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COVER STORY : What Happened to Adorable? : Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. Unbeatable formula, right? Then why does Hollywood have so much trouble making a modern romantic comedy?

February 12, 1995|David Kronke | David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar

"I don't believe that love goes on forever and that there's one person for anybody. . . . I don't believe in any of that. I don't believe in marriage, I don't believe in eternal love, I don't believe in any of the stuff that will probably be the ending of all my movies."

--Filmmaker Amy Heckerling, on the PBS series "American Cinema"


Valentine's Day may be staring us in the face, but it's a little hard to get jazzed about love these days.

In Hollywood, at least. Who cares how grand love is if moviegoers don't want to hear about it?

None of the major studios' crop of romantic comedies last year--"I Love Trouble," "It Could Happen to You," "Only You," "Speechless," "Reality Bites" and "I.Q." prominent among them--were box-office successes in America; a couple were flat-out flops. The only runaway success was a quirky, modestly budgeted British import, "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

Of course, some of these just weren't particularly good films, but that's not always a consideration when dealing with blockbusters. Some filmmakers are reporting that Hollywood is getting cold feet when it comes to commitments--to making romantic comedies. In fact, two major studios, Warner Bros. and Universal, have nary a romantic comedy to be found on their 1995 schedules.

"When you're in a marketing meeting, you think, 'For gosh sake, don't promote it like it's a romantic comedy,' " says Steve Martin, who has nonetheless written a couple of romantic comedies ("Roxanne," "L.A. Story") and appeared in several more. "If you say, 'Do you want to see a romantic comedy?,' people just say, 'No.' "

Can audiences relate to the idea of happily-ever-after in an era of AIDS, spiraling divorce rates and widespread confusion over gender roles in courtship? Can we enjoy watching ostensibly unmarried characters get sexy with one another while Newt Gingrich bangs the family values gong on Capitol Hill?

Well, sure, say some. Even in a climate where audiences go wild for the glib decapitation of "Pulp Fiction" and the digestive discomforts of "Dumb and Dumber," there are still going to be a fair share of softies.

"No matter how cynical or even cruel society becomes, there are always lovers," declares director Norman Jewison ("Moonstruck," "Only You").

"The romance is what I love best, the innocence," says writer-producer Nancy Meyers ("Father of the Bride," "Baby Boom"). "That certain naivete in the world they live in, which is one that I'd like in the world I live in--the way in which life turns out, I find completely appealing. It's one of the best of American movie genres. I'm completely in love with the genre. Take 'The Awful Truth,' 'His Girl Friday,' 'Twentieth Century'--as a girl, I got a view of love through those movies.

"As opposed to my daughter, who wants to see 'Pulp Fiction.' "

That omniscient group known as "They" like to say that they don't make 'em like they used to. Filmmakers today question if that's possible--or desirable.

"It's driven everybody crazy when we've tried to do a screwball comedy or our version of a landmark Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder film that we all hold dear," says writer-director James L. Brooks ("Broadcast News"), currently at work on a romantic comedy. "We have to accept that they're just masterworks that we admire, and it's hard to be a master."

Director Chris Columbus ("Mrs. Doubtfire"), currently working on the romantic comedy "Nine Months," says that audiences could simply be a little tired of experiencing movie deja vu.

"There have been a number of unsuccessful romantic comedies in the past few years, because it's tough to go into a film knowing what the ending will be," he says. "No matter how hard you try to make it different, that lack of surprise hurts a film. Predictability is an enormous problem."


A basic evergreen plot line accompanies just about every romantic comedy: Two people meet and initially can't stand one another until something happens and they can't stand being without one another. Everything else is window dressing.

Frank Capra's 1934 Oscar-winning classic "It Happened One Night," starring Clark Gable as a reporter tailing a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert), is generally considered to have created the mold from which all that followed it was crafted; it ushered in the era of the screwball comedy, the golden age of romantic comedies.

Screwballs of the '30s were also noted for luxuriating in glamour (even though most of the rich folks on-screen were more miserable than the good-hearted, working-class people with whom they fell in love), which provided Depression-era filmgoers with a vicarious chance to wallow in money. Love conquered all, and even the root of all evil couldn't change that.

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