In spite of changing mores, both on- and off-screen, there is nothing quite as satisfying as a boy-meets-girl fantasy of love…
La vie en rose is never so satisfying as in celluloid when boy meets girl accompanied by smart banter, the odd background violin, a few misunderstandings, and a make-up clinch. I think there was once something reassuring about the genre now snappily termed the Rom Com. Whether a wacky “What's Up, Doc?” or a feel-good “The Philadelphia Story”, the triumph of True Love was guaranteed for the cost of an entry ticket.
But it's a sentiment under threat at the movies — far easier to sink your teeth into vampires these days than chase the messy fantasy of True Love. In the newest twist to the Rom Com tale, movies such as “No Strings Attached” or “Friends With Benefits” ask if love is needed at all — or is sex enough? I tell you, romance at the movies just ain't what it used to be.
Okay, so — reluctantly — putting aside my comfortably rose-tinted glasses, I admit to the inevitability of cinema holding up a mirror to society. Celluloid romance has changed because of two changing factors — social mores, as well as what is permissible in movies. The married hero (Tom Ewell) of “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) couldn't have an affair with The Girl (Marilyn Monroe) because adultery in the movies was forbidden by Hays Law, i.e. the moniker given to the moral censorship guidelines that administered what could and couldn't be shown in U.S. movies produced by major studios from 1930 to 1968. In the sparkling Rom Com “It Happened One Night” (1934) Clark Gable ceremoniously hangs a blanket that he dubs “the walls of Jericho” between the beds to keep him and Claudette Colbert apart. How to keep a couple apart — with social codes getting altogether more lax in and out of celluloid — has become the Big Problem in contemporary Rom Coms. Worries at work, failing finances, the combined aggravations of daily living — these struggles are rarely considered cinematic enough.
A different kind of banter
Ergo, dreadful contrivances such as heroines who are weird control freaks or heroes who resort to obnoxious behaviour, in almost any formulaic Rom Com such as “Life As We Know It”, “The Bounty Hunter” or “The Ugly Truth”. Additionally or alternatively, the man or — big twist — the woman waves the “I have commitment issues” card as the modern-day equivalent of warring Montagues and Capulets that keep lovers apart. What set apart the old romantic comedies was the witty, frothy banter. Fast forward, and graphic sexual chitchat as the new pillow talk was just plain embarrassing in the risible “No Strings Attached”. “Friends with Benefits” fared far better in the zingy repartee department, perhaps because it knew the essential sentiments it was trying to update — if only judging by the poster for “It Happened One Night” placed cleverly in the film.
That old black-and-white Frank Capra film is still about as good as it gets, from the feisty heroine and manly hero to the “meet-cute”, i.e. the Rom Com convention of creating memorable/ unusual circumstances that throw together couples who otherwise may not have met. Romantic comedies had a great run in the proverbial good ol days, but dwindled after the Rock Hudson-Doris Day era. Just when we had given up on romance, sorry, romantic comedies, Harry met Sally.
The 1989 film reminds us that Sex vs. Love is an ongoing battle, i.e. the Meg Ryan-starrer certainly pushed the sexual envelope in its time. I remember the collective gasps of surprise — and ensuing laughter — that accompanied Ryan's fake orgasm in a café; so risqué then, but now as iconic as Marilyn Monroe's billowing white skirt in “The Seven Year Itch”.
“When Harry Met Sally” also hit a chord because it asked a socially-relevant question that generated much chatter on and off screen: Can a man and a woman be friends? Just friends? Truly? What did men think about all this? Most Rom Coms are told from the female perspective but you do get the occasional male insight — “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994), “High Fidelity” (2000) or “About a Boy” (2002). If John Cusack and Hugh Grant were decent Rom Com Posterboys, Ryan was a heroine tailor-made for the genre. Her ability to be both funny and sweet cemented her position with movies like “Sleepless in Seattle” or “You've Got Mail”.
A new peak
Harry and Sally did usher in a 90s Rom Com golden age of films — and stars — that did sweet without the saccharine: Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” or Sandra Bullock in “While You Were Sleeping”. Cameron Diaz might be responsible for the beginning of the end with “There's Something About Mary”, i.e. after you've exhausted funny, funnier and funniest in the Rom Com, where else can you go, other than gross? Still, there was something about Mary, largely Diaz's ability to do goofy-sweet. The Gross Out stakes reached a new high in the Millennium with the Judd Apatow brand as in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or “Knocked Up”. Sure, they were successful, but that could also be due to the introduction of fantasy plot points (Seth Rogan's stoner loser gets Katherine Heigl's smart career woman), and surprise “comic” elements (a baby's head emerging from the womb).
But the Millennium also produced Rom Com's biggest sleeper hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, as well as “Midnight in Paris”, and even, well, “Friends with Benefits”. Though chit chat about sexual positions may have replaced the debate whether to hold hands, in the end, raunchy sex has bowed to the superior might of True Love in the Rom Com. Violins please, as I put back my rose-tinted glasses with a relieved sigh.