no longer any plausible obstacles – class or racial difference, family disapproval, etc. – to put in the path of true love. And without obstacles to triumph over, there’s no story. So the romantic comedy as a genre must go to ever more absurd lengths to gin up said obstacles. Moreover, since Jack and Jill can plausibly sleep together from the moment they meet, there’s no sexual “payoff” to the central question of the movie, no “will they or won’t they.” So, again, romantic comedies have to resort to ever more elaborate explanations for why two people won’t sleep together, or lumber along a polymorphously perverse landscape in which the “payoff” is whether two people will . . . decide to have less sex with other people than with each other? Share a checking account? You see the problem.

For a recent example of this kind of argument, see here.

And the argument is wrong.

The golden age of the cinematic romantic comedy was pretty much 1940, the year that (give or take a few months) gave us “The Philadelphia Story” and “The Lady Eve” and “His Girl Friday.” So what are these stories about? What are the obstacles to getting boy and girl together?

In “The Philadelphia Story,” Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant divorce at the start of the movie, and the plot is about getting them back together. The external obstacle is that Hepburn is engaged to marry another guy – as it happens, a less socially-suitable match for her than Grant was. She’s no virgin, he’s no virgin, and the resolution hinges on her realizing just the degree to which her new fiancee prizes a kind of ersatz virginity in her, which clinches her decision to throw him over. So much for the need for social obstacles, or for sex to be the payoff.

In “The Lady Eve,” the obstacle to Barbara Stanwyck getting together with Henry Fonda is that she’s a con artist in the process of taking him for a ride. Which is about as high-concept as the most ludicrous devices of today’s Hollywood – and yet, it works beautifully because as a metaphor for one approach to love and romance it’s enormously resonant. Meanwhile, the plot requires Stanwyck to seduce Fonda a second time, pretending to be a perfect lookalike for herself, just so she can dump him. This is precisely as plausible as nobody seeing through Viola’s or Rosalind’s disguises as men in Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedies – that is to say, completely and totally implausible, and it doesn’t matter a whit. So much for absurd obstacles being a problem.

“His Girl Friday,” meanwhile, is another “comedy of remarriage,” (and, like “The Philadelphia Story,” another one involving Cary Grant). Grant and Rosalind Russell were married before, she wised up and left him, and now has found a better match – and he’s going to win her back by . . . getting her to report on a death penalty case for him. Because, you see, the way to a woman’s heart is through her typewriter. So much for the idea that feminism ruined the romantic comedy.

I could go on. What’s the obstacle in “Roman Holiday?” Audrey Hepburn is a literal princess, and this is her last (and only) adventure before settling down to her proper role in society. No sexual payoff – heck, no happy ending! Wonderful movie. What’s the obstacle in “Annie Hall?” That . . . well, that . . . gee, the only obstacle is that Alvy Singer is Woody Allen, who’s not somebody you’d want to spend your life with. So he loses the girl, in the end. (Which means maybe that one does have a happy ending.) What’s the obstacle in “The Princess Bride?” The male lover is dead! Well, mostly dead. But that’s no obstacle to true love! The only way to make the supposed formula – which essentially none of the great romantic comedies follow – work is to parody it by exaggeration. Which still worksbrilliantly.

The most common obstacle in a romantic comedy remains as plausible as it ever was: one of the parties is already engaged to somebody else. If you really want to up the ante, have both parties be already married to other people – and also previously married to each other – and then contrive to have the two exes run off with each other while on their honeymoons with their new spouses. Note the date on that decadent scenario. The point is, a romantic comedy is about being forced, by circumstance, to learn who you are supposed to be with, and stay with, and choosing that person. You don’t really need any proper obstacles at all. Ever see “Oklahoma?” What, precisely, makes Laurey spurn Curly, and even consider Jud Fry, even for an instant? Her reluctance to choose her obvious intended is entirely – entirely – due to the fact that Curly seems so sure she will be his he doesn’t even need to ask her. How, exactly, has social change made that particular obstacle obsolete?

The genre that has obsolesced is not romantic comedy but romantic tragedy. Romeo and Juliet is tough to update. You could set it in a community where you still have arranged marriages and honor killings. Or you could turn the “families” into rival mafia clans, or into warring ethnic groups. But all this does is displace the heart of the tragedy away from the lovers and onto the larger society. At the end of Romeo and Juliet, you think, “gosh, the way you fall in love as a teenager – it’s never really that powerful again, is it? – powerful enough to kill you?” You don’t think “feuding is so terrible – look how it ruined the lives of these two lovely kids. There oughta be a law.” But a version of the latter is precisely what you think at the end of West Side Story – among other thing, because Maria – not some second-string prince, but the romantic lead – tells you that’s what you’re supposed to think.

