Romantic comedy in the last few decades is (I’m a little ashamed to say) not my thing. I can’t handle the Bullock, Aniston, Heigl, Garner, and Hudson characters: “Oops, silly me, I just fell down a flight of stairs and embarrassed myself in front of the Guy of My Dreams–but I don’t know he’s the Guy of My Dreams yet because I’m a frigid workaholic with a secretly soft heart.” Boring. While they’re sometimes cute (I giggled a little at 27 Dresses and actually kind of enjoyed The Proposal–but I can use Ryan Reynolds as an excuse for that one), I generally avoid them. So when a quirky one comes along, one that offers dynamic characters, smart dialogue, and few cliches, happy dances commence! (Disclaimer: my fellow bloggers may feel differently about this.)
This week’s No Strings Attached stars those undeniably pretty kids Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman as best friends who decide to start having sex. Emma (Portman), a workaholic (ding ding! cliche) doctor, seems from the trailer to be interested in a friends-with-benefits setup, and Adam (Kutcher) finds himself falling for her. The plot appeals because romcoms don’t often deal with the fact that some women aren’t interested in the cuddles, the goodbye kisses, the dates (gasp!). And conversely, some men do want those things. Of course, by the end of the movie I’m guessing Emma and Adam end up in a Real Relationship…that’s Hollywood for you! (Maybe I’m wrong…stay tuned for the review!)
Join William Bibbiani, Dan Fields, and me (Julia Rhodes!) for this Weekly Listicle as we waltz through the highs and lows of romcoms in search of the sweet, the funny, the quirky, the atypical and unconventional. The flicks to follow probably won’t make any top ten lists, but we love them all the same.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (dir. Kevin Smith, 2008)
Not often do I come across movies that manage to balance almost-but-not-quite offensive crudeness with sincerity and genuine sweetness. Kevin Smith’s movies massage that spot that loves pubescent humor as well as mature emotional depth. From Dogma to Chasing Amy, I can usually get behind Smith’s brand of self-deprecating, juvenile tomfoolery, especially when it comes interspersed with warmth and candor. Smith is pretty honest about how depressed he was Zack and Miri Make a Porno didn’t do well in the box office–and I feel the same way.
The story of the titular broke roommates (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) who make amateur porn to pay rent is witty and honestly cute (but perhaps a little too icky for mainstream audiences). The movie stars bits of Smith’s close-knit stable of actors (Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes, a.k.a. Silent Bob’s hetero-lifemate Jay) and some actual porn stars (Katie Morgan and Traci Lords), as well as Craig Robinson (whose deadpan humor helped make Hot Tub Time Machine pretty wonderful). Justin Long and Brandon Routh have small, hilarious roles as a gay couple.
Yes, Zack and Miri has a lot of nudity. Yes, Smith struggled with the MPAA to get that coveted R rating. Certainly there’s plenty of sex. The brilliance lies in Smith’s ability to separate porno-sex, of which there is lots, and sex-with-feelings, of which there’s little (c’est la vie, eh?). It’s those damned feelings that always get in the way, of course.
When Harry Met Sally posits that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way (No Strings Attached operates on this concept). My male hetero-lifemate and I went to see the movie in hopes it would be about a real, live platonic friendship between a man and a woman (they do exist, I assure you). It doesn’t portray that, quite…but the way in which Zack and Miri find themselves inexplicably drawn to one another through what’s supposed to be just-plain-sex is smart, sensual, and above all honest. As long as you have a good sense of teenage humor, you’ll discover you relate to both main characters and revel in the crass humor.
(500) Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb, 2009)
People dismiss (500) Days of Summer entirely too often for its twee-ness (the story is told via omniscient narration, perhaps relatably to the even cutesier Amélie). Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works for an uber-hip greeting card company (romcom leads always have that job we’d all kill for). Summer (Zooey Deschanel) joins the company as a secretary, immediately catching the eye of everyone in the building. Tom struggles to win Summer’s heart, and she finally consents, though it’s pretty obvious from an outsider’s perspective that she’s “just not that into” him (pun intended). The two begin a complex, protracted relationship whose tale the movie tells in a non-linear format. It is entertaining to watch Tom in a funk, smashing dishes on day 179 (or whichever), then see him dancing in the streets on day 72. The format makes clear each and every reason Tom and Summer didn’t work out. Before he knows it, she is engaged to someone else.
Romantic comedies prominently feature women who love to analyze with their girlfriends every aspect of a relationship–every kiss, every touch, each word (see He’s Just Not That Into you or Valentine’s Day for evidence). (500) Days of Summer turns that age-old trope on its head. Tom enlists his younger sister (Kick Ass‘s Chloe Grace Moretz in yet another strong role) and his best friends to help him cope with Summer’s rejection. They have prolonged phone conversations; he breaks dishes; he laments the downfall of what he thought was perfection in a stereotypically “feminine” way. It is magnificent.
