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August 06, 2010


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Jeff McM

I don't know, I'd argue that Apatow has never actually made a romantic comedy as each of his films have been more in the 'coming-of-age' genre (Catherine Keener's skill with an underwritten character notwithstanding).


Do people really watch classic romantic comedies in order to swoon? Are the couples in, say, THE LADY EVE and BRINGING UP BABY really good examples of undying loves that will last throughout the ages? And who really considers BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S to be a pinnacle of the genre? This is what happens when my least favorite thing (Maureen Dowd) touches my most favorite thing (movies). And, if curious, Wasson might want to watch GHOST TOWN--a funny, heartwarming, classically made film where two people really do seem to fall in love. It even ends just shy of a first kiss, like THE APARTMENT. I have other recent rom-coms I like, but I'm too embarrassed to name them right now.

D Cairns

A side-note, but Lubitsch pulls some fancy footwork to allow Herbert Marshall to be replaced by a stand-in who does the racing upstairs on his behalf. Which makes this the light comedy version of The Little Foxes, where Marshall staggers off into the background as we focus on Bette Davis, and then his stand-in staggers upstairs to die.

I'd like to shake the hand of the man who did Marshall's stair-work for him -- even knowing the trick, you can't spot the difference.


As moronic as Dowd's column was, are you seriously going to sit there and tell me movies like THE BOUNTY HUNTER, 27 DRESSES, THE PROPOSAL, GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST, and many, many others aren't enough to make your stomach turn? No, you absolutely cannot recreate the conditions out of which came the classic romantic comedies we think of like TROUBLE IN PARADISE (or, for that matter, go back to the "values" Hollywood was supposedly interested in at the time, but that's another story). And yes, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson are gifted filmmakers (like you, I'm not entirely convinced by Apatow, thought I still like KNOCKED UP), but I don't think they make traditional romantic comedies per se (GREENBERG and MR. JEALOUSY for the former, maybe), although part of why I like both of them is precisely because they aren't quite traditional. But the majority of what passes for romantic comedy these days seems like carefully followed recipes rather than movies. And the worst part is audiences seem to lap them up, and when you raise a hand and say they're not any good, you get shot down as "snooty" and asked, "God, why can't critics just be entertained?" I found this out the hard way when I tried recommending two of the few good romantic comedies to come down the pipe in the last few years - DEFINITELY MAYBE and MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY - to a customer, only for them to tell me they didn't like the movies because they weren't escapist enough.

I'm not a member of the "Yesterday Was Better" club - I do think the best films being made today could stand up with some of the classics of yesteryear, and more to the point, many of my favorite films today - in fact, for example, all of my favorite films this year so far - could never have been made back in the old studio system, under that Production Code. But not everyone who weeps (figuratively and literally) for what passes for romantic comedy these days does so in the same trite terms Dowd did - A.O. Scott, for one, has been basically playing that same note for the past several years in his reviews, and I don't recall anyone here saying he was a moron.

Glenn Kenny

Come on Lipranzer; nobody here has called or likely will call Dowd a "moron." She's many things, but hardly that. Yes, I implied she was an opportunistic aesthetic cherry-picker, and said straight up that she was a contributor to the triviality and vulgarity of Our Culture, but moron? No. Were she a moron she wouldn't be quite so dangerous.

Tom Russell

I've spent much of the last forty minutes staring at this screen and trying to formulate an appropriate response, but being hopped up on vicodin post-surgery has robbed me of any chance of being even remotely articulate. So, bullet-points, without anything bridging them together or any well-thought-out arguments to support them:

