Why Men Hate Rom-Coms

The Arts

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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.

10 comments on “Why Men Hate Rom-Coms”

  1. Not a man. Hate rom-coms.

  2. Jo W says:

    My Female comments on these films are usually “Oh,for goodness sake!!” Maybe something to do with 42 years of marriage?

  3. Mike Cane says:

    I must admit I haven’t seen many of the newest ones. When I first read your title in the tweet, I immediately thought of all the great classic films you led with! Those are avoided by the masses today for other reasons: They’re not widescreen, HD, and in color. (Now I’m thinking they couldn’t even be remade. Who can recreate the zaniness of Carol Lombard?)

  4. pheeny says:

    I love “when Harry met Sally” but I can’t think of any others … too much rom and not enough com I reckon

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    Very much like the phrase: “divided down the UK/US fault line.” Because there certainly is one and it can be wide. My father, who spent many years in Britain and Ireland, always maintained that there was a more intense general interest in films in G.B. and an attendant greater discussion of them than in the U.S. (And a far greater interest in the various artistic/ technical people who make the films.)
    I have found this to be true and it can make for some very interesting discussions with those on your side of the divide.
    Yes, we have enclaves of film freaks here, but general social discussion of films seems solely focused on the latest release and its first weekend grosses, the hottest star(s), most recent high tech advances, what’s coming or whose shorts were found where.
    So, your columns on films are particularly interesting.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I really liked Four Weddings and a Funeral and When Harry Met Sally but I’m so much not a film freak that my comments are probably meaningless. I’m not inclined to enjoy rom coms for the reason stated above – too much rom and not enough com. Also, I like the comedy to make sense, to be natural to the flow of the story, not just be a joke or pratfall because “we need something funny here”. One of my favourites is “Short Circuit” which is also classified as a Sci Fi movie. Now that film has far more com than rom, even though a few times it does go over the top. Just ignore the sequel, however. The ending riding off into the sunset is perfect.

  7. John says:

    Want an much earlier example of the sexless male in romantic comedy? Try any of those Doris Day/Rock Hudson pictures. Both the supposedly virile Hudson and his guy pal Tony Randall are as sexless as worms.

    Prelude to a Kiss may be one of the most original and successful of the post-screwball comedy era because it was originally a stage play. It’s very theatrical — and I think it works better on the stage than on the screen.

    Thanks for clueing me into I GIVE IT A YEAR. I’ll have to see if there’s a Region 1 DVD version. Black humor is definitely my kind of “romantic” comedy.

  8. Vivienne says:

    I did see Four Weddings, but no more of Curtis’. Films. I’m afraid I just couldn’t believe in Andy McDowell, she seemed too self aware.

  9. andrea yang says:

    You can bin all the Richard Curtis film except Notting Hill. I wanted all the losers in that film to be my friends and the music was perfect. Movies are escapism if I want edification I pick up a book.

  10. Fiona says:

    I always prefer doomed romances in films but don’t mind romantic comedies. Some bore me but some are OK. When Harry Met Sally is a good one but I really love Roman Holiday.

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