A few of my favorite fashion bloggers, Tom and Lorenzo, mused, “Isn’t it telling that [Deschanel] is only good when she’s playing crazy bitches?” I take that as a bit of a personal affront, because, well, if Summer Finn is a crazy bitch, so are half the world’s women, myself included. (500) Days of Summer is about putting someone on a pedestal, about the brilliant bliss of a brand new relationship, and about the fantasy of the perfect person. It gives the female lead agency we’re unused to in romcoms and manages not to demonize her in the process. Lovely!
A Life Less Ordinary (dir. Danny Boyle, 1997)
Danny Boyle, whose 127 Hours is a likely Oscar contender this year, and whose Slumdog Millionaire won the hearts of the Academy in 2008, has not always had such luck with mainstream audiences. A Life Less Ordinary is both a heist-comedy and a love story, and never the twain quite meet. Robert (Ewan McGregor), an L.A. cleaning man, kidnaps his boss’s daughter Celine (Cameron Diaz) after he’s fired and replaced with a robot. Celine, ornery and beautiful, is pretty bored with the little-rich-girl lifestyle and sees the kidnapping as an adventure. The two find themselves in a love-hate relationship as they struggle to avoid bounty hunters and assassins. Meanwhile, angels O’Reilly (Holly Hunter) and Jackson (Delroy Lindo), in charge of human relationships and fate from above, lend a helping hand from heaven. Nothing goes according to plan, of course.
The movie’s a little too farcical and surreal to land on any “best of” lists, but its quirks and extreme silliness make it a whole lot of fun. (It helps that I love both McGregor and Hunter.) During a karaoke scene, McGregor gets to exercise his lovely singing voice (later showcased in Moulin Rouge), which is awesome. So does Cameron Diaz, which is significantly less so. Stanley Tucci and Ian Holm contribute little roles. The soundtrack is brilliant. Boyle hasn’t misstepped too many times, but The Beach and A Life Less Ordinary are his lesser-known, romantically-inclined movies. And for those of us who like our romcoms a little weird, A Life Less Ordinary fits the bill to a T.
Get Real (dir. Simon Shore, 1998)
Get Real is one of those sorely underseen British movies whose trailer played before every indie VHS rental (remember those?) I got at the movie store as a teenager. Get Real is an exuberant, quirky love story that gives a little depth to high school jocks and makes plain the complexities and intensities of teenage infatuation. Poor Steven Carter (Ben Silverstone) is gay, but only his best friend Linda (Charlotte Brittain) knows it. When Steven falls for popular, gorgeous school jock John Dixon (“sex on legs” according to Linda), he doesn’t expect what he gets: John reciprocates.
Coming out is difficult under any circumstances, but due to witty writing, brilliant acting, and smarts, in Get Real it’s a treat to watch. In the last year, the rash of gay teen suicides in America stunned and saddened the country (or at least those of us with a heart). These made us rethink bullying and the immense, unsurmountable role it plays when you’re in high school. Poor Steven gets the brunt of the bullying, of course…but John provides the perfect buffer, being popular and sporty. When Steven comes out to his parents and the entire school, it is triumphant and wonderful. You want to stand up and cheer!
Honorable Mention: The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, another underappreciated indie flick from the late ’90s starring Adrian Grenier (“Entourage”), Aleksa Palladino (“Boardwalk Empire”), and Margarget Colin (“Gossip Girl”). It’s set in the ’80s, has a fantastic soundtrack, and is yet another tale of high school love gone awry. Things in the best romantic comedies are just never that simple.
Nuit de noces (Wedding Night) (dir. Emile Gaudreault, 2001)
Pretty much completely unknown in America, the French-Canadian comedy Nuit de noces (Wedding Night) is nevertheless a total charmer. It’s an insubstantial film but a very sweet one, perfect for a night indoors with the little missus. There’s no question that this romantic comedy is going to end happily. There isn’t even a love triangle. If you want all the romance and none of the drama, and if you loved similar trifles like My Big Fat Greek Wedding (where the story was nothing more than an excuse for family shenanigans), there’s no reason why you shouldn’t love Wedding Night.
