Sunday, February 7, 2010

Nora Ephron and the Art of the 90s Romantic Comedy

Nora Ephron directs one of the most shamelessly happy endings on this side of the rainbow. And you can't stop her because it already happened.

Notice the obnoxiously pink aisle at your local grocery store? Yep, it's February. And yep, Valentine's Day is just around the corner.

And while it's the month where single women love to talk about how much they love being single, it's also the month where those single women rent An Affair to Remember against their better judgment. Or because Sleepless in Seattle told them that An Affair to Remember is the best movie of all-time. Little do they know, they would probably be better off watching Sleepless in Seattle.

Whenever I proclaim my love for 90s romantic comedies, I'm typically just thinking of Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. There are several rare occasions that I include Jerry Maguire, My Best Friend's Wedding, As Good As It Gets, Notting Hill, Much Ado About Nothing (credit goes to Shakespeare, though) and Sabrina in my statement, but most of the time, I'm just actively thinking about Nora Ephron's cinematic fairy tales.

On a side note, I do think Jerry Maguire is a better film (not necessarily a personal favorite, though) than both Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail combined, since it's deeper than mere fluff. It's not generic. It's cynical, frustrated, and absurdly authentic on an emotional level. It's not even on the same level as other 90s romantic comedies. So there is technically no comparison. While most people seem to hail Almost Famous as Cameron Crowe's magnum opus, Jerry Maguire strikes a chord with me that goes beyond any bright-eyed anthem about sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll.

I felt compelled to write this post because of my recent viewing of Joe Versus the Volcano and the numerous times I've recently encountered Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail on basic cable. While I am not favorable towards Tom Hanks and Meg Ryans' first cinematic outing, I've fallen head over heels over their adorable selves in their iconic films together. I don't have any particular purpose for this post, though I do think I want to comment on the current state of romantic comedies or how I don't mind generic romantic comedies or how awesome it is to randomly catch Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail on E! or Oxygen. This post may result into a pointless rant, so I apologize in advance.

Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail make me feel nostalgic. There are sentimental reasons behind my adoration for these films. They remind me of a time when I was 10 or 11 and I started keeping a notebook for movie reviews. I wrote about movies I watched on Saturday nights on television--most of the movies were 90s romantic comedies. Not my favorite genre, but certainly a genre I don't mind watching and talking about. There hasn't been a genre that has evolved so much, yet kept its roots firmly pressed with both formulaic storytelling and sometimes, unquestionable originality, if you know what I mean. It's a versatile genre that's constantly evolving in a billion directions.

Ephron is a pioneer in the constantly evolving sphere of romantic comedies. If she isn't now, she certainly was one. In 1989, she penned the fairly entertaining, adorable, and endearing Rob Reiner-directed romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally and her screenplay was soon nominated for an Academy Award. Several years later, her screenplay for Sleepless in Seattle was also nominated for an Academy Award.

Ephron has an incredible knack for making extremely witty, pleasant films. Don't scoff this talent--I highly doubt Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, who both possess legitimate filmmaking talent, can ever achieve, or even attempt, Ephron's feats. (Nor would they want to, but just sayin'.) Ephron's films are several steps away from pure fantasy, yet they are so grounded, in a this-can-happen-to-you kind of way. In addition, Ephron knows how to cast her films well. Her actors, often Hollywood superstars, can play characters with relatable human desires and emotions.

Take Meryl Streep in Ephron's most recent film, Julie & Julia, for example. Streep, a Hollywood superstar, plays Julia Child, a cooking superstar, as this strangely relatable woman who just wants to share her love for French cuisine to American housewives! Streep's Julia Child is determined and ambitious, just like the rest of us.

Ephron's cast of characters are simply people we just want to hang out with. The characters that inhabit Ephron's romantic comedy universe are often upper middle-class folks who are well-read, culturally informed, and rarely make their own coffee in the morning. If we weren't already like them, we wouldn't mind being them.

