All week, this site has written and spoken in praise of a genre, its stars, and its tropes. Romantic comedy has given us great movies and, within them, great moments. But the modern romantic comedy has a history that stretches back before 1989. What if, in fact, in the past 25 years, it has just gotten away from its original service? What if the achievement of better social equality has obviated the need for its fictional representation? What if we no longer need these movies to tell us what’s increasingly obvious?
Once upon a time, women in successful romantic comedies were warriors battling men. They fought for love, parity, and respect — to be taken seriously while wearing unserious hats. The man had a position that the woman finds appalling. Or was it the other way around? But to be appalled was to be attracted. All Katharine Hepburn did with Spencer Tracy was fight. And you never doubted that they equally wanted to win the exasperation contest. They were both only half-surprised to end up with each other. The mutual skepticism resolved because each realized the ultimate perfection of the match.
A gander at the genre’s evolution, however, would suggest that the genders have been moving not toward each other but past each other. On the one hand: Clark Gable and Cary Grant to Rock Hudson to Warren Beatty to Tom Hanks to Seth Rogen and Channing Tatum. On the other: Carole Lombard and Katharine Hepburn to Doris Day to Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts to Scarlett Johansson. On the one hand: a movement toward frat boys. On the other: a movement toward operating systems. The balance of power has shifted into tales of governess girlfriends and wives sleeping with the ungovernable, of the sexes knowing how to talk to each other but not saying anything. Looking at romantic comedies now, men are with men, women with women — homosocially, not homosexually — equal (or equalish) but separate.
Spike Jonze’s Her offered one answer to the problem of how to innovate the romantic comedy, how to modernize it while honoring its classic structure. Joaquin Phoenix’s forlorn letter writer is a descendant of men whom Grant and Jimmy Stewart have played. Johansson’s software (Samantha) is the equivalent of the zany girl who lightens him up. Her is both intensely romantic and just pungent enough in the way good romantic comedy ought to be. But the central problem raised by the movie also speaks to a more general problem with the genre today. It’s not just that Samantha has no physical corollary — no face or body. It’s that she’s growing beyond Phoenix’s character in a way that makes an already improbable relationship impossible. She evolves beyond compatibility.
During the romantic comedy’s first crest, which lasted from the early 1930s to about the end of the 1950s, women and men were equals in American movies in a way that they were not in American society. Feminism didn’t give us the genre, but romantic comedy made a home for versions of it, without having to do a lot of skywriting. By asserting themselves, the Lombards and Hepburns and Judy Hollidays of the world chipped away at a prevailing notion of male supremacy. By the 1970s, the comedy began to recede and men had to confront who they were. Warren Beatty’s slutty hairdresser in Shampoo is in too much of an existential funk to choose any particular woman. Old-school William Holden has a tough time wrapping his brain around new-school Faye Dunaway, his boss and mistress in Network. And Dustin Hoffman spends Kramer vs. Kramer bewildered by being a single dad.1
By the 1980s, romantic comedy had started to turn inward, away from fights between two equals. Women took center stage — unless the movie was Tootsie, in which Hoffman wore a wig and a dress. This was how we got from romantic comedy to rom-com: politics. Tootsie was part of a series of workplace comedies in which the romance was essentially, unapologetically political — Nine to Five, Baby Boom, Working Girl. Goldie Hawn spent a decade doing both somewhat straight-ahead romantic comedies (with Chevy Chase and Burt Reynolds) and crashing into and through glass ceilings. (Overboard is one of the strangest movies ever made about the joys of marriage and motherhood.) The conflict wasn’t so much between a guy and a girl and their discordant personalities. It was between a girl and her expectations in and out of the office. Some of those movies were great, like Moonstruck; smart, like Broadcast News; or fun, like the hit movies that Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner made, Romancing the Stone (1984) and The Jewel of the Nile (1985), and The War of the Roses (1989). We speak too infrequently of those last two actors, but they were a masterful team at realizing lustful hate as a form of love. They were two very sexy, very sexual stars. (You might recall where, in Romancing the Stone, a mudslide leaves his face in relation to the space between her legs.)
The War of the Roses ends with a shot of Douglas and Turner after they’ve plummeted from a chandelier to the marble floor. He reaches out to put his hand on her shoulder, and she uses her last teaspoon of strength to wipe it away. It was a literalization of the sublimated contempt that powered the genre and a perfect rebuke of phony reconciliation.
When When Harry Met Sally… appeared in 1989, you got the sense that screenwriter Nora Ephron had been going to the movies and wondering if there was any way to restore order. It was as if she wanted to do Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, but in a modern, knowing way. Ephron was an unusual combination of feminist and pop nostalgist — most of her films drove forward by looking through the rearview mirror. She seemed to like the chic of old-fashioned values the way hipsters say they like vinyl records: for the alleged purity. After the silent era, romantic comedy became a relationship contraption — a drawbridge coming together. What Ephron helped restore was the equality of the male protagonist. Both the main characters’ names are in the title When Harry Met Sally… , like in the Tracy-Hepburn golf comedy Pat and Mike. This sounds trivial, but it promises a balance. Where do you go with a title like Her? Where is “He”? Ephron reinstalled the romantic-comedy drawbridge of two equals. But she was the only one who actually wanted to use it — the only one who treated a man and a woman as two halves of one whole.
