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January 21, 2011

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lipranzer

"Was poor Ralph's place as the nice fellow who never gets the girl quite so firmly established at this point?"

Well, "he looks like that fellow...uh, Ralph Bellamy" wouldn't have been as funny if it wasn't, I would say.

Also, while I liked Knives as a character in SCOTT PILGRIM, I did think Scott and Ramona belonged together, and it did grab me emotionally at the end.

MarkVH

Best Smiths reference ever.

jbryant

I administer a little movie forum, and it seems like every time I do a capsule review of a modern romantic comedy, I qualify it with some variation of "the problem with most romantic comedies isn't the formula - it's the execution." Formula is much-maligned, but it's often the viewer's (and the writer's) friend, regardless of genre. It's particularly hard to concoct a romantic comedy without hewing to the basic formula as a structuring element. And I'm not talking about "anti-romantic comedies" or "deconstructions" of the genre -- I mean something intended to pull in a mass audience (THE BREAK-UP being a glorious exception to the rule, an incisive critique of the formula surprisingly more popular with audiences than critics).

As a writer, it's my preferred genre, and that's partially because of the challenge of finding fresh ways to minimize the inherent predictability of the formula. Another challenge is the whole issue of sex -- the formula reached its height in an era that couldn't be very forthcoming about pre- or extra-marital sex, which was great for adding sexual tension and dramatic obstacles to the story. Nowadays, the trick is finding believable scenarios for keeping the lead couple out of bed until the final clinch (or after the fadeout). The very titles of NO STRINGS ATTACHED and the upcoming FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS (with Portman's BLACK SWAN co-star Mila Kunis) suggest one approach is to simply avoid that problem. Without having seen them yet, I wonder if that one basic change is enough. Maybe removing one key element of the formula while trying to hew to others brings down the house of cards.

None of my rom-coms have been made (can I get a 'yet'?), but three of them were written for or developed with a production company, and it was quite interesting (and frustrating) to navigate the question of how to satisfy the audience's twin desires for comfort and novelty. I'd like to think that in each case I delivered something with enough charm, wit, character and energy to at least get a pass for the more predictable aspects of the story.

Fernando

Nice work, as usual, but I was particularly amused by your little "normative" aside. A small matter, I know, but one that's right on the money (and as someone who graduated from a liberal arts college, I think I can attest to its accuracy.)

That Fuzzy Bastard

I thought that by the end, Scott and Ramona didn't belong together so much as deserve each other. As Knives said, "I'm kinda too cool for you now."

warren oates

@jbryant, as a writer of contemporary romantic comedies, maybe you can tell us why almost all of them seem to play out as female-friendly light romances rather than as romantic (as in, modifier) comedy (as in, ha-ha _funny_ + the main thing it is).

I'm mournful of the day when guys' guys like Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks were no longer inclined to tell these kinds of stories. Or when studio executives didn't think that the only way to get men into the audience was to rely on their women to drag them there.

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ Warren: Or perhaps the days when men would actually go to movies with female leads? It was maybe David Thomson who said "Hollywood was at its best when it catered to middle-aged women, and at its worst when it catered to teenage boys."

Shawn Stone

Well, Ralph lost Patricia Ellis to Doug Fairbanks Jr (THE NARROW CORNER), Carole Lombard to Fred MacMurray (HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE), Frances Dee to William Gargan (HEADLINE SHOOTER), Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire (CAREFREE). . . .

I thought the deal with Scott Pilgrim was that he had to realize what a jerk he was. The comic end bit where he meets "Nega-Scott" and they plan to hang out was the moral--half send-up, half-serious--of the picture.

Stephen Winer

Another example of what you aptly call the "perversity" of HIS GIRL FRIDAY is that it was achieved by converting the character of Hildy Johnson in THE FRONT PAGE from male to female. Which, I guess, makes THE FRONT PAGE an early example of a -- God help me, I can't believe I'm going to type the next word -- "bromance".

jbryant

warren: Contemporary romantic comedies are rarely screwball -- maybe that's part of the problem. Comedy gets the short end of the stick when the focus is on the woman's "journey" or whatever. The modern version so often centers on a woman who has a good career (or at least healthy ambitions) but is an emotional flibbertigibbet who's always unlucky in love until Matthew McConaughey or Ashton Kutcher shows up. As Fuzzy suggests, you can tell the studios have no real interest in drawing male eyeballs to these things except as reluctant escorts. And it's certainly hard to see how anyone, male or female, could care if these characters find true love. That said, I can be quite forgiving of the formulaic if it offers a few fresh details, some bright dialogue and game performances, like 27 DRESSES or THE PROPOSAL (I can hear Glenn cringing already, but I'm talking forgiveness, not blindness).