+ Full disclosure: I've had a few interactions with Wasson online and found him to be a very amiable fellow and quite intelligent but, yes, sometimes a bit narrow and prone to "Everything-New-Is-Terrible"-ness/overnostalgia. From a blog post (and subsequent somewhat heated conversation between the two of us) in which he expressed with some rather finite vehemence his assertion that video games were ruining Hollywood with their insidious influence, I really had no idea he was my age, which makes his yearning for that Golden Age of Romantic Comedies kinda funny.
+ I came across, but did not purchase, a rather acerbic tome at a book sale with a title that was something like, The Death of Cinema, the gist of it being that the Golden Age had passed and nothing really good would ever, ever, ever be made again. The book was published in the late thirties.
+ One of my favourite critics, Charles Thomas Samuels, put across in the introduction to his great interview book ENCOUNTERING DIRECTORS that the current American cinema, as a whole, was brainless and useless and everything made by the studios was and would be forevermore terrible except for works by the foreign masters. That book was published in 1972. (He died in '73 or '74, having taken his own life. So I'm not sure if he would have stepped back a bit from his assertion if he had seen some of the New Hollywood stuff.)
+ And of course there was the Movie Buff I encountered in the second part of this blog post: http://turtleneckfilms.blogspot.com/2009/09/crazy-people.html

+ Brody is right: romantic comedies are definitely products of their times, and to wish for "more films like the ones that were made before I was born" is not only anti-new but, come to think of it, anti-art.
+ Attempts to recreate the feel of old rom-coms have usually been failures at worse (INTOLERABLE CRUELTY [please don't hurt me, Coens fans]) and somewhat campy if enjoyable nostalgic trips at best (I rather liked DOWN WITH LOVE, especially its breathless plot-revealing monologue).
+ The best romantic comedy of the last ten years was BIRTHDAY GIRL. Obviously.

Stephen Whitty

Another, more positive, and possibly more interesting sideshow -- so what ARE the great romantic comedies these days? Nominees?

I'm fond, as Lipranzer is, of both "Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day" and "Definitely Maybe." I also thought "The Break-Up" -- with, yes Ms. Dowd, Jennifer Aniston -- was a surprisngly smart movie that refused to do the usual modern studio ending.

You know -- the onw where one character is leaving on a plane, the other suddenly realizes "But I LOVE them!," comical complications ensue involving hailing cabs and running down terminal hallways, and they both finally embrace at the gate while strangers applaud.

I swear, if a studio were making "Annie Hall" today, they would INSIST on that ending.

But what ARE the good romantic comedies of the last 10 or even 20 years? Seriously? I'm not counting on Lubitsch -- or, to quote "Sextette," even "son of Lubitsch." Just amusing love stories that don't treat the audience like idiots.

Pressed, I'd definitely add "My Best Friend's Wedding." And maybe the original "Mostly Martha." But still, it seems like a short list. Anyone?


Great piece Glenn. Lubitsch is Lubitsch.
Bogdanovich got crucified for trying to bring back Lubitsch.
I'd kill to see a romantic thriller on par with TO CATCH A THEIF or CHARADE. But romantic comedies I do think filter through---although alot of the talent is stuck in television. But of those that get financed: are LOVE ACTUALLY and SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE not without their pleasures?
Everything is of its time. Is THE WEDDING SINGER actually a classic? I'm starting to think it is. Would a 1930's Paramount romantic comedy have the equivalent of Billy Idol coming to the rescue of a couple in distress? (Come to think of it the answer is yes.) In the Dowd article Wasson was holding up ANNIE HALL as a modern benchmark, but even Joan Didion was slamming Woody Allen in the day for being shallow.

Tom Russell

Stephen: I second Haice on SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE, and I'll add the recent IT'S COMPLICATED to the list-- probably one of the funniest comedies of any sort I've seen in a long time.

And, seriously, BIRTHDAY GIRL-- like PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, and SECRETARY, it's a romantic comedy for thinking adults in which truly dysfunctional people find each other and come out a little bit better for it. My favourite kind of romcom, actually. It's a movie that believes in Love, not as a way to sell tickets, but to save people; it believes that we're all of us, no matter how fucked up we are, deserving and capable of being loved. What's sweeter than that.

And, yes-- it's a fricking romantic comedy. I'm not being cute or controversial-- it's obvious as hell. I don't care how Miramax botched the marketing. It's a rom-com.

Glenn Kenny

Haice, since you brought up Bogdanovich I have to say I think "They All Laughed" is actually a really great picture. With spectacular mise-en-scene.

I have to say, I really kind of enjoyed "Music and Lyrics." I wouldn't say it's great. But decent, yeah. And with a fair amount of wit. Does "Punch Drunk Love" count as a "real" romantic comedy? "Eternal Sunshine?" "Sideways?" "High Fidelity?" "Wall-E?" "Before Sunset?"