We call them rom-coms now, which seems apt. The romance is gone. The romance of banter, of competition, of surrender, of personal style: It’s over. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan karaoke-ing to “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” 25 years ago has become Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill dancing together on a rooftop to “Turn Down for What.”
Both genders, tired of fighting or figuring each other out, withdrew their arms, and the battle of the sexes seemed over. A major aspect of the romantic comedy was the mutual exasperation of misunderstanding: Why are men men and women women? Most of what followed were dustups and skirmishes. Rom-coms were chick flicks. By the mid-1990s, the studios had begun greedily looking for the next Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan without looking for a new Billy Wilder, George Cukor, Peter Bogdanovich, or Ephron. The man is not an equal. He’s a dream or a wish, just a scoop of James Marsden, Michael Vartan, or Dermot Mulroney.
These movies didn’t make themselves. And yet they seemed to be on a kind of autopilot. Gradually, the genre had begun to dissipate into amateurish or childish or bourgeois blandness. There were terrible movies like Speechless and Laws of Attraction, and the teen movies of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the movies of Nancy Meyers, the Michael Bay of romantic comedy: another obnoxious pornographer. The success of Meyers was how you could tell we were desperate for something safe. We turned out for her tributes to the upper middle class in droves. But in her movies, going back to Irreconcilable Differences and Baby Boom (both directed by her ex-husband, Charles Shyer), the allure of the rom-com wasn’t love or sex or respect. You don’t want the heroine’s relationship. You want her house.
Meyers’s What Women Want, from 2000, presents Mel Gibson, still one of the planet’s biggest stars, explaining women to corporate America and to themselves. It’s as if he’d discovered the God particle. There’s nothing alluring about Helen Hunt’s contempt for him. She seems to know that she’s in a horror movie. The rom-com became a kind of torture. My Best Friend’s Wedding, from three years before, is yea close to an ex-from-hell thriller. The whole movie can be seen as an apology for Roberts’s trying to escape the genre several years before. In Runaway Bride (1999), she’s a pathological jilter. The supposed charm of the movie is her being forced to marry Richard Gere. We’d come a long way from Pretty Woman, in which Roberts’s prostitute looks forward to life with Gere’s moneybags. In Runaway Bride, you get the sense that Roberts is still serving a sentence.2
Katherine Heigl arrived in the movies at a moment when the good stars had mostly retired from the genre and producers were looking to television for replacements.
In 2007, Judd Apatow cast her in Knocked Up, in which she was the sensible young adult to Seth Rogen’s boob. That soundness dulled her in that movie; everyone seemed to be capable of having a good time but her. She, of course, is an actor, and seemed to be playing the stress of the situation. In any case, Heigl brought a credible womanliness to rom-coms. Marsden even gave her someone to play off of in 27 Dresses. But her run of movies was unsalvageable. In them her characters are Judgmental Careerists Whose Lives Are a Mess. America seemed torn about what to think. Most of the movies were hits. But measured against a lousy smash like The Proposal from 2009, you get the sense that people went because they needed a reassuring fix.
In any case, how we arrived where we currently are is sometimes unfairly deduced to be Heigl’s fault. In a Vanity Fair article from 2007, she was asked about Knocked Up and demonstrated stupendous, film-critical candor. “It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys.” She was right. She was also, in the minds of men and boys, back to playing her humorless, uptight role from the movie.
The genders were drifting apart — mostly with men unto themselves, in stuff like Old School and the comedies of Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Ben Stiller. Occasionally, something comes along like last winter’s remake of About Last Night… , with Kevin Hart, Regina Hall, Michael Ealy, and Joy Bryant, that feverishly scratches the itch for level-playing-field romantic comedy. Yet like a lot of rom-coms since the advent of Cameron Diaz, that movie is actually a sex-com that conflates and sometimes confuses intercourse with romance.
It’s as if Apatow and other writers and directors took Heigl’s words to heart and opted to solve the problem by eliminating or reducing female parts. Their movies would focus, almost self-consciously, on the homosocial bond between men. These movies would be called bromances and would almost completely subvert romantic comedy and supplant it in the culture.
The film Neighbors is ostensibly about a married couple’s creeping sense of uncool. But the romantic-comedy scaffolding is built around the husband (Seth Rogen) and the head of the fraternity next door (Zac Efron). The same is true of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 22 Jump Street, in which the women are nice or comically sadistic. It’s as if the filmmakers found the loophole in Heigl’s lament. Of course, Neighbors and 22 Jump Street are just old buddy pictures reconstituted with a hunk of Jackass. No one is yet daring enough to make any two of these guys gay together.
With men over here and women over there, you miss the energy of what happens in good romantic comedy when the sexes commingle. The art form is degraded now. It’s lettuce on a juicy blockburger. Things have gotten so sad that the best romantic comedy you can see in theaters right now is a nicely calibrated mockery of the rom-com era called They Came Together, directed and cowritten by David Wain. It stars Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and about 30 other funny people. It hits clichés as you would a piñata. But it retains a reverence for the hate-to-love trajectory and borrows a lot from Ephron. In the meantime, you have to laugh at Wain’s jokes about clumsiness and adorableness and bogus coincidences. Otherwise, given the state of things, you’d cry.
Illustration by Ken Garduno.
This column has been updated since its original publication.