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Not In The Mood For Love

The studios have a headache when it comes to classic romantic comedy. Amid the boys club vogue and cultural mean streak, can passion be rekindled?

February 11, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

HUGH GRANT is sent many scripts for romantic comedies. "There's one sitting on my computer right now," the movie star says from his home in England. "It starts in hell. I won't go any further."

Indeed, what's offered to Grant, the swankily good-looking, ironic star of such memorable romances as "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill," often isn't pretty. Or romantic. Or funny. It's mostly disappointing, though being Grant, he partly blames himself for his perennial disenchantment with what Hollywood has to offer.

"I'm very queeny and difficult to please when it comes to scripts," says Grant, whose new effort, "Music and Lyrics," opens this week. "On the very rare occasion when my interest is piqued, it's because of two things. One is that the jokes are actually funny, which is amazingly rare.

"The other is that it comes from someone's heart. Oddly enough that really matters. There are a lot of these things that don't seem to come from someone's heart -- they seem to come from a conference room with a lot of hard-nosed studio executives sitting around the table. I think you have to mean it."

Indeed, it seems as if it's never been harder to say "I love you" and mean it -- at least cinematically. Nothing brings this home more than Valentine's Day, the holiday for the perennially disappointed, when Hallmark and Hollywood trot out their wares and a couple of million people are left with nothing but a few flaps of red paper, and a mechanized cha-cha of love unspooling across the local cineplex. No one thinks the genre that spawned the likes of "The Philadelphia Story" and "Sabrina" is dead, but the cinematic espousal of love is having a hard time staying relevant in the age of "The Bachelor."

Unlike such durable staples as action or fantasy, which can thrive equally well with swords or stinger missiles, Russell Crowe or Jean-Claude Van Damme, romantic comedies are gossamer confections, illusions that nonetheless need to dance wittily within perimeters of cultural mores. Unlike tent-pole movie juggernauts, they need real human stars with dazzling amounts of charisma -- otherwise who cares if our lovers end up together? One can't just proffer Debra Messing instead of Julia Roberts and expect the audience not to notice.

Some blame the decline of the romance on the cultural climate. One of America's favorite pastimes these days is ritual humiliation -- a penchant for shame that can zap even the sturdiest lovers.

"I do think there's a hardening of the culture that's undeniable. I think reality TV -- if you just look at what's going on this week on 'Idol,' meanness is king. That offbeat behavior. You're left wondering about the legitimacy of relationships," says writer-director Nancy Meyers, who channeled women's feminist concerns into such pop films as "Private Benjamin" and "Something's Gotta Give."

"Reality TV has, I believe, lowered the standards of entertainment, to put it mildly. I think it's probably harder to entertain the same people with a more classic form of writing, and romantic comedies are a classic genre."

Others say that the problem is more intrinsic to the ritualized -- and dated -- form of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, lovers reunite. As film historian Molly Haskell notes, "Sex is so easy you can't pretend that it's the holy grail. The condition that made for the sparkle and sexiness of the old films was the fact that there wasn't any sex. You could easily keep two people apart for an hour and a half. Now the ways of keeping them apart are increasingly strained."

Indeed, one of the brighter romantic comedies on the horizon, Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up," begins with a one-night stand between a career gal and bong-toting slacker after which the lovers must repent at their comic leisure.

"Romantic comedies have become very difficult to do since the sexual revolution in the '60s," agrees Grant. "Are they going to shag? If they don't do it, it's weird, and once they do, all that delicious preamble ... what's that delicious word?" he stumbles around. "Preamble" doesn't quite have that romantic zing.

Foreplay?

"Yes. I never do any of that." cracks Grant. "All that banter. It's become difficult since the '60s .... [Before] you could still feel this kind of electricity through wicked dialogue."

IT'S MALE BONDING

BUSINESS considerations also play a huge factor in what is seen on the big screen. Simply put, studios nowadays love big male movie stars -- no one will ever get fired for casting Ben Stiller. Corporations such as Sony and Universal still happily make romantic comedies, but more and more from the male point of view: films such as "Hitch," or "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," or even "Wedding Crashers," which blends the old-fashioned buddy movie with the romantic comedy. Even though the romances with Rachel McAdams and Isla Fisher are charming, the real relationship is between the swingers, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.

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