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n age in which psychotherapy and increasing parity between the sexes has no need for romantic comedies. When human behavior was still mysterious enough to remain the territory of novelists and women confined to the home, audiences looked to the films of Howard Hawks, Gregory La Cava, and Preston Sturges for alternatives. Katherine Hepburun, Irene Dunne, and Jean Arthur, among others, may not have worked for a living, but the effortless manner in which they sized up their male co-stars and reduced them to shreds with an acerbic crack (Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's script credits were an imprimatur of lunacy) implied dissatisfaction with the roles society had created for them. It's a tribute to their intelligence that, the performances of Cary Grant and Henry Fonda notwithstanding, it's the women of classic screwball comedy that we remember most.
As audiences became more sophisticated, the movies got dumber—an odd development. The performers still charmed even if their conflicts and resolutions got lamer (Adam's Rib), their situations more rancid (The Apartment). As sexual binarities became more fixed, the inherent ambivalence in the Rock Hudson character in Pillow Talk stumbled against heterosexual impositions. Modern variants like Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman is a Woman and Woody Allen's Annie Hall brimmed with insights which nevertheless threatened to shrivel their characters into reductive sociological types—or, in the case of Moonstruck, ethnic types. Look to pure fantasies like Groundhog Day for realism, to ostensible dramas like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for pained laughs. Now that we're at least willing to acknowledge the existence of alternatives to homo/heterosexuality, a film like Hanging Garden may presage developments that may finally fulfill the promise of complete sexual anarchy that Katherine Hepburn projected in the thirties. Shut up and deal.
Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)
Teetering on the edge of sanity, Bringing Up Baby still feels perilous today. The movie’s view of romance is typical Howard Hawks-machismo, valuing danger for its own sake. And the sheer pace makes you feel like it could all go off a cliff at any moment. Cary Grant’s character, for once, can't control his admirer simply by being Cary Grant. Victimized for most of the movie, when he can't take it anymore, he has to premeditate his outburst, taking quick breaths before finally yelling for Katharine Hepburn and family to be quiet. When even that doesn't shut Kate up, he has to resort to stamping on her foot. Grant’s pratfalls are typically full-bodied, but Hepburn matches his physicality, whether sinking a long putt on the 18th or trying to catch olives in her mouth. She’s unpredictable and irresponsible, which makes her irresistible: If she’s singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” to a leopard, how could you not join in? With limbs and words flying in all directions, this is as screwy as screwball ever got.
His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
The consummate battle-of-the-sexes farce, Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday casts Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant as a reporter and newspaper editor, respectively, and through a series of sequences with ingeniously layered dialogue and plot tricks, follows the two for a single day as she tries to get him to sign divorce papers so she can remarry. There’s a sort of murder mystery in here, as well as small masterpieces of story structure that bring the greater plot to airtight fruition, but this is most immediately romantic comedy in rare form. I can think of no other with this kind of narrative command, and with this rate of successful participatory comedy.
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
The Lady Eve may be the best of Preston Sturges' screwball comedies, surpassing even the wonderful Palm Beach Story in its zippy mix of romance, cynicism, and class conflict. Sturges was the first great American writer-director, and in his use of comic archetypes, recurring themes, and a stock company of supporting players, he set a precedent that people like Woody Allen and Wes Anderson have followed ever since. Barbara Stanwyck was never better—or sexier—than as Jean Harrington, a con artist out to fleece snake scientist (you heard me) Henry Fonda on a luxury liner. Demonstrating a tonal command and a formal confidence his other films lack, Sturges' lets us see what a naive boob Fonda's character (Stanwyck calls him "Hopsy") is, even as we realize why the razor-sharp Stanwyck falls for him. There's a great moment, early in the film, where they lay side-by-side on a settee in her stateroom. She's brought him there to seduce him, but she's the one that ends up being seduced—not by Hopsy himself, but by the feeling of holding Hopsy, of controlling him, of being wanted. You can see the change overtake her face, see those hard features soften, those eyes start to glow. By the end, the ice-cold con artist has realized what she's missing: "I need him like the axe needs the turkey." Has there ever been a better definition for love?
To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
The darkest of romantic comedies, Ernst Lubitsch’s odd wonder gives Jack Benny his best screen role as “that great, great Polish actor” Joseph Tura, a bloody piece of ham who orchestrates an elaborate hoax on his country’s Nazi occupiers, all the while attempting to win back his embittered ex-wife (Carole Lombard). In 1942 there was, of course, no way of knowing whether the Allies would win the war, so the scenes in which a lousy Polish farceur imitates Adolf Hitler still draw breaths with their audacity. Lubitsch himself shows a surprisingly unsure hand keeping things fizzy: It’s one thing for, say, Mel Brooks to make doltish SS jokes, but quite another to concentrate on a failed romance while offstage real citizens are being sent to concentration camps. Fortunately Lombard compensates. Older and more finely chiseled than in her screwball days, she locates the sardonic resignation of a woman for whom a bad marriage and Nazi whoredom are two sides of the same non-alignment pact. Lombard’s power suggests what Hollywood lost when she was killed in a plane accident shortly after finishing this movie.