Maybe the Apatow and Apatow-esque films go to far in the other direction, but I have found them to be a refreshing antidote to tired stuff like THE WEDDING DATE or MADE OF HONOR.

warren oates

@FB: Not a comedy, but I went to see SALT, does that count? Better in every conceivable way for having a female lead.

I'm a sometime fan of those Apatow bromances. But they usually opt to put bros before, er, the females of the species. Although at least the Apatow films usually try to be funny and to tell stories. Which is more than I can say from most newer romantic comedies I've been subjected to.

There's just such a big drought between the few great exceptions like SCOTT PILGRIM and PUNCH DRUNK LOVE.

Audiences flock to hyperkinetic action films. Yet the old screwball comedies still move much faster--dialogue and storywise--than just about everything on screen nowadays (except THE SOCIAL NETWORK).

If it takes a director like Edgar Wright to bring that old screwball energy back into the genre, and even if he has to smuggle it in wrapped in manic visuals, then surely that's a good thing. I could imagine worse than a sudden surge in cine-literate, A.D.D. romcoms made for video gamers.

I wish more great living directors would consider the genre worthy of their time. So who's on your wish list of romantic comedy auteurs?

That Fuzzy Bastard

@Warren: Well, I posted a long video essay trying to convince people that Soderbergh's FULL FRONTAL is the great romantic comedy of our time. Sadly, the world has not yet caught up.

JeanRZEJ

I think perhaps what you should do instead of stressing the importance of unpredictability in plot to a film is to enhance the importance of unpredictability, both as something that contains a broader classification of dramatic elements and as a problem in categorization. For instance, if your film becomes too unpredictable then it may also distance itself from 'what it is to be a romantic comedy' and then you have a whole different issue - is 'romantic comedy' so predictable as a genre because it excludes films that are unpredictable? Punch-Drunk Love seems to run into problems of categorization because it's too dark, Fassbinder's Lola is a romance without a doubt and a comedy for certain, but it seems to be far too perverse for most people to consider a romantic comedy. Immediately after the wedding the bride runs off to sleep with someone else, something that is a clear continuation of the allegorical aspect of the film, but some may have a difficulty calling it romance. Even that perversion that you mentioned seems to be a matter of: don't go too far. One of my favorite romantic comedies, Zulawski's My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, ends on an unabashedly tragic note, tinged with a bit of cosmic romantic irony perhaps, but can the 'genre' accommodate it? If people allow for what are now excepted from being inclusion to be included then perhaps we can relegate films like 'No Strings Attached' to 'typical bad romantic comedy' as opposed to 'typical romantic comedy'. As it stands these days 'romantic comedy' tends to imply 'bad'. What you call 'perversion' seems to be a part of a greater element of simple boundary pushing and challenging the expectation of what is normal, and perhaps can be included as elements of unpredictability - if a film pushes the boundaries of perversion, of plotting, of tone, then we must celebrate the quality and expand the boundaries of what is a romantic comedy rather than simply relegate the term 'romantic comedy' to the inherently banal. In this way the term 'romantic comedy' will not self-segreate itself from good comedies whose central features are romance and comedy and summarily be able to segregate the bad 'romantic comedies' into their own deserved ghetto.

Vincent

The best romantic comedies feature characters with a veneer of maturity and sophistication; look at just about any comedy William Powell and Myrna Loy made. (And even when such characters weren't like that -- think of some of Carole Lombard's more memorable creations, such as Irene Bullock in "My Man Godfrey" -- they played off the environment they were in.) It's difficult to create characters like that these days, especially with young audiences so dominant in the multiplex. No wonder they come off like refugees from beer and cosmetics commercials.

Emma Hewson

Great post, and very interesting thoughts on "Scott Pilgrim" especially, a film which I feel somewhat ambivalent about, though I consider myself an Edgar Wright fan. I'm glad that you linked to that article on Cozzalio's blog too, though Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule does not appear to be on your blogroll. It is a consistently entertaining and thought-provoking site, so I thought I'd bring this up. Thanks!

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