Taking the “Romantic” out of Romantic Comedies

Every so often I have one of those “oh my god, I am old.” moments. Usually it occurs when I go out to the bar and see people ten years younger than me buying drinks. I wear sweaters and button-down shirts, they wear Affliction and Ed Hardy. I drink mixed drinks, they drink beer and cheap shots. I listen to music at a reasonable volume, other people at clubs must have the music at ear-shattering levels. Yes, all of this is a sign that I am getting old, but in some cases this may not be a bad thing. Certainly when it comes to pop culture if being young is right, then I don’t mind being wrong. Nowhere is this more evident than in my taste in movies, especially romantic comedies.

I can’t say the movies of my childhood were great, especially romantic comedies. John Hughes movies like “Sixteen Candles” and “Can’t Buy me Love” were hardly classics, but throughout the eighties and nineties most so-called “romantic comedies” were at least sweet and good natured. Of course the truly great romantic comedies, the classics, offered something for everyone. Comedy, romance, adventure, and even occasionally a lesson in morality, something in short supply these days.

“It Happened One Night,” perhaps the definitive romantic comedy, starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and was made by the masterful Frank Capra. In the film Colbert’s character was a stuck-up heiress that escaped from her dad’s yacht, and his money and ran off to the country. Along the way she meets a slick-talking newspaper man, played to perfection by Gable. He deduces who she is and decides to help her out, hoping to write a sensational story about her. Instead, as you could have guessed, they fall in love. This simple formula worked so well that most romantic comedies follow it in some way.

Other romantic comedies from that era were often called “screw-ball comedies” and they were perhaps best defined by “Bringing up Baby” which starred Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. In the film Hepburn plays a hair-brained woman who does whatever she feels like, including raising a real-live leopard. Grant, who is a nebbish, is scared of everything, especially the leopard. Hilarity ensues. These type of films are probably hated by feminists today because in screwball comedies it is usually the woman who is dumb or naieve, and the man who has to help her out of whatever predicament she is in. But in them we see the basis for real relationships. How women do crazy things to get a man’s attention, and how men love their women is spite of, maybe even because of their flaws, and seek to protect them from themselves.

Perhaps the last truly great romantic comedy was “The Apartment” starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, and directed by the legendary Billy Wilder. One of Wilder’s greatest strengths was that his comedies had a dark edge to them, an undercurrent of cynism. Never was this more true than in “The Apartment.” In the film Lemmon plays a put-upon office worker whose bosses use his apartment for their extra-marital trysts. This backfires however when Lemmon falls in love with one of his bosses mistresses. In essence he is asked to choose between the girl and his career. The film manages to embrace the darkest emotions from suicide and self-loathing, to the depths that men will go to have their way. But in the end the two do fall in love and love has a way of working things out. Great film!

Okay, those are some of my favorite romantic comedies, but they are a far cry from what passes as such today. If you take a close look at the box-office you may see one of three “romantic comedies” that are out right now. “Just Go With It” stars Adam Sandler as a guy who pretends to be married in order to “hook up” with women. His plan backfires on him though when he finally meets a woman he really wants (who happens to look like a super-model) and she sees his ring and assumes he is married. In order to explain himself Adam Sandler pretends that he is actually getting a divorce, but forgot to get rid of the ring. Of course in real life a man might do the right and natural thing and just tell the women the truth, but things are never that simple in Hollywood-land. No, Adam Sandler decides in order to convince the girl (who doesn’t believe he is actually getting a divorce), to hire a fake wife to divorce him, a woman he used to be with (Jennifer Aniston). He even goes so far to use the womans kids, and pretend they are his kids. All of this basically so he can get laid. I haven’t seen the movie, and won’t but I presume what happens is that in the course of trying to get with this woman he winds up rekindling the flame of his former love interest and ends up with Jennifer Aniston. But of course, such a thing is ridiculous. What kind of a man would do such horrible things just to get laid? And what kind of a woman would allow herself to be used as such a prop? Once again, only in Hollywood.

Another movie coming out right now is “No Strings Attached” starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman (who was great in “Black Swan” incidentally). In the film Kutcher and Portman who are both busy with their careers decide to enter a “Friends with Benefits” arrangement in which they will just meet and have sex whenever one of them feels like it, but without all of the hassle of a real realtionship. They sound like wonderful people! Once again, rarely do real human interactions work this way. It has been awhile since I dated anyone, but when I did I don’t recall ever asking a girl if we could just be “friends with benefits.” I think even in todays age of cynism and casual sex most women would like to be romanced a little, instead of being used for a man’s orgasm relief, but I could be wrong. In any event, I am sure the film ends with the two stars falling in love and deciding they really do want a relationship, which would be a sweet message if their was any truth to it. Once you knew that someone you loved cared so little about developing a relationship with you that he would just hook up whenever he feels like it, it is hard to imagine falling in love with such a person.             

Lastly we have “Hall Pass” starring Owen Wilson. In the film Wilson can’t stop looking or thinking about other women, so in order to solve this problem his wife tells him (are you ready for this) that he can have one week to “get it out of his system” and sleep with whoever he wants. This is his “hall pass.” Are you kidding me? Yeah, I asked my wife what she thought of the idea, and to my surprise she didn’t really go for it. I can’t really understand why either?  I mean you would think most women would react the exact same way as Owen Wilson’s wife did and just let men do their thing. In fact, why only a week? I can’t understand why she didn’t give him more time. Maybe a month, or a year even. Hell, why not just let the guy cheat whenever he wants to? I mean we wouldn’t want a marriage that is too encumbering for this poor guy. Right?

Of course “Hall Pass” is another prime example of Hollywood stupidity. Yes men do look at other women, even though we shouldn’t, but that is hardy an excuse for even more egregious behavior, and any woman that would allow that behavior to go on, unchallenged, is an idiot. When you take your marriage vows it says “forsaking all others.” The language is pretty clear. If that is too much for you than maybe don’t get married. In any event this movie is, once again, completely unrelatable to the vast majority of people who would never behave in such a way.

What all three of these movies have in common is that they are billed as “romantic comedies,” and they use the fact that they end happily as convenient cover for just how amoral they really are. I don’t pretend to be perfect. I have made many mistakes in my life, and in my marriage, but I would hardly go around justifying any of my behavior, let alone glorifying it. These movies do just that, and I think send a signal to people that love is really just a matter of choice, no different than sex, or casual relationships, and the films don’t treat marriage as the difficult, but rewarding life-long challenge that it is. Hollywood needs to put the “romance” back in romantic comedies, because from what I’ve seen true romantic comedies stopped being made a long time ago.


Jack B.


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