Adam’s Rib (George Cukor, 1949)
While the great romantic comedies are products of auteurs, most of the very good ones overcome indifferent direction with ingratiating performances and a sharp script. Adam's Rib is one of the best of the very good ones: George Cukor did more open work, but everyone else is in fine form. It's one of the rare rom-coms that starts with the couple already married: this was the sixth in the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy series, and nobody needed to see another meet-cute. Judy Holliday catches her husband with another woman, and shoots him; Tracy is her prosecutor, Hepburn her defense attorney. The details of the dated sexual politics are less important than their mere presence, an excuse for Hepburn and Tracy to have at it (in a very cultured way) like they had seldom done in their previous collaborations. The supporting performances are excellent: Holliday performs an uncannily smart impression of a dumb,hungry blonde, and David Wayne is especially memorable as a crypto-queer (he's a songwriter!), who also happens to be a womanizer, lest anyone get the wrong idea. But you'll remember Hepburn giving Tracy the Bryn Mawr, and Tracy returning fire with all the common sense he can muster from his Republican values.
Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)
Over fifty years after its release, Singin’ in the Rain is still a breathlessly exhilarating film to behold. The infectious melodies coupled with the stirring performances of its leads are enough to cause even the staunchest haters of musical comedy to experience spasms of giddy elation. It combines the physically demanding slapstick of old Buster Keaton movies with the breezy romance of classic 30’s rom-coms, cultivating a tone of sublime effervescence that never lets up. But as easy as it is to fall for Gene Kelly’s undeniable charm and Debbie Reynolds’ gee-whiz spunk, the real showstoppers are on the sidelines. Jean Hagen is brilliant as the remarkably shrill villainess, Lina Lamont, and Donald O’Connor steals one scene after another with his impeccable comic timing and trademark off-the-wall somersaults. Still not convinced? Check out Sight and Sound’s venerable all-time top ten list. Alongside universally-accepted cinematic milestones like The Rules of the Game, Tokyo Story, and Battleship Potemkin, you’ll see a little movie called Singin’ in the Rain, innocently announcing itself as one of the greatest films of any genre ever.
The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, acerbic Jewish émigrés who were writing partners for a dozen films, created their most sweetly funny romance for the uber-goyishe stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in this Oscar-winning benchmark of adultery comedies. As a put-upon insurance man and pixieish elevator girl whose lives are in thrall to the weeknight philanderings of company bigwigs, the leads are at the peak of their lovability, passively avoiding a courtship dance until a suicide attempt throws them together: pretty unflinching stuff for the Doris Day era. Lemmon and MacLaine stand out not only as relative innocents in the corporate shark tank, but for the way they’re lectured in his flat by a supporting troupe of “ethnic” neighbors with a likely then-record number of Yiddishisms. (One chastises Shirley for “noshing on sleeping pills.”) Jack’s climactic assertion that he’ll become a mensch is inevitable: he’s steeping in chicken soup for the soul whenever he comes home.
A Woman is a Woman (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)
One of the most easily digestible pieces in Godard's oeuvre, A Woman is a Woman pairs Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy as young lovers in Paris, complemented by Jean-Paul Belmondo in one of his more humorous roles. Karina's Angéla is frequently playful, but obviously concerned about her relationship with Émile and their future, specifically children, while he is more focused on the racing form. While largely remembered as an homage to the American Technicolor musical (and that it certainly is), the movie's greatest scene consists of a silent romantic argument conducted via the ultimate exchange of extra-textual references: at bedtime the couple pulls actual paperbacks from their bookshelves to brandish at one another, making jokes with the titles. In addition to being a delightful romantic comedy, A Woman is a Woman also serves as an enticing introduction to a challenging filmmaker whose work is often more fun to contemplate than to actually watch.
Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
It feels reductive to call Annie Hall a romantic comedy—but is there any other way to describe a movie that is simultaneously so funny and so romantic? Using a digressive hodge-podge of techniques, including flashbacks, animation, split-screens, and direct address to the audience, Woody Allen managed to capture the joy and frustration of love (or "luff," as Allen's alter ego Alvy Singer calls it) with tantalizing wit and charm. He had a great partner in Diane Keaton (his former lover, real name: Diane Hall), who delivers a star-making performance as the daffy, pot-smoking, necktie-wearing title character. Allen wrote the part for her, and although he claims the film isn't autobiographical, nobody who's actually watched the movie could believe him. Annie Hall is Allen's valentine to Keaton, his attempt to crystallize the way he felt about her and capture that feeling with a camera lens. It's there in the way she's shot, the way the frame moves to follow her, the way the lens stares as she sings a tentative "Old Times," her eyes flashing about a smoky New York city nightclub, her lips parting into a crooked smile between verses. And then she's gone again, to wretched California, with its mantras and yoga classes and health-food cafes. Hundreds of chatty, quirky urban romances followed in Annie Hall's wake, but none came close to matching its fragile, bittersweet aura, or its deceptively simple ambition: to capture a feeling. La di da.
