I find it annoying and more than a little disingenuous when critics proclaim the death of a certain art form, as in Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul’s statement a few years back that the novel is dead (since this remark, he’s continued writing… additional novels). And so you won’t hear any such proclamations from me. For instance, I won’t declare that the romantic film genre is dead. No, not me. But, considering the current state of the cinema, I can’t help but wonder if the romantic comedy as we’ve known it is, if not dead, then breathing its last, strangulated breaths. Worse, I fear that Hollywood has issued a do not resuscitate order.
This is not just disappointing, it’s surprising. After all, the traditional romantic comedy has been a mainstay of Hollywood throughout the decades. Can you imagine the history of cinema without It Happened One Night or Annie Hall or Pretty Woman? And yet recently I find that every romantic comedy I see has me racing home to play my DVD of When Harry Met Sally…, the holy grail of romantic comedies.
When Harry Met Sally… has it all: an intelligent and humorous script (by Nora Ephron), characters I can relate to and care about, a lush soundtrack of standards, an irresistibly beautified New York City setting, and, yes, a happy ending. Oh, and of course this rousing declaration of love by Billy Crystal’s Harry to Meg Ryan’s Sally:
I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend a day with you I can still smell your perfume on my clothes and I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Years Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.
Watching and re-watching When Harry Met Sally… is the film equivalent of biting into a really delicious chocolate truffle with hazelnut cream: you know the inside’s going to be sweet and a little gooey but that’s exactly what you’re hoping for as long as it’s not too sweet or too gooey. It’s not necessarily a brilliant or iconic film, but it’s a wonderfully satisfying one.
The movie still feels fresh to me, although it was made in 1989 and Meg Ryan dresses mostly in the sort of head-to-toe body armor that defined fashion in the ’80s. The central question it explores can men and women ever really be friends or will the sexual tension inevitably get in the way feels like it could have been the focus of a Carrie Bradshaw column in Sex and the City a few short years ago.
And so, I wouldn’t have thought the psychic distance between the romantic comedies of today and When Harry Met Sally… would be so great. Yet, looking at some of the big releases of the past couple of years, the distance seems great, indeed.
Call me crazy but I prefer to see movies about a relationship between two living, breathing (without assistance), fully functioning (but preferably super-neurotic) humans – not a person and a ghost or a person and a spirit or a person and a coma victim who’s teetering on the brink of life and death, as in last year’s Just Like Heaven, starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo.
I also really appreciate it when the romantic leads are living in the same calendar year. When I went with a friend to this summer’s The Lake House (admittedly, this is a drama not a comedy, but it felt comedic to me), we were mentally exhausted from trying to calculate who was living in what year, when each of the characters occupied the lake house for which the movie was named, and why they could sometimes meet up (as when they kissed at a party) but at other times could not (as when Keanu Reeves’ character, Alex, inexplicably stood up Sandra Bullock’s character, Kate). Any potential enjoyment of the movie was lost. (As an aside, it would also seem that if a time travel movie about people falling in love must be made, shouldn’t the characters be from different centuries, or at least different decades, not a measly two years apart? What’s interesting about that?!)
Now, this might be strictly a matter of personal preference and I would never presume to judge your, or anyone else’s, sexual peccadilloes but, as for me, I like movie romances that don’t involve even a hint of incest (unless it’s a French flick, of course). But Rumor Has It, directed by Rob Reiner, coincidentally the director of When Harry Met Sally…, and featuring a name brand cast, dipped a toe into these ew-infested waters. Sarah (Jennifer Aniston) is intrigued to learn that she may be the love child of her deceased mother and Beau (Kevin Costner), the man whose affairs with both Sarah’s mother and her grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) supposedly inspired a friend of his to write the classic 1967 film The Graduate. Yet, despite her awareness of this rumor, Sarah can’t help but be sexually drawn to Beau. This storyline screams soap opera more than it does romantic comedy.
Finally, I think the most compelling onscreen romantic relationships are between two adults (maybe three, but once again, only if it’s a French flick). Instead, the most popular romantic comedies of the past two years have starred grownup women with men who are 30-going-on-13. All I need to do is name names and you’ll know exactly what I mean: Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Jimmy Fallon, and even Matthew McConaughey. (Oh, did I mention Vince Vaughn?) They’re either playing videogames 24/7 or sleeping in their Red Sox sheet sets or returning home to live with Mommy and Daddy and then they whine about how their girlfriends or wives are never around because they work too many hours. Maybe the women work so hard in order to earn enough money to send them to the Betty Ford Clinic’s treatment program for Incurably Adolescent Men. To be fair, movies like The Break-Up, Failure to Launch, and Fever Pitch all follow a story arc in which the immature boy-man learns to become more of a man-man, but shouldn’t that evolution have occurred, oh, about 10 years earlier?
Don’t forget, these male characters, or certainly the actors playing them, are in their 30s. They’re not experiencing the sort of extended adolescence that sometimes accompanies one’s 20s. They are grown men! They’ve been in relationships with women over the course of the past 15 or 20 years! I’ve seen Wedding Crashers referred to as a frat boy romantic comedy. Again, at the risk of stating the obvious, frat boys are typically 18 to 22 years of age, not 35 with receding hairlines and monthly mortgage payments.
When Harry Met Sally… did not sidestep the stereotype of the man as the less mature one in a relationship between 30-somethings. After all, we witnessed Harry espousing the virtues of Mallomars (“the greatest cookie of all time”), shooting hoops in his bedroom, fantasizing about giving the Knicks their first championship since 1973, and singing a spirited if off-key karaoke version of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”. But the only times Harry acted in a truly adolescent manner were when he was in college, just a few years beyond his teens in other words, when it might be expected.
So, what are we to make of the recent departures from the traditional romantic comedy? Pauline Kael, the noted film critic for The New Yorker for 24 years, once wrote that “each generation wants romance restated in slightly new terms, and of course it’s one of the pleasures of movies as a popular art that they can answer this need.” She certainly had a point. (She always did.) Every romantic comedy should not be required to have a happy ending and a Gershwin score.
I suppose our notions of romance and our sense of the comedic have remained surprisingly constant over the decades since film’s inception despite the massive changes that have occurred in our society. On the other hand, today’s romantic comedies naturally reflect the changes in our sense and sensibility in the nearly two decades since When Harry Met Sally… was made. And they should: there’s a way greater openness about sex, gross-out humor is in, schmaltziness is out. Alas, the damning “chick flick” and “date movie” labels are in dire need of re-definition.
And so, I can appreciate something created within the framework of the traditional romantic movie but with an original twist. I can appreciate a romantic comedy from a man’s perspective. I can even appreciate a relationship story told with cool realism rather than drippy sentimentalism.
But, I’m of the belief that the twist should serve the story rather than be the story. I happen to think that there’s more to the male psyche than endless games of Grand Theft Auto would imply. And I’d contend that too much realism in art is overrated after all, that’s what we have life for, isn’t it?
Look, Hollywood. We’ve waited patiently for 17 years. Isn’t it time for the next When Harry Met Sally…?