"Wedding Singer" is actually quite okay. "Wedding Crashers" was fun. IN PARTS. Back when I drank, and was feeling maudlin, I could be persuaded to admit that "Love, Actually," did get to me—again, in parts. But it just occurs to me now that there's been a kind of schism in the romantic comedy genre in recent years, in that rom-coms are being made for two separate demos. There are the "chick flick" rom-coms that started off promisingly with "My Best Friend's Wedding" and degenerated into the likes of "He's Just Not That Into You," and there are the vulgarian romps for boys such as "Crashers" and "40-Year-Old-Virgin." The most disastrous of all are the ones that, rather than going for a more "universal" tone, just try to mash up the chick flick and the lad film, and that's how you get "The Bounty Hunter" and "The Ugly Truth."

I'm glad we can talk about this.

Tom Russell

Oh, yes, THEY ALL LAUGHED is truly great, Glenn.

Not to go all LexG here, but COLLEEN CAMP is PURE CHARMING SEX in THEY ALL LAUGHED. You will BOW. Etc.


First rate Glenn. First rate.


Thank you, Glenn. When I said above that I was embarrassed certain rom-coms I've loved, I was actually thinking of Music & Lyrics--a nice mature romance about learning to accept failure. I also liked As Good As it Gets, but only because of that palpable repulsion that Helen Hunt conveys as she gives this sad nutjob a chance at the end, almost as if she can't help but think "this is as good as it gets" as she strolls through Park Slope at four in the morning.


Sam Wasson? Really? He's Dowd's go-to expert regarding the state of the Hollywood romcom? Is he really the best source she could conjur up? His mediocre book, “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.,” is nothing less than extended notes by a glorified fan. And his embarrassingly shallow comments to Dowd! "Every time I see Jennifer Aniston’s or Jennifer Garner’s face I wince." Yeah, real mature. Then he goes a step lower adding, "Basically, every time I see someone named Jennifer." Her column would have had more force if she recruited someone of intelligence, genuine wit and insight - someone capable of something more than cheap, snarky retorts. Better yet, come up with someone to explain exactly what is so wonderful about "Breakfast at Tiffany's," a film that's a tad overrated. Sorry, Mo, you lost me at ... "Sam Wasson."


Why is the romantic comedy so often singled out by critics as the one genre, of all the genres that are supposedly dying, that's dying the fastest? This topic seems to come up all the time, as though it's a matter of genuine concern. Why does no one care this much about the Western?

But this was a great piece, Glenn. I don't see a lot of romantic comedies, though not, as some of you may have assumed, because I'm such a hard-core badass -- I'm just not generally drawn to them. And given that, even I have seen some good ones. THE BREAK-UP is genuinely good, or at least very solid, for all the reasons Stephen gives, and MISS PETTIGREW...was also good. Another good one, if a bit older than most of the movies discussed, is RETURN TO ME. It's central premise is a bit much, but then again, not really -- it would only be considered a bit much by today's shallowly realistic standards, in which all sorts of credulity straining nonsense is acceptible, as long as there's no coincidence involved. But it's a good movie, and it has the benefit of having been written by Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake.

One of the complaints I've heard recently (maybe on AT THE MOVIES), regarding the sorry state of romantic comedies, is that all modern takes revolve too much on the couples "scheming". What romantic comedy DOESN'T involve one or more of the romantic interests scheming? THE LADY EVE? BALL OF FIRE? No, wait, not those two... But for Pete's sake, these movies are supposed to be romantic, yes, but they're also supposed to be comedies. You have to have some basis for conflict and comedy in there.

One thing I will say that marks a distinct difference between older romantic comedies -- or older comedies in general -- and modern ones is that, for me, if a modern romantic comedy isn't funny, then it's dead. But classic romantic comedies don't actually need to make me laugh. BALL OF FIRE, for instance, makes me grin from time to time, but I don't laugh, yet I love it anyway. Classic films, the good ones anyway, often a level of craft, energy, and performance that made good, laughter-inducing comedy not secondary, but somehow less important. They could not be funny, but still pleasant, and still wildly entertaining. Now, if a comedy's not funny, then nothing else has been bothered with, either.

