Arbitrary as it seems, society likes its cinema neatly organized. Movies are sorted into yearly top tens, decade 100s, and the 1,001 greatest films of all time. There are lists of great comedies, horrors, actioners, dramas . . . and an endless segregation between black and white, color, silent, sound, American and international. The American Film Institute and awards groups all take it a step further. The artform is dissected into countless categories with the best parts retained as an enduring legacy and the remainder discarded to a supporting role.
As self-fulfilling as this method is, it’s convenient shorthand to make sense of the hundreds of new films released each year and the thousands that came before. The roots of canonisation lay in this approach, as do those of genre. And it’s the latter that most often dovetails film into the wider pop culture spectrum. Movements are born, not in a moment of inspired isolation, but as a steady evolution of and reaction to the trends of years prior. Even if we weren’t around to see it (and perhaps it works better if we weren’t), the ‘70s still stands out as the genesis of modern American cinema. Likewise, the ‘30s epitomize romance a la old Hollywood, while musicals are best referenced by those made in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Five years on, it’s now nearly possible to judge the ‘90s: a decade that encompassed the death throes of classic star-driven enterprise (Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven), moved through the Indie boom, the rise of Miramax and ending with the faint glimmer of a new true American auteur movement. It’s a discordant era, nowhere near as identifiable as the loud colors and surround sound of the decade preceding it. Yet one trend does stare back through the esotericism. It wasn’t particularly inventive and it was rarely artistic, but it did endure throughout those 10 long years. It now retrospectively finds itself as the key illustration of what the decade meant for millions of moviegoers. Its lingering demise wasn’t fitting but, from 1989 to 1999, romantic comedies (or Rom-Coms, for short) of the most innocuous kind got their own happy ending.
While films have blended romantic and comedic elements since at least Our Hospitality, those made in the ‘90s are unique for their use of formula. Specifically, there is never a question if the male and female leads are, not only compatible, but destined by some higher power to be together. Epitomised by “magical” moments the meet-cute, the conversation montages, the first kiss heartbreak, remorse and reconciliation combine to separate simple love (as represented by the threatening third or fourth wheel) from fate. To suggest anything else is to subvert a delicate genre balance. Other parameters abound: likeable supporting characters that act as facilitators and disappear as soon as they cease to serve the central romance; urban environments with plenty of scope for the range of emotions to show; a lilting soundtrack with emphasis on pure immersion and surrender.
The parade began in 1989 with When Harry Met Sally. Forged from the New York charm of Woody Allen and presenting a grown-up alternative to John Hughes and his brat pack, Rob Reiner’s film set the precedent for middle-class entertainment. And his message to Movieland was clear: follow my lead…that, and/or cast Meg Ryan. Take his advice they did. Throughout the decade, Ryan was starring in Rom-Coms at the rate of one per year, playing roles ranging from a Canadian stranded in France (French Kiss) to Albert Einstein’s niece (I.Q.).
Julia Roberts is still lauded as the reigning queen of romantic cinema, but it was Ryan who was at the forefront throughout. Her triple bill, alongside Tom Hanks, represents the genre’s formative (Joe vs. The Volcano) and breakout (Sleepless in Seattle) stages as well as its zenith the epically courteous You’ve Got Mail. Never once did she hint at the narcissism that permeated Robert’s output, preferring instead to perfect the technique of complete doe-eyed submission to the mood of the piece. Ryan is as accomplished a genre actress as Diane Keaton, but forever handicapped by the very lightweight charm that made her name.
Across the Atlantic, Britain was producing her male equivalent. Rarely has an actor been as synonymous with a single word as Hugh Grant is with “charming”. When Richard Curtis’ Working Title film company was emerging as the heavyweight producers of the genre, Grant was its Michael Jordan. His early American career survived an infamous dalliance with the law simply because he had the ability to laugh at himself. It seems ridiculous that the American public was so eager to embrace Grant suave accent, supermodel girlfriend and all as a Hanks-style everyman opposite increasingly glamorous co-stars, but it says far more about the movie-going public than it does about the man himself. Contrary to the assumption, the Rom-Coms were far more than a singularly female arena. Presenting an idyllic portrayal of love, they left men reevaluating their own romantic perceptions and wishing they were like Grant.
Above all, it was a movement built around innocence. Unstained by the carnal desires and duplicity that continued unabated outside the theater, but, nonetheless, never ignorant enough to assume its product served as anything more than escapism. The Truth About Cats And Dogs, for example, wasn’t Shakespeare but its play on disguise was cute as hell. The charm de rigueur, however, simply proved too little too run on. A look at 2005 releases underpins just how surely the bubble did burst. Only Must Love Dogs and The Wedding Date stand out as movies that fit the criteria and both failed to capture the imagination of the box office. A case could be made for Hitch and Mr. and Mrs. Smith but neither stays true to the ideal of fate and the celebration of the everyday that has the audience walking on a cloud. Even the Bridget Jones films, hailed as something of a reimagination, are miles away from Notting Hill. Even Love, Actually feels like a final ejaculation of half finished ideas in anticipation of the end.
While there are those who say that America lost its innocence on 9/11 and any genre so New York skyline dependant is going to be hurt by an event of that magnitude the slow fade from prominence is more likely the result of simple generational conflict. Rom-Coms, even at their height, were never aimed at teenagers. Instead it was their parents and young professionals with an understanding of the white, middle class universe they occupied that were the chosen demographic. Therein lies the problem of finding new talent to fill the void left by Roberts, Ryan and Grant. The target market and product simply aren’t compatible any more. One the woman’s side, the preoccupation has been to go younger and that hasn’t worked. Kirsten Dunst is too hip, Cameron Diaz too edgy, Julia Stiles too theatrical, and Drew Barrymore too cute. No one can picture Jennifer Lopez as a simple wedding planner (let alone a humble maid). Only Kate Hudson and Jennifer Aniston seem content to keep up the facade and both would probably admit their sincerity lies elsewhere.
The men’s team is in slightly better shape. Paul Bettany still has everything a leading man should, and his Wimbledon performance was as good as any within the confines of the genre. Yet the comparisons to Hugh Grant are going to dog him every time he leans in for a kiss. John Cusack and Matthew McConaughey fit the bill when they choose to dally, and Topher Grace can combine charm and clumsiness with enough panache to suggest a valuable niche career. Pending the return of Tom Hanks, however, there simply isn’t enough ballast to counterweight the drought of audience-approved females.
Romance isn’t entirely absent from cinema, of course. It’s just been superceded by the comedy component. The American Pie kids have grown up and as a result films now apply a greater emphasis on the male ego and are less willing to cushion casual female filmgoers. Anchorman and The 40 Year Old Virgin are both ostensibly romantic comedies, but a more apt title would include knowing emphasis: Rom-COMS, or Com-Roms. The irony is that it, just as Serendipity owes its existence to Sixteen Candles and Manhattan, The Wedding Crashers bloodline includes Four Weddings and a Funeral and Runaway Bride.
Perhaps when a genre has become as self-aware as to produce thinly disguised and contrived fairytales like Kate and Leopold, it’s time to put it to bed. After all, 10 years is a long time. At the very worst, the trend will be remembered as an ineffectual blip in lieu of events of greater consequence. At best, it will be seen as the second wind of the studio romance. It’s probably neither it’s just fluff and it’s only ever as good as you allow it to be. The ‘90s Rom-Coms aren’t to be analyzed independently in any intricate detail and they almost certainly won’t compare to the work of Lubitsch or Capra in 20 years’ time. But wouldn’t it be nice and, in the wider scheme of things, positively harmless to see Tom and Meg back together again for one last onscreen dance?