Fri, Feb 01, 2008 - Page 17 News List

No love for the romantic comedy

The audacity and charisma that this genre required during Hollywood's classical era has been replaced with pretty faces, little personality and insipid stories that pack no punch

By A.O. SCOTT  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

It's February, time for spring romance, churned out by the Hollywood.

PHOTO: EPA

It might be Kate Hudson, or maybe Mandy Moore, or possibly Rachel Weisz, Lindsay Lohan or a Jennifer. (Lopez? Aniston? Garner?) But if it's February, you can be pretty sure that some pretty, plucky actress will be traipsing around some glamorous and photogenic American city (or its Canadian double) in search of the dimple-chinned fellow who embodies her one true love.

Katherine Heigl, the star of 27 Dresses, has already rushed to the altar - or rather the beach, which is where so many movie weddings take place these days - ahead of a crew that will include Hudson, Uma Thurman and Paul Rudd. (Not all of them are getting married; some are avoiding divorce.) A few specimens of the genre, usually the better ones, can be counted on to sneak in during the summer or fall, as In Her Shoes or The Devil Wears Prada did.

But in general, the trough of late-winter and early-spring is Hollywood's designated season of mediocrity, a time for predictable, unchallenging genre movies. Horror and action for the teenagers, sappy family comedies for the kids and for grown women and their companions, stories of dating and mating decked out with tame Mars-and-Venus jokes and preordained happy endings.

Does that sound cynical? Perhaps, but I don't think the cynicism is mine. And for all I know there may be some gems sprinkled in with the seasonal dross. But the dispiriting, uninspired sameness of romantic comedy strikes me as something of a scandal.

This is not because the plots are predictable, though goodness knows they are. A single woman, courted by two eligible men, will be drawn toward the man who is superficially right but ontologically wrong for her before choosing, in the final 20 minutes, the man with the opposite qualities. Or more rarely, a single man will face the analogous predicament. Or an incurable skirt-chaser will be cured, usually by a lady who at first had seemed to be repelled by his irresistible manly charms. Or a couple on the verge of splitting will discover that they were meant to be together after all.

Depending on the sophistication of the picture or the number of credited screenwriters, these blueprints will be mixed and matched, with various decorative elements (delicately handled ethnic or class differences, workplace issues, exotic locations) added in. If the protagonist is male, his best friend will be either a geek or a boor; if female, her sidekick will be either a prude or a slut.

But as I was saying, predictability in itself is not a bug but a feature of the genre. The marriage plot, after all, is one of the oldest in literature, flourishing in Roman comedy, in the plays of Shakespeare and Moliere and in the novels of Jane Austen. More to the point, the obstacle-strewn road to discovered or recovered bliss was heavily traveled in the old studio days, from the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s to their loopy Technicolor descendants of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Our parents and grandparents had Rock Hudson and Doris Days or Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Or Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Or Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Or even, in That Touch of Mink Cary Grant and Doris Day. But you get the point. We have Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.

Who are perfectly charming. Don't get me wrong. You remember them in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, don't you? Neither do I, even if a search of the New York Times' archives indicates that I saw it.

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