Oliver C

Can I count 'Chungking Express' as a romantic comedy?


The point is obvious, but since no one has noted it.... Glad as I am to see SECRETARY included, I wonder why no one has acknowledged the wealth of Jane Austen films as rom-com delectables. This male who loves Peckinpah, Woo and To begins to well almost automatically as Austen's durable heroines get the man they want.

Paul Johnson

While I would never dispute the thesis that, for various cultural and economic reasons, Classic Hollywood produced the finest romantic comedies American cinema is ever likely to see, there is a hint of rosy glasses syndrome going on. No one pines for the days of "Week-End in Havana" or "When Ladies Meet" or "Honeymoon for Three" because...well, that would be silly. It's also worth noting that unless you truly consider "Breakfast at Tiffany's" to be one of the great romantic comedies (I like the film a lot, but find it unsettling and deeply sad rather than romantic or funny), the Classical Hollywood penchant for the genre flared up in the immediate pre-WWII era, and then kind of petered out in the years following the war.

The first post-War American film to partially qualify as a great romantic comedy is the first half of "It's a Wonderful Life," which is a movie about why the romantic comedy template won't work anymore. See also the first half of Cukor's "The Marrying Kind." Hell, even Preston Sturges's great post-war contribution to the genre, "Unfaithfully Yours," is an anti-romantic comedy. Obviously there were still gems being made ("Adam's Rib"), though a lot of the post-War movies people might nominate for masterpiece status ("Pat & Mike," the Doris Day-Rock Hudson cycle) fail to convince me. Most of the great romantic comedies of the late 40s and 50s come boxed inside other genres ("Singin in the Rain," "The Bandwagon," "Rear Window," "North by Northwest," "The Big Sleep," "Rio Bravo"). In other words, rather than the entire mythical construct of Classical Hollywood Cinema, stretching from the mid-20s to the mid-60s, we're really talking about a 10 to 12 year stretch when filmmakers were unusually good at that kind of thing.

Here's a baker's dozen of romantic comedies from the past decade that I liked. None are as good as the best Lubitsch, though all are much better than "When Ladies Meet." In more than a couple instances the terms romantic and comedy may be stretched somewhere beyond recognition.

High Fidelity
Ghost World
Punch Drunk Love
Funny Ha Ha
Lost in Translation
Napoleon Dynamite
Before Sunset
Me and You and Everyone We Know
Quiet City

Tom Russell

Let me second Paul on Wristcutters. When a friend first recommended it to me, I looked at him pretty askance; it sounded kinda snarky and midnight-movie-ish, which isn't always my cup of tea. But the actual film is anything but snarky or arbitrarily hip: there's a real sadness to it, and a genuine affection for its characters. It is one of the most life-affirming comedies I've seen in a long time, and its love story is very sweet and honestly developed.


I want to second whoever suggested Ghost Town with Ricky Gervaise - it's as classic as Rom Coms get, but with a nice twist on it that allows it to be more Lubitschy in spots. It's a great little film. But what do I know, I even kind of liked the Amy Adams goes to Ireland flick for a matinee w/ my daughter....she liked it too. harmless fun without being insulting like many of the examples tossed out above (Bounty Hunter, 27 Dresses, etc).

Which is kind of my main point of posting: What all these diatribes - and they are never-ending - fail to acknowledge is that since the 20s, for every masterpiece there were, just like today, dozens of shitty unfunny uncomfortable films that no on remembers. The 30s, the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and now the 00s are riddled with them. The thing is, when you get far enough away, all you remember are the great ones, while the filmed-in-a-week duds are long forgotten. The Bounty Hunter will be forgotten eventually too....we just have to give it time. 20 years from now someone will write a blog lamenting the good old days of smart rom coms like High Fidelity and Ghost Town while lamenting the popularity of tomorrow's starlets. They'll remember Aniston's best work like Good Girl, Office Space, Friends With Money, and Marley & Me and wonder why there are no good Rom Com actresses anymore.

the simple fact is that for every really good movie, there are a lot of shitty ones. it's always been that way, and it always will be that way. over time, we just forget the shitty ones and long for more of the great ones. it's the very definition of nostalgia. which makes this all a rather pointless exercise.


