The problem with the modern romcom is men, says Ron Swanson, and not for the obvious reasons.
The Hollywood romantic comedy seems like it could not be in worse shape unless all films in the genre teamed Jennifer Lopez with Steven Tyler. In the past twenty years only two American romantic comedies have made more than £15m at the UK box office. To put that into context, among the films that have passed that entirely arbitrary landmark this year are Gnomeo and Juliet, The Smurfs and Black Swan.
It’s when you look at the two films, Hitch and What Women Want¸ neither of which, I would imagine, would feature very highly in any ‘best of the genre’ lists that one stark truth begins to appear: the romantic comedy has been betrayed by the absence of the A-list actor.
That might seem like a slightly dramatic statement, but it’s worth pointing out that none of the following actors have made a romantic comedy during this period: Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon or Denzel Washington.
Neither Will Smith nor Mel Gibson has gone back to the genre since Hitch and What Women Want, and given their respective baggage (Scientology, batshit craziness), neither are they likely to be allowed to.
George Clooney hasn’t made a romcom since he left ER (I’m classing Intolerable Cruelty as a screwball pastiche rather than a romcom). Tom Hanks hasn’t made one since You’ve Got Mail, which did much less business than Sleepless in Seattle’s £9m.
If the target audience for romantic comedies is women, is it any surprise that the most successful two films in the genre are the ones that feature genuine A-list stars, with all of the charisma that that entails? Interestingly, neither Hitch nor What Women Want have an A-list female lead, which belies, somewhat, the current romcom formula of a female star alongside a lesser male lead.
But should we be surprised at this when the male leads are so, well, bland? The most successful American romantic comedies of the last twenty years have the following leading men. Gibson, Smith, Hugh Grant (of whom more shortly), John Corbett, Jude Law, Ryan Reynolds, Vince Vaughn, Hanks, Dermot Mulroney, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Jason Segel and Steve Carell. Now, there are some fine actors there, but at the time of the films’ releases only Hanks could be accurately described as a movie star; and only Grant could be said to have conquered the genre.
So let’s look at The Proposal, a film that works because although Ryan Reynolds is less of a star than Sandra Bullock, you can believe in the relationship (he’s charming, attractive and very likable). More recently, we see Ashton Kutcher alongside Natalie Portman and we wonder what in the hell she’s thinking. We see John Krasinski or Gael Garcia Bernal opposite Kate Hudson, and we barely bother to think at all – except for worrying that nobody’s going to be there to stop Matthew McConaughey from falling over.
While we’re talking about Kate Hudson, she’s another problem. I like her – always have, ever since Almost Famous. I doubt there are many people who could say that they like her any more. Her career choices have become ever more lazy, and most are found in the romcom genre. Despite the fact almost nobody goes to see the endless stream of crappy romcoms she makes; films like Fool’s Gold, Something Borrowed, Lonely Girls Can Have Fun Too, A Little Bit of Heaven*, she gets to carry on making them.
The question is: why? Well, they’re the sort of films that do well(ish) on DVD. They’re easy to package as part of a promotion, they all look exactly the same, and they cost peanuts to make – especially if you scrimp on the star names.
Indeed, like a lot of genres, the lack of star quality in romcoms comes down to the fact that stars only really make two kinds of films now: blockbusters and passion projects. And the reason we see female stars in them more than men is because there aren’t the same opportunities for actresses to be the headline stars in blockbusters, or to make their passion projects.
The exception from the male side is someone like Hugh Grant, who stars in romantic comedies because audiences don’t want to see him in anything else. He’s only a star in a romcom. Nobody wants to see him doing parkour, any more than they want to see Jason Statham stuttering in the rain. He’s become as typecast in the genre as Statham has in his.
But there are times when Hollywood tries to inject what it sees as a bit of class in a romcom. They tried it, kind of, with How Do You Know? earlier this year. They paid big salaries to Jack Nicholson and Reese Witherspoon, and made a mere fraction of the $120m budget back at the box-office, despite the presence of Oscar™ winning director James L Brooks and reliable, popular, almost A-list support from Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd. It’ll be a while before we see another big budget romcom from a studio, that’s for sure.
But not even Jack Nicholson’s coked-up-shark smile is the killer blow to the genre. It’s time to talk about The Curse Of Sex and the City (which on this occasion is *not* Sex and the City 2). Since the TV show became a huge hit, the focus for ‘women’s pictures’ as Hollywood of old used to have it changed from romance to female friendship.
This makes it easier to cast the blind dude from X-Men as your romantic lead, because you actually want your audience to kind of hate him. Instead of being invested in romance we get our highs and lows from the relationship with the best friends, sisters, mothers (and it’s ok to hate them too!) of our heroine.
The nadir of this is Bride Wars (Hey! Kate Hudson! Neat-o.). I saw Bride Wars from start to finish, and if you put a gun to my head I couldn’t tell you whether or not they even get married, let alone who the poor schmucks playing the male characters were.
Regardless of the genre’s success, or otherwise, financially, should fans be worried? I think so, in spite of some excellent recent films. The more entrenched the romcom becomes as a cheap genre for studios, the less likely we are to see films that differ from the template – so we might miss out on the more adult likes of Friends with Benefits (a moderate hit) or Going the Distance (it wishes – great film, but Justin Long? The obnoxious kid from Ed? Never gonna happen).
We might also miss out on those films which have more wit, or charm, than a plot that basically consists of ‘meet-cute, flirt, realise obstruction, continue to flirt, get together, fight, make-up, Alicia Keys song’. The best of those films, recently, are two that star an actor that could hold his own against any A-list actress, Mark Ruffalo, star of Just Like Heaven and 13 Going On 30. If we could only convince him to eschew all other projects in favour of the romcom genre, I’d feel a lot better about paying money to see the next Kate Hudson crapathon.
* One of these titles is made up, honestly, could you tell me which one?