Modern Romance (Albert Brooks, 1981)
“Love will find its way,” my uncle would opine, “into a pile of shit.” Albert Brooks’ coolly observed, hilarious anti-romance—call it neurotica—opens with his verbose film editor Bob Cole initiating yet another breakup with banker Mary (Kathryn Harrold) in an L.A. diner just because something feels wrong. “You’ve never heard of a no-win situation? Vietnam? This?” Two Quaaludes and several hours later, Bob is in a shame spiral, phoning a woman he barely remembers for a date, dialing Mary and hanging up instantly, then embarking on a shopping spree for vitamins and jogging gear to begin his post-Mary life, telling every store clerk, “I just broke up with someone.” The gift of a stuffed giraffe and dedicated stalking get Bob back in insecure Mary’s good graces when he reverses course, at least until he grills her about the man who answered his call to a number on her long-distance bill. “This isn’t about love,” as Bob puts it, but the chasm between the hyperbole of Movie Love and the self-loathing of partnerships fueled as much by vague dissatisfaction and paranoia as good sex and weekends in the country, ending with the funniest epilogue crawl of all time.
Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987)
We demand sass from romantic comedy heroines. We expect them to be smarter than their male co-stars and keep an eye on their pocketbooks—we expect them to have more common sense. Before transmogrifying into a Home Shopping Network hustler and seller of survivalhood in “Believe,” Cher’s heavy-lipped and heavy-lidded beauty authenticated her performances. Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck remains her best showcase, in which her Italian mama must choose between dowdy Danny Aiello and maimed baker Nicolas Cage. Thanks to a Brando-esque wife-beater and loopy way of delivering John Patrick Shanley’s baroque dialogue, Cage has never smoldered so ridiculously and perfectly. After he confesses his feelings, Cher slaps him for his trouble and barks, “Snap out of it!” As her mother and a quiet suitor, Academy Award-winner Olympia Dukakis and John Mahoney, respectively, simmer quietly as comic counterpoints.
Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
Before Bill Murray’s relationship with humor became ��complicated,’ he was the funniest goofball around, and this elastic, temporally abusive screwball romance is his finest film. A beguiling comedy with genuine substance, Groundhog Day functions on the purest and most complex of levels. Relativity and karma hold Murray’s beleaguered weatherman in a cruel embrace until he sets his immediate universes in order and accepts that—to fall in love—he must, quite simply, understand himself. Andie MacDowell is his unsuspecting serial executioner: judging him, rejecting him, torturing him, until the misogynistic, cantankerous brute is obliterated by the haunting vacuum of eternal recurrence. All Phil must really do is painstakingly learn how to enjoy himself, strip back the falsehoods he has buried himself within, and forget for a moment the narcissistic truth that he’s one of the most brilliantly realized characters ever to grace the screen. The film sets an entrancing, repetitious rhythm, reflecting the sheer agony of Phil’s own horrific moral entrapment. It is brilliantly paced, meticulously constructed and catches Murray at the peak of his powers. At the film’s thawed heart is the charming message that no one is beyond saving, that everyone can find true love. There has never been a sweeter movie for cynics.
Hanging Garden (Thom Fitzgerald, 1997)
Ex-pat American Thom Fitzgerald has lived in Nova Scotia since 1986, making films respected widely in Canada and abroad, but not so much known in the US until last year’s 3 Needles, a trio of shorts linked by HIV’s global reach. The Hanging Garden was Fitzgerald’s first feature length film, a sometimes wry, sometimes outlandish, maybe-autobiographical take on going home again and the persistent intrusion of other possible lives and younger selves that were anything but funny at the time. Wiser, happier and 150 pounds more svelte, Sweet William (Chris Leavins) returns to Halifax ten years later for his sister’s wedding to his teen-age lover in the garden where the boys first kissed, got caught and William would’ve hung himself in the apple tree if he hadn’t run away. That swinging corpse matter-of-factly attends much of the story, as does a vigilant, beady-eyed Virgin Mary statue. An inherited curse, rage crashes and sputters through this family, from the demented attic-dwelling granny through William’s drunken gardener-father, sister Rosemary and William’s most tangible surprise, the tomboy Violet. Unforced, generous and tinged with retrospective triumph’s sadness, this film hasn’t a cheap pratfall in sight. Superb performances especially from Troy Veinotte, Peter MacNeill, Sarah Polley, Seanna McKenna and Joan Orenstein.