First off, it’s not a porno. I didn’t think that needed to be said but after Google Image Searching the words “Wedding Night” I realized that not everyone thinks in PG-13. No, this is the kind of film where two attractive young people – Florence (Genevieve Brouillette of TV’s “Rumeurs”) and Nicolas (Francois Morency) – accidentally swap cell phones, then fall in love and have a great relationship off-camera before they accidentally win a dream wedding at Niagara Falls. Actually, that’s not so much a dream as it is tacky: Canadians see Niagara Falls kind of like Californians see The Tournament of Roses Parade. It’s kind of neat the first time you see it but seriously, it’s no big deal.
But the worst part is that Nicolas isn’t sure he wants to get married. He’s never even told his girlfriend he loves her. He seems like he does, but he’s never declared it. Many romantic comedies feature a big dramatic declaration of affection – “You complete me,” “Snap out of it,” “Heartfires and holocausts,” you name it – but in Wedding Night it’s the whole point. Nicolas spends the entire film training for it, and in the funniest sequence he finally figures out exactly what to say, but he can’t find Florence so he tells his sister everything he’s going to say. And it’s beautiful. So beautiful in fact that she can’t wait for him to tell Florence and says it instead, completely screwing it up in the process. Aw hell, I kinda ruined the joke, but the comic timing is perfect.
Romantic comedies don’t get a lot fluffier than Wedding Night, but they don’t get a lot cuter either.
My Super Ex-Girlfriend (dir. Ivan Reitman, 2005)
Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman hasn’t directed a hit since 1993’s Dave. He’s probably hoping No Strings Attached will change that, but the underrated My Super Ex-Girlfriend really should have been a bigger success than it was. With a clever script by Don Payne, who’s also writing this summer’s Thor (and who also deserves some credit for desperately trying to de-suck Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer), this immediately forgotten romantic comedy starred Luke Wilson as Matt Saunders, a guy who discovers that his girlfriend has a secret. No, she didn’t have a “sexy phase” in college… she’s a superhero. Awesome.
After the initial thrill of supersonic sex, it becomes increasingly clear that the superhero lifestyle isn’t exactly conducive to healthy relationships. Uma Thurman plays “G-Girl” as a needy and highly disturbed individual who wants to be loved but only on her own terms. (Insert Citizen Kane reference here.) Matt discovers that learning a superhero’s secret identity is a lot like getting married: You’re stuck in an endless circle of trust marred with jealousy. (That’s marriage, right?) He knows he needs to break up with G-Girl, but he’s understandably afraid that she’d throw a Great White Shark in his bedroom window when he does.
My Super Ex-Girlfriend is not a great film. If you follow one of my cardinal laws of film criticism – “The quality of a romantic comedy is inversely proportional to the number of contemporary pop songs on the soundtrack” (double points deducted for bubblegum covers of classic songs) – it fails miserably. But Payne’s script cleverly mines both romantic comedy and superhero conventions for satire, and the cast – which also includes Anna Faris, Eddie Izzard, and Rainn Wilson before he was even fashionable – is game for anything. Only a God awful animated closing credits sequence manages to ruin this hilarious romp. Seriously, they’re painful. Avoid with extreme prejudice.
I Love You, Man (dir. John Samburg, 2009)
I love I Love You, Man. It’s a romantic comedy without all that pesky romance. Well, sort of. Paul Rudd plays Peter Klaven, who’s getting married without a best man. Peter grew up surrounded by women but now that he’s committing to just one (Rashida Jones) it becomes abundantly clear that something is missing. There’s no testosterone in his life, nobody he can turn to for mannish needs like listening to Rush. Before he gets married, he’s going to have to find… a best friend. You can gasp now. I’ll wait.
The heterosexual male friendship is practically ubiquitous in popular culture. Bros, brahs, amigos and homedogs alike are depicted as relationships in which emotional support and good-natured ribbing are interchangeable. They are usually introduced fully formed into the narrative no matter how unlikely the pairing may seem, be it Dante and Randal in Clerks or Anthony and Dignan in Bottle Rocket. But developing this kind of bond is a drama into itself, and rarely explored in any great detail outside of coming of age stories or action movies in which lifelong respect is only attained after jumping dramatically out of the way of explosions.
I Love You, Man is more realistic, despite being hilarious, and acknowledges that you can’t spell “bromance” without “romance.” John Hamburg’s film takes its cue from classic romantic comedies and uses familiar tropes like the “Meet Cute” and “Interrupting The Wedding” as shorthand to develop a best buddy relationship between Peter and Sydney (Jason Segel). After a hilarious sequence of failed first dates, Peter meets Sydney by chance at an open house and an instant bond is struck. The film takes them through such awkward clichés as “Meeting the Parents” and “Would You Like To Come In For Coffee” before tearing them apart just in time for a big symbolic gesture to save the day. I Love You, Man takes a familiar story outline and makes it fresh. If Paul Rudd and Jason Segel actually made out at the end, it would be considered a romantic comedy classic. I think it should be anyway.
