Sunday, August 12, 2007

Belinda Luscombe on (romantic) comedies

I picked up the August 20, 2007 issue (Vol. 170 No. 8) of Time Magazine and read an educational and somewhat disheartening article about the future of the American romantic comedy.

Belinda Luscombe writes:

Love stories are old. They're universal. Nearly everyone has one. Which makes them nearly impossible to write well. This summer has brought us License to Wed, in which a couple is nearly driven apart by their wacky priest's marriage-prep course; I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, in which Adam Sandler pretends to marry his firefighter buddy for health-insurance reasons; No Reservations, in which two competitive chefs fall in love; and Becoming Jane, in which Jane Austen has to choose between love and proper behavior. Coming in September is Good Luck Chuck, in which every girl Chuck sleeps with goes on to marry the next guy she meets. All of them, except the Austen, are what's known in the romance-novel business as HEAs (happily-ever-afters), and none of them are remotely stirring, although Good Luck Chuck is spectacularly off-putting. "Romantic comedies are backbreaking to write because they have to be fresh," says Mike Newell, director of Four Weddings and a Funeral and the upcoming Love in the Time of Cholera. "I've yet to find another one which was surprising enough to do."

But it's not just familiarity that breeds contempt for love stories. It may be actually getting harder to get people to believe in them, acknowledges Richard Curtis, writer of such indelible romances as Four Weddings and Notting Hill, because our expectations have changed. "If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it's called searingly realistic, even though it's never happened in the history of mankind," he notes. "Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you're accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental."

Luscombe mentions cultural and social changes over the last half century that may have affected the standard perception of romance and human interaction, which in turn likely makes romantic comedies harder to market. She also brings up the film Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007) and remarks that it "is the purest iteration of the so-called bromance form yet. Two best friends, Seth and Evan, on the verge of graduating from high school, have to get booze, get over the fact that they're about to go their separate ways and get girls before the night is out."

At first, I thought, "Wow. Perhaps the (romantic) comedy formula is changing--no longer is it about heterosexual sexual love; maybe the next move is platonic love." But then, that kind of story could simply be a comedy or a drama. I also thought "bromance" was a pretty clever term....that is until I realized that Luscombe might be using a synonym for the "buddy film."

Luscombe briefly addresses the profit-driven facet of Hollywood that almost demands quality be sacrificed for novelty or an ingenious marketing campaign so that opening weekend draws the biggest crowds. She incorporates a reception studies point-of-view when pointing out that young men flock to the cinema in slightly higher numbers--and probably more frequently--than women. I know this article isn't (and isn't supposed to be) scientific in approach, but if there was an undertaking to investigate further whether or not the romantic comedy as a genre is truly dying or adapting to a new collective consciousness or if there simply hasn't been a really good script in a long while, more variables would have to be considered and controlled.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the public's cinema-going habits, I doubt that there could be a study scientific enough. We're talking about people's preferences in aesthetics, narrative, and ideology. However consistent some individuals' or demographics' behavior may be, there are too many "but's" in the question. Furthermore, to be more thorough, DVD rentals, purchases, and library lending patterns and tendencies would have to be examined too.

To read Belinda Luscombe's article in its entirety, please click here.

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