[Nancy Keefe Rhodes]
My Best Friend’s Wedding (P. J. Hogan, 1997)
It has all the marks of genre evil. A pact. Fastidiously unsexed gay best friend. Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz. It’s also built on a premise of deceit—woman’s best friend gets engaged, she realizes she wants him, she tries to sabotage airhead fiancée—and it ends with a parade of long speeches that compare people to pond scum. But it’s actually because of this persistently conventional framework that My Best Friend’s Wedding is so surprising. In between those moments of sketch comedy and other rom-com tropes, the movie doesn’t wimp out: The tactics employed by the Roberts character to end her friend’s engagement are surprising in their novelty, and, well, meanness. The movie’s cheerful veneer provides a clever buffer to this, and Roberts, who ruled this genre for a decade, crafts her most convincing performance in it.
There’s Something About Mary (Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly, 1998)
Judd Apatow has since taken over the world with his own brand of gross-out love stories, but it was the Farrelly Brothers who first perfected the balance between romance and raunch with There’s Something About Mary. Looking back, what sticks out amid all the semen and scrotum jokes is Ted’s harrowing and hilarious quest for the beautiful, intelligent, pure-hearted Mary. Along the way, Ted must contend with wicked scam artists out to discredit his virtue, endure an unending string of injuries and embarrassments, only to discover that Mary has already found someone as beautiful and pure-hearted as herself: the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. Once Ted finally dispatches of this last obstacle and his journey of pain, suffering, and humiliation comes to a close, he is overcome with a palpably euphoric relief that is immediately contagious to the audience. If There’s Something About Mary tells us anything, it’s that there is such a thing as the perfect woman, you just have to walk through hell to find her.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
It's a great science fiction movie that raises intellectual and ethical dilemmas about frightening new modes of technology, yet it's also the sweetest story you've heard in a long time. It has Jim Carrey as the main character, yet it’s actually a great movie. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is full of these types of contradictions, and it's an incredible feat unto itself that the movie doesn't collapse under it's own breadth. This film does with its fragile story and complex characters what, I imagine, any good love story should do. That is, it created a universal situation by exaggerating its own conflicts, raising their stakes to the point where we all can recognize and empathize with them. Before regretful moments become solely memories (whatever that means), they remain a physical part of the body, impeding any further movement or reconciliation. So why not erase them if you can? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in its touching final moments, seems to imply with or without these regretful memories, we're stuck repeating the same cycle of intimacy and rejection with the people we love.
What's really striking about the movie, however, is how lush its universe is. There aren't any minor characters or elements here. By the end of the movie, you're exhilarated by the complex narrative. And just like the characters, you're left to choose to remember whatever moments moved you the most.
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
Though ostensibly a zombie movie, Shaun of the Dead neatly summarizes all the basic elements of romantic comedy. There’s the male lead, whose failure to commit to a relationship is indicative of a larger fear of impending adulthood. There’s the female cutie, unable to reconcile her desire for stability with her love for her slacker mate. And let’s not forget the best friend, a flatulent drunkard who hilariously embodies the male hero’s most endearingly unkempt qualities. Throw in a dimwitted but well-meaning mother, a crotchety stepfather, and a pair of snooty friends and you’ve got all the ingredients of a charming British love story. The fact that Shaun can vibrantly develop these characters and relationships while never detracting from its viciously funny zombie plot is a testament to the film’s legacy as both a great romantic comedy and a great horror flick. The zombie motif feels no less intrusive than, say, the pet leopard motif of Bringing Up Baby. And, as the film’s wonderful last scene proves, zombies may devour our brains, but they’ll never steal our hearts. It takes a movie like Shaun of the Dead to accomplish that.
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)
The film begins with movie director Jung-rae asking his assistant, Chang-wook, to take a few days off in order to get some work done a script. Chang-wook agrees, but insists on bringing his girlfriend, Mun-suk. On the road, the girl denies any serious involvement with her suitor, and quickly becomes annoyed with his desperate attempts to prove her wrong, falling instead for the charismatic director. After a moonlight rendezvous on the beach with Jung-rae, Mun-suk sets out the next day along with Chang-wook to return home early. Jung-rae, instead of finally working on the script, hooks up with Mun-suk's apparent doppelganger, Sun-hee, who's staying nearby, a scheme which could have worked out fine were Mun-suk not to double back to the resort almost immediately, whence the plot continues to thicken.
Despite the potentially depressing relationships involved, Hong's deft comic touch keeps the action light and lively throughout almost the entire film. That's not to say he adopts an amoral view of romantic relationships; he's quite interested in the real and serious pain we inflict on one another in the name of love. Rather than a scathing indictment, though, Woman on the Beach is a gentle reminder that we all have much to forgive and to be forgiven in situations such as this.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2007-09-24