Modern romantic comedies that simply regurgitate the tropes of classic romantic comedies are almost never fully satisfying. As some of you have suggested, the themes in romantic comedies may be timeless, but society changes. So "makin' 'em like they used to" would probably be a dead end. It takes some deft writing to stay true to what worked in the classics while making it resonate for modern audiences. It's very tricky, and chances are you'll satisfy neither the classics-lovers nor the contemporary crowd.

I quite liked THE BREAK-UP, though it works mostly as an anti-romcom. The film was a decent-sized hit, but probably offers no template for further success. I like, or can at least tolerate, many modern examples of the genre, even it they rarely, if ever, reach the heights of something like THE AWFUL TRUTH or TROUBLE IN PARADISE. Few films do (or ever did--brilliance always being a rare commodity). I'm an Apatow fan and occasionally make the case for him being a modern-day McCarey, with his semi-improv style and generally humane focus on character, but this appears to be a minority opinion even among his admirers (many of whom may not know who McCarey is, of course).

LEAP YEAR arrived a couple weeks ago from Netflix; guess I'll get to that soon. GHOST TOWN was added to the cue last week; maybe I'll bump it up--really been wanting to see it for a while now.


Oof. Meant "queue," of course.

The Gervais vehicle THE INVENTION OF LYING didn't completely work for me, but was an interesting attempt at spiffing up the genre by layering it into a fantasy premise, not unlike GROUNDHOG DAY, which DID work beautifully.


Everyone above is, of course, correct. However, when you move out of the charmed circle of film buffs into the world of generally well-educated intelligent American citizens to which Dowd presumably belongs, you find--I find--that all too often such people look down their noses at comedy of any kind. They fuss much more over the flaws in any given comedy than over the flaws in action-adventure or horror movies. Even faced with an "Eternal Sunshine" or a "Before Sunset", they dismiss them with not much more than a pat on a head before going on to the umpteenth discussion of the ideological dimensions of "300" and "The Dark Knight." I'll bet that if you presented Dowd with a list of good more-or-less romantic comedies made in the last decade, her answer would be that she hadn't heard of any of them; you might as well ask her about Vivaldi operas. But she most certainly has heard of "300", "The Dark Knight", the Transformers movies, and other big-budget action-adventure blockbusters; they're Serious, you know.


I guess I need to explain myself a little.

First of all, I didn't mean to call Dowd a moron; I agree she isn't. What she wrote was pretty dumb, and I was trying to convey that. I was also trying to convey the larger point which only Bgn came close to addressing; she is far from the only one to be railing against the state of romantic comedy these days. I've seen this debate in forums I post at, and as I've said, critics such as A.O. Scott have been pretty much saying the same thing for the past several months. Are people going to start tearing him a new one?

Secondly, I haven't seen BIRTHDAY GIRL (that's the one with Nicole Kidman? If so, I was under the impression it was more a mystery than a romantic comedy, but either way, all the praise for it here has definitely piqued my interest) or WEDDING CRASHERS, but I would definitely concur on SECRETARY, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, WALL-E, SIDEWAYS, HIGH FIDELITY, WRISTCUTTERS, and BEFORE SUNSET (which was my favorite movie of 2004) as being great romantic comedies, traditional or not. And yes, as Brad points out, even if the ratio of good to bad is depressing, that's how it's always been, and probably always will be (I should also say here I can't get behind the love for MUSIC & LYRICS, SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE, or THE WEDDING SINGER, although the latter, if nothing else - and sad to say, for me there is almost nothing else - at least gets the 80's satire right).

As to the other major question Bill and Bgn brought up - why all this hand-wringing about the romantic comedy and not any other genre - the answer, for me anyway, is twofold. Bill brought up the Western. Westerns are still getting made, but they've been transposed to action movies, cop movies, sci-fi movies, and so on, without losing the core values of the genre. Traditional Westerns are still occasionally made - I didn't love 3:10 TO YUMA or APPALOOSA as much as some people did, but I thought both were entertaining.

