When compared to the efforts of the recent past, the Romantic Comedy is in a talent-free tailspin that may be impossible to pull out of.
Actually, that's not 100% accurate. I hate BAD romantic comedy, the kind of limp, lusterless romantic comedy that Hollywood has been peddling over the last decade or so. I can go back in my book of memorable movies and pick out several successful examples of the genre, from Woody Allen's wonderful Annie Hall and Manhattan, to more recent titles like Sleepless in Seattle, Chasing Amy, Jerry Maguire, and Knocked Up. If there is one consistent thread running through many of the RomComs I love, it's a sense of intelligence. It's a knowledge that the characters aren't just some cookie cutter cretins slammed out of some interns Powerbook. Instead, they function like real human beings - mostly - and use the budding attraction between each other as a more universal commentary on the truth of relationships.
But somewhere along the line, "zany" got added into the mix. Perhaps it was the work of the flummoxing Farrelly Brothers who brought insanity to the interpersonal. With gimmicky efforts like There's Something About Mary, Me, Myself and Irene, and Shallow Hal, they infused a level of crudity and gross out gagging into the category that hadn't been seen since John Waters got his drag queen pal to eat dog turds. Their success - especially among men - gave Hollywood an easy out. Instead of finding scripts where truly authentic individuals fell in and out of love, all a studio needed was a star, a stupid idea, and a bucketful of bodily fluids. Eventually, the last two elements would fall out of favor, leaving the A-lister (or their currently popular TV equivalent) to take up the slack. All they ended up doing was increasing the crap.
Indeed, over the last few years, the Romantic Comedy has suffered from a severe case of starlet envy. Anyone who want to be anyone is Tinseltown was seemingly mandated to maneuver through a series of low IQ valentines, be it Katherine Heigl (27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth), Sandra Bullock (The Proposal, All About Steve), Jennifer Aniston (Rumor Has It, The Bounty Hunter), Kate Hudson (Raising Helen, My Best Friend's Girl), or Renee Zellwegger (The Bachelor, New in Town). The most depressing part of this list is that it could go on and on indefinitely. Studios, stuck on what to do with popular and potentially gifted actresses turn almost immediately to gender and like bleary eyed grandmas think "must need a man". So it's over to the screenplay larder and out with one of a thousand by-the-number bits of nonsense that's supposed to pass for entertainment.
It's not just the filmmaker's fault. If no one wanted to watch these wastes of cinematic space, the powers that be would stop making them. It's true of almost every genre. Complaints about lackluster horror and inert action clearly fall on deaf bean counter ears when both usually earn back their budgets with theatrical and post-Cineplex DVD and VOD releases. It's the same with RomComs. Women, a decidedly underserved demographic in film, are seen as simpletons wanting fairytale wish fulfillment and uncomplicated Moon/June falsehoods - and they reward this ridiculous mindset with money, money, money. The sound of a cash register always resonates louder than the noise made by a concrete creative thud. Put it this way, if a restaurant gets rich selling lard and sugar, it's not going to switch to caviar and truffles.
So you get what you ask for, audiences, and I must suffer the consequences. As a professional film critic, my job is to sit in a theater and grade the latest releases on an aesthetic scale developed over years of appreciation and consideration, as well as my own personal likes and dislikes. For example, I am not a huge fan of the unimaginative family film. Kids deserve better than sloppy CGI and slapdash sitcom level wit. While I don't expect everything to be Pixar, a Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Kung Fu Panda level of accomplishment is always acceptable. Yet those titles are the exceptions that reinforce the rule. For the most part, the latest kid vid extravaganza will wear on both your nerves and your continued desire to experience same. After a near decade of delving into various and sundry Shreks and Shark Tales, it's enough to warrant a kind of bias.
The same thing has happened with Romantic Comedies as of late. Whether it’s the sledgehammer to the head desire to be pert and cutesy, the acerbic best friend who spends more time being cynical than supportive, the saccharine set-ups which have unrealistic things happen producing equally fake fantastical results, or the resolutions that promise unconventional but always deliver the clichés, it's rare when one of these gal friendly films finds a way to be something other than awful. In the last few months alone, we've had Leap Year, Valentine's Day, When in Rome, The Back-Up Plan, and the 14 May one-two punch of Letters to Juliet and Just Wright among ones already mentioned before. Out of that group, only one tries to be anything other than dopey, smarmy, silly, unsophisticated, moronic, mean-spirited, or remotely respectful of its intended demo - and it barely makes it.
Like the splatterfest that offers little more than gallons of grue or the overreaching drama that blatantly manipulates emotions instead of earning them honestly and legitimately, the Romantic Comedy (which is usually neither, by the way) has become a bastion of basics without a desire to be original, inventive, or clever. It's wallowing in an easy of financial windfall that clearly comes from a passive audience resistance. In a clear case of "be careful what you wish for" (or better yet, "get used to what you are willing to pay for"), the lack of any reasonable voices asking for something more substantive has resulted in what has rapidly become the worst that cinema has to offer.
There is nothing wrong with believing in true love or wanting Mr./Miss Right to walk through the elegant travelogue doorway and sweep you off your feet. There's also nothing wrong with adding a few laughs here and there to accentuate the experience. But when compared to the efforts of the recent past, the Romantic Comedy is in a talent-free tailspin that may be impossible to pull out of. Perhaps someday someone will come along and find a means of reinventing the genre. Until then, I will try to keep my bias - and my bile - in check.