Why Men Hate Rom-Coms
Once there was something called the battle of the sexes. On the screen this took the form of comedies featuring smart, strong, sassy women like Katherine Hepburn and Jean Harlow. The men were Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy, and what usually happened was that they fought themselves to a standstill and fell into each other’s arms – but not without realising that real lasting love was going to be much trickier than they had at first thought.
In ‘Bringing Up Baby’, Hepburn manages to be so incredibly annoying that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. After playing through on Grant’s golfball she then mistakes his vehicle for hers, takes it, and crashes it. When he politely points this out, she replies ‘Your golfball, your car, is there anything in the world that doesn’t belong to you?’ and drives off.
In ‘The Twentieth Century’ Carol Lombard and John Barrymore lie to each other so much that they end up with no options left but to be with one another. And you knew they’d always continue to fight. In ‘The Palm Beach Story’, a pre-credits fast-forward takes the story through to the other side of marriage, with the couple planning to separate, and that’s where the fun begins.
With the arrival of the accursed demographics, all this changed and the rom-com was born. Getting to the alter was the only goal as relationships and women were infantilised to the level of Disney Princesses. The arrival of Richard Curtis was, in hindsight, A Very Bad Thing. ‘Four Weddings And A Funeral’ was considered edgy because it began with a repeated expletive (admittedly funny), and the start of a series of tropes that calcified into the modern rom-com – the whacky sister, the sibling in the wheelchair, the gay shoulder-to-cry-on (who in Four Weddings And A Funeral gets – the funeral) and a fade-out under a ton of confetti.
Studios had by this time decided that the rom-com was a separate genre, like SF, and that they needed to produce a certain number each year. Working Title clearly felt that Curtis was the man to provide them, coming up with endless variations of middle-class weddings in country houses and races through London beauty spots, with the odd patronising working-class character thrown in for local colour. His men were sexless, his women simpering, the settings travelogues through bizarre English Neverlands.
He got worse, eventually hitting rock bottom with ‘About Time’, a rom-com based on the creepy concept that all males in a family have a secret power that allows them to stalk girls. It’s a film so cynical and lazy that Bill Nighy is required to deliver the concept in dialogue; ‘You see, son, all the males in our family can travel back in time.’
In the US, rom-coms had been in better shape. There was a direct line from Billy Crystal to Seth Rogan, and now came a new honesty, which quickly became strings of gross-out jokes. ‘Bridemaids’ and ‘Sex And The City’ provided crudities for women, too, by making fat people funny again and providing the talking point of having a woman evacuate her bowels inside a wedding dress. But there had also been the wonderful Nora Ephron, whose comedies took a more rigorous approach to romance.
One of my favourites is the oddest; ‘Prelude To A Kiss’ has Alec Baldwin’s love for Meg Ryan tested by the fact that her mind is now inside the body of an elderly man. Everything about the film is original, including it’s cute catchphrase – which was in Dutch.
Having read the divided reviews for another Working Title rom-com, ‘I Give It A Year’, I wanted to see it because of the way in which the reviews were divided, down the UK/US faultline.; in the US it was met with incomprehension. I can see why – although all then traditional tropes are in place, it’s peppered with the black humour of Londoners.
In it, a couple’s marriage is doomed by everyone and everything around them, from the vicar choking over the words ‘Husband and wife’ to a disastrous wooing technique that involves white doves and a ceiling fan. As the wonderful Jane Asher puts it over the division of an in-laws dinner bill; ‘This fucking wedding cost us £46,000 and you’re worrying about who had the dim sum?’ It’s an anti-rom-com (although it also has room for a happy ending), and a very funny one, although it suddenly runs out of energy in the final scene, which is set just around the corner from where I live.
If the cynical rom-com doesn’t fly, then it’s back to the Disney Princess approach, with fart jokes.