Groundhog Day (dir. Harold Ramis, 1993)
This comic gem from Harold Ramis is easy to take for granted, but like Ghostbusters or Grosse Pointe Blank an occasional re-viewing reminds us what a clever and original piece of work it really is. Bill Murray plays a world-weary weatherman on a miserable business trip – covering the Groundhog Day ceremony for his Pittsburgh TV station.
But all is not ordinary. For some reason or another, he keeps waking up in a repeat of the same day, over and over again. No matter what he does, or how he tries to affect the world around him, every new morning brings Groundhog Day all over again, and things are just the way he started it the day before. He goes through various stages of reaction, from surprise to cynicism to despair, until he actually begins to realize the unique opportunity he has been given to change his life. Among the goals he pursues is a romantic relationship with his producer, who finds herself unaccountably more attracted to him every day.
As the romantic leading lady, Andie MacDowell is at her most tolerable in Groundhog Day – proving, like Keanu Reeves in Street Kings, that the right role is out there somewhere for even the least dynamic of actors. She is fierce and funny, and a good match to Murray’s laid-back wit. A wonderful script and great supporting cast make this odd comedy a real treat, even for those who do not observe Groundhog Day. Orthdodox vole worshippers, for example.
The film has been interpreted many ways – metaphysically, spiritually, allegorically, and so on, but any way you want to enjoy it, Groundhog Day keeps coming around every year for our enjoyment. At any time of the season, you can usually find it late at night on some station or other.
Cry-Baby (dir. John Waters, 1990)
You know you’re in for something a little different when your teen comedy opens with kids writhing in pain as they receive polio shots over an upbeat doo-wop chorus.
Although it is one of the more family-safe films by John Waters, crackpot genius of vulgar wit, it is sufficiently edgy and bizarre to bear his signature. It may not have the punch of Polyester or Female Trouble, but it is thoroughly out of the ordinary. Ostensibly a greasy spoof of Grease, it really hearkens more to the contrived lunacy of the Elvis Presley movies. Johnny Depp, still on the rise, stars as Cry-Baby Walker, coolest and baddest of the local hoodlums. All he wants is to drive fast cars, sing rockabilly, and win the heart of a beautiful square named Allison (Amy Locane). And so a star-crossed musical sideshow begins.
It’s suburban bluebloods versus fun-loving rednecks in 1950s Baltimore. Society and the law conspire to keep Cry-Baby from Allison, but rock and roll will surely save the day. Cry-Baby’s people are a ragtag group of lovable outcasts, featuring such eclectic cast members as Ricki Lake, Iggy Pop, and Traci Lords.
The strange appeal of these characters is that they enjoy living like trash. And when they make out, baby, it’s gross. That’s how they like it. The alternative is… well, being a square. Just look at Patricia Hearst, playing a Stepford-perfect suburban mom. Tired of being good? Then try finding love on the wrong side of the tracks.
Delicatessen (dir. Marco Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1991)
In the world of Caro and Jeunet, the words “peculiar” and “delightful” often go hand in hand. Amélie is the movie really put Jeunet on the map, but Delicatessen is every bit as sweet and whimsical, with a generous touch of the gruesome thrown in for good measure. For those new to the Caro/Jeunet experience, imagine a Buster Keaton film directed by Terry Gilliam, framed as a sequel to Polanski’s The Tenant.
Set in a future wasteland version of France, the plot concerns a run-down tenement community that thrives on the cannibalistic industry of the local butcher. Dominique Pinon stars as an out-of-work clown who takes the job of handyman around the place, unaware that he is soon to be on the menu. Meanwhile, he befriends and soon grows to love the butcher’s eccentric daughter (Marie-Laure Dougnac). As their romance blossoms, so the danger of criminal butchery looms ever closer.
The story is full of oddball characters and strange antics, balancing light-hearted slapstick with some truly grim comedy. For anyone who has lived in a paper-thin apartment, the sentiment rings true that the only way to get peace and quiet may be to get rid of all your neighbors, whether by turning them against each other or by flooding them out like bugs. The alternatives are staunch conformity – the daily routine of each tenant falls eerily into rhythm with the others – and submission to being eaten (perhaps in itself the ultimate act of conformity).
The plot goes deeper, literally, as a subterranean resistance force makes the scene and offers a chance for the young couple to get out alive and untasted by their ravenous neighbors. In truth, the whole movie just gets weirder and weirder up to the end, with plenty of heart to temper its more disturbing elements. It all adds up to a deliciously bitter comedy woven around a charming tale of innocent love.