I posted a rant about Maureen Dowd’s op ed on romantic comedy over on PopD, and then it was suggested to me that I might want to address it here, without the easy shorthand of “We’ve been critiquing romantic comedy for nine weeks so I don’t have to tell you how to do it.” So this isn’t a rant, but it is still in response to the Dowd piece, a recasting of that rant for people who haven’t been watching romantic comedy with me for two months. I’m still annoyed as all hell at Dowd, but I’ve stopped foaming at the mouth.
If you’re going to do a serious, intelligent critique of a genre, you have to do more than say, “Oh, my God, it’s terrible, don’t you think it’s terrible? I think it’s terrible. I’m having such a good time saying it’s terrible with you.” You have to actually discuss the genre, explaining why you think it’s terrible, where you think it’s falling down, how it could be better. Otherwise you’re just a couple of Mean Girls sneering at actresses who probably don’t have that much input into the script (but Aniston and Garner are such easy targets or, as Snotty Guy in the op-ed says, “Anybody named Jennifer”) while you mourn the loss of the good old days when you had to walk five miles through the snow uphill both ways to see Bringing Up Baby and Annie Hall. This pretty much tells your reader that you know zilch about romantic comedy, but by damn you know what you like.
So how do you critique romantic comedy? The same way you critique anything: you develop a set of criteria. This doesn’t have to be the Ur Criteria of Romantic Comedy, but it does have to exist, you have to have some basis for analysis. I would suggest discussing the romance and the comedy. You know, just off the top of my head.
To begin with, romance should be based on more than “I’m hot, you’re hot, let’s go to bed.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not romance. Romance happens when people get to know each other, learn each other’s rhythms, work together for a common goal, share each other’s world views, sacrifice for each other, romance happens when being next to the other person has such an impact that you change which means that a good romance causes character arc (see Moonstruck, When Harry Met Sally . . ., 10 Things I Hate About You, etc). But change isn’t enough, the viewer has to believe that this character is changing because of the romance, has to see that both people in the relationship are changing. Romance is character, so if you really want to discuss where modern romantic comedy often falls down, you’d talk about character (not about actresses, for God’s sake). That’s why Ellie and Peter pretending to be married so the detective doesn’t find out who she is in It Happened One Night is not only funny but enchanting: the viewers see them working together and falling love before their eyes. Or Bunny pretending that the stair rail is a cruise ship in Desk Set, asking Richard, “Is this your first trip?” and Richard replying without missing a beat, “Yes, but don’t tell anybody. I’m the captain.” These people know each other, they understand each other, they pick up each other’s cues automatically, they enjoy each other. That’s romance through character.
Then for a good romantic comedy to really work, the comedy has to come from that romance, it has to be integral to the romance plot. It’s not funny if the heroine accidentally ends up with vibrating underpants because she accidentally dropped the remote control near a kid who accidentally picked it up . . . what the hell does that have to do with the story? Nothing, but some idiot thought it was funny and wasted precious storytelling time on a sleazy joke that didn’t work anyway. It has to make sense, writer people, and it has to advance the romance plot or it’s just you giggling to yourself about how damn funny you are. And if you’re doing that, you’re not that funny. You know what’s funny? Ellie smiling at Peter while he lectures her on hitch-hiking techniques, her amusement perfectly balanced with her affection for him before she one-ups him by showing some leg. Or Richard telling Mike to act surprised when he opens Bunny’s gift of a robe because they both know Richard wore it first. The romance and the comedy have to be as married as the lovers are at the end because otherwise you’ve got a romance with comic relief or a comedy with a romantic subplot. They need to bond. (Note: I’m not using classic romcoms because there are no good modern films in the genre, I’m using them because they’re the ones I’ve looked at most closely lately.)
And about that happy ending: a romantic comedy needs one. Why? Because classic comedies have ended in marriage since romcom stories began because comedies reaffirm communal and social bonds and because romantic comedies symbolize those communal and social bonds in the romantic pair bond. We’ve moved past marriage as the only possible commitment, but in general, if you’re going to sit through romantic comedy, you want a commitment at the end, in the same way a mystery lover wants a solution at the end of his story. Otherwise you have the equivalent of the detective coming in and saying, “We never did catch the killer, but I learned a lot and I feel I’ve grown from the experience.” No.
So Bringing Up Baby, an excellent comedy and an all around terrific movie, is not a very good romantic comedy because David bitches his way through the whole thing and then when he has to commit to Susan at the end (because it’s a romantic comedy), says, “That was the best day of my life.” No, it wasn’t, David, I was watching you and there wasn’t one moment where you were happy. Funny as all hell, yes, charming, absolutely, happy and falling in love, not a chance. Saying it does not make it so. And Annie Hall, an excellent comedy and an all around terrific movie, is also not a romantic comedy because it keeps its distance from the very thing that powers the genre, that arc into a committed relationship. I have no idea why Dowd and her pal even brought An Unmarried Woman into the mix, that was never a romantic comedy. It’s a great feminist comedy, but a romance? Nope, her romance was part of her journey plot which is why she turns down commitment at the end to be free. You can’t just throw a dart and hit a movie that has a love story and some laughs and say, “Look, a romantic comedy!” If you’re going to be that sloppy, Macbeth is a mystery about a serial killer. (Now somebody’s going to argue that Macbeth is a mystery about a serial killer. No, it isn’t. It’s a tragedy about a noble man who falls; the deaths aren’t the point of the story, they’re the vehicle.)
I think the sloppy thinking in Dowd’s article comes down to the mindset that I found often in grad school, a mindset she should have matured out of by now, the idea that if she doesn’t like it, it’s no good, and nobody else should like it either, and she doesn’t have to explain why or make intelligent analysis because everybody thinks like she does. For Dowd and her pal, Snotty Guy, good romantic comedy is like porn, they can’t explain it or define it, but they’ll know it when they see it and they’re smugly sure you’ll agree. When you add to this Dowd’s take on romantic comedy novels in which she quoted and agreed with a friend of hers that women should put down their romances and pick up The Red Badge of Courage, you are left with the distinct impression that Dowd just doesn’t like romantic comedy; it’s beneath her. Which is fine, if she comes out and says that and then explains why. But instead she joins in the chorus of people slanging at romantic comedy–books and film–because it’s such a safe target for ridicule: it’s about women and love and who takes them seriously?
If you’re going to criticize the romantic comedy genre, first try to understand it and then discuss it intelligently. Really, Maureen, anybody named Jennifer could have written a better op ed than that.