So why do romantic comedies suck?

Well, do they?

On the way home from a trip recently, the in-flight movie was “Pitch Perfect.” Now, “Pitch Perfect” is no “His Girl Friday.” It’s a story about rival groups of a cappella singers. The girl group needs to get their act together to finally win the big national sing-off, which means the new “alt chick” brunette and the controlling blonde holding the pitch pipe will have to learn to put aside their petty differences in the interests of general awesomeness. But the subplot is a romantic comedy. Alt chick needs to wake up and realize that the earnest guy from the guys’ a cappella group who’s been wooing her hard the whole film is, like, a great guy for her. Which is completely obvious – but her resistance is also completely plausible because it has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with her and what else is going on in her life. Again, it’s not a great movie, and the romantic comedy subplot is pretty paint-by-numbers. But it works just fine. It doesn’t make you cringe. It isn’t “obsolete.”

The romantic comedies that suck are the ones that adhere to a formula that none of the great romantic comedies of yore followed. They try to make both protagonists as “relatable” as possible by making them into everymen and everywomen – thereby depriving them of any interest. They focus overwhelmingly on the romance, treating the rest of the universe as so much “business” for low comedy, rather than exploring other themes that might reflect productively on the romance at the center. And they gin up artificial external obstacles instead of persuasive, character-driven internal ones. But these kinds of flaws bedevil movies in general. And even some classics suffer from them. Have you seen “An Affair to Remember” lately? That’s the movie that nobody will shut up about in “Sleepless in Seattle.” And it’s, well, it’s kind of irretrievably camp. (Don’t take my word for it; I’m a man. Go ask my wife. She’ll tell you.)

It’s particularly funny that we’d be talking – again – about the death of the romantic comedy the year that “Silver Linings Playbook” – a romantic comedy – got nominated for just about every possible Oscar (and the romantic lead, Jennifer Lawrence, won for Best Actress). “Silver Linings Playbook” is an interesting movie to read as a commentary on the romantic comedy genre. Remember this story from The Onion?:

Denny Marzano, a 28-year-old Torrance man, was arrested Monday for engaging in the type of behavior found in romantic comedies.

Marzano was taken into custody after violating a restraining order filed against him by Kellie Hamilton, 25, an attractive, unmarried kindergarten teacher who is new to the L.A. area. According to Hamilton, Marzano has stalked her for the past two months, spying on her, tapping her phone, serenading her with The Carpenters’ “Close To You” at her place of employment, and tricking her into boarding Caribbean-bound jets.

Well, that’s the kind of crazy stuff that the Bradley Cooper character might think was a good idea as a way to get his ex-wife back. Indeed, he does stalk her, does flirt with violating the restraining order. Because he’s crazy. In a sense, his arc in the film is precisely learning that his devotion to a particular narrative form – in his case, the comedy of remarriage – was a species of insanity.  (Compare with, say, “There’s Something About Mary,” where the insanity of romantic comedy tropes is much more comprehensively lampooned, but our hero gets the girl he’s been acting crazy about anyway, in spite of his participation in those tropes.) Only after he realizes this can he be open to the possibility of new love, with somebody more appropriate (because she’s also nuts). Lawrence’s character, meanwhile, has been called the first clinically manic pixie dream girl, but in fact her whole (absurd) dance competition scheme is the opposite of the sort of “loosen him up” strategy that the MPDG usually employs. She’s humoring him, because he needs a “plan” to get his wife back. And, meanwhile, that plan will give her ample opportunity to show him just how desirable she is. There are a lot of ways I could criticize the film, but the point is, the best evidence the romantic comedy isn’t dead is the existence of a film like this – again, not in the same league as “His Girl Friday,” but hardly the kind of film that would lead one to question the viability of the genre.

Most movies most of the time are terrible. They were mostly terrible in 1940. If you want to make a great romantic comedy today, go back to the great comedies of 1940 and ask why they worked. It isn’t because there were arranged marriages (there were none) and it isn’t because women couldn’t get a divorce (all the female protagonists of the movies I cited are or get divorced) or couldn’t have sex (no virgins in evidence – though I don’t mean to suggest that virginity is an obstacle to a successful romantic comedy; far from it). They work because they go internal, into character, to find both the conflict and its resolution, and they work because they don’t isolate the world of romantic love from the rest of the social universe.

That’s a formula that will never be obsolete. Because it isn’t a formula at all.