For the second part, well, I don't look down on comedy in general or romantic comedy in particular - I was brought up on them, on THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, on HOLIDAY, on HIS GIRL FRIDAY, and so on. I don't look down on it as a genre - I think, at its best, romantic comedy is as good as film noir. But the good filmmakers today, with the exception of the ones who made the films listed above, seem to be conceding the genre to the hacks who make things like 27 DRESSES. I'm sorry, but that depresses the hell out of me.

The Siren

I feel obligated to say something about this very fine post, because you're playing my song. LUBITSCH. And Herbert Marshall. And Trouble in Paradise.

But I already stayed up too late last week and wrote myself out on this topic at Tom Shone's blog. If anyone cares,


Basically: 1. If all you are going to point to from the 1930s are masterpieces, classics and the like, you're playing with a stacked deck; 2. Given sufficient time, a lot of movies will start to seem more charming than they did when they were released, and I'd say Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of them. And most important, 3. Despite my own totally freaking obvious preferences, I hate to encourage that column, because it's really just volume 298 of Dowd's "romance isn't what it used to be" hobbyhorse, by which she means "men aren't what they used to be." Like I said at Shone's place, I think relationships are so much less stressful if you forgive him for not being Cary Grant, and he forgives you for not being Katharine Hepburn. Dowd has an astonishing amount of difficulty with that, though.


First off, I agree with Haice- Great piece, Glenn!

OK, Brad writes:

"They'll remember Aniston's best work like Good Girl, Office Space, Friends With Money, and Marley & Me and wonder why there are no good Rom Com actresses anymore."

Cheers to Brad, too. Aniston has been way too hastily dismissed and, for some bizarre reason, has been demonized (bizarrely so) by mostly young male critics. The films which Brad mentions - which her critics rarely invoke - are fine and she's fine in them. To that list, I would add The Break Up (a hugely underrated "anti-romcom," as jbryant puts it) and Love Happens (also underrated), a rather tough little romance featuring palpable chemistry between Aniston and Aaron Eckhart. Plus She's the One, Rock Star and Dreams of an Insomniac. And Marley & Me is so much more that I expected it to be, and Aniston is lovely - and real - in it. And I will forever honor her for her participating in The Iron Giant.

BTW, Kim Morgan, as edgy as ever, wrote a convincing defense of Aniston for MSN a couple of months ago that's worth checking out: http://movies.msn.com/defending-jennifer-aniston/photo-gallery/feature/

And the SF Chron's estimable Mick LaSalle has been a faithful, stalwart champion of her work: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/04/25/PK2J1CSBSO.DTL AND http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/02/21/PKA61BQTDQ.DTL


Ooops! I shouldn't complain about young male critics when I used "for some bizarrre reason" and "bizarrely so" in the same sentence. Bizarre, indeed. Anyway, while I'm at it, I feel compelled to share what LaSalle has written about Aniston. Here goes:

"Her face is a vivid conduit for emotion. She's a great listener and, in another time, she would have been an excellent silent-film actress. She's a skilled comedian, but she can play drama, too. She's at home with herself, and she's beautiful in an accessible way that doesn't annoy women and makes average guys think that she would probably like them. She could be the American Nathalie Baye. Instead, Aniston often finds herself in idiotic comedies like "The Bounty Hunter," in which she's perfectly fine, but everything around her (including her co-star) is wretched."


His deconstruction of her face and ability to use it is very interesting. I've always said that she has one of the most expressive faces of any actress i've ever seen. She's extremely talented at conveying emotion with very subtle looks and slight changes in her eyes, the corner of her mouth, a tilt, etc. I first noticed it on Friends actually. It's kind of sad that she chooses to make those incredibly shitty movies, because she is indeed talented, and has made a few really good ones. I guess the shitty ones pay better. Why she's picked on over someone like Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Garner, who have yet to make a movie that doesn't suck, let alone show some chops as an actress, is beyond me. Maybe she's just an easy target for being so damned good looking...I don't know.


An afterthought: Aniston also had a very interesting role in the quirky and hastily dismissed "Management" and gave a solid performance in it.

Evelyn Roak

Albert Brooks alone negates the idea that it has been one long downhill slide since 1960, or whatever date has been chosen.

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