Back to Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. They are films that rely on a generic formula. You've Got Mail more so than Sleepless in Seattle. They are also films that are inspired by classic films, again, You've Got Mail more so than Sleepless in Seattle. You've Got Mail is essentially a modern update of The Shop Around the Corner while Sleepless in Seattle is a happy-go-lucky love letter to a rather depressing romantic tragedy, An Affair to Remember. My point is, 90s romantic comedies are, Ephron's films in particular, old-fashioned at heart.

Sleepless in Seattle is a dream with an ending that feels right. You've Got Mail skews to a point where it's almost dangerously cynical. But that's part of Ephron's charm. She's aware that the real world exists and she profoundly acknowledges it in an often hysterical and oddly insightful kind of way. These pieces of surreal realism may be why Ephron's films appeal more to my friends' mothers than my friends themselves.

This brings me to the current state of generic romantic comedies. While many recent romantic comedies succeed by skewing the standards of their genre, the generic ones suffer miserably. Conventions are comforting, but not when they feel like a 12-year-old girl's short story. I am not going to defend those films, though. Made of Honor is a slow-burning embarrassment that comes off as stupidly cute in its own moronic oblivion. The Ugly Truth is perhaps one of the worst movies of the past decade and it's a shame that it did not garner any Razzie recognition because it's a truly horrible, offensive film (more so than innocent Razzie nominees Obsessed or Hannah Montana: The Movie combined). Love Actually, though not an awful film, is awfully cavity-inducing. I am sure the list can go on.

Although I did enjoy Dan in Real Life for one reason or another that I can't even specify, I do think future filmmakers of the romantic comedy genre should turn to classic Hollywood for advice, especially those eager to make the generic type. Ephron did so, with excellent results. I'm not advocating mindless remakes, but I'm advocating the charm that was ever-so-present in the battle of the sexes between Hepburn and Tracy or the lovingly screwball antics between Hepburn and Grant or the clever back-and-forths between MacLaine and Lemmon. Charm is the key. Desperately hoping the two lovers will end up together is the key. Finding two stars who can act toe-to-toe with each other is the key. Being ridiculously chaste doesn't hurt either. Then there you have a fine, though perhaps overly conventional, romantic comedy. But formula can be awfully charming sometimes when done correctly, don't you think?

So remember the classics. Aside for Ephron's films, the Sabrina is a genuinely sweet remake of a 50s Billy Wilder romantic comedy, Everyone Says I Love You feels like a dreamy musical from the 40s or 50s, and Only You is probably loosely inspired by Roman Holiday.

This entry has has gone nowhere, though I do think I have expressed my thoughts in a modestly abstract rant, a mixed bag of sorts. It kind of makes no sense. I guess many can argue that Judd Apatow has done the world of generic romantic comedy genre some favors or how Juno (absurdly overrated) and (500) Days of Summer (a film that I have not seen?! so I can't really comment aside from what I've heard?) satisfied your indie hipster appetites, or how Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind really is a romantic comedy, despite the fact it's totally depressing (I've only read the script, strangely enough), or how 13 Going on 30 and The Proposal are awesome (and they're fun, I guess), but those films simply don't contain the same DNA as a typical 90s romantic comedy, though I might be just being notalgic and have gotten all my emotions terribly confused. Perhaps we should go forward and not back.

But for this Valentine's Day, I do encourage you all to rent Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail because they are fabulously fun films and the chemistry between Hanks and Ryan will not disappoint. These films will make you smile, a core quality that is necessary in every romantic comedy. But I'm sure you know that already. I remain optimistic about the future of romantic comedies, the generic ones in particular. Hollywood will continue making them and I trust that eventually, the genre would hit another jackpot. Or, better yet, Nora Ephron will return to the genre that she once dominated and surprise us all. Bewitched was a decent enough starting point.

If you would like to read an expert strut his stuff, A.O. Scott from The New York Times has written an excellent article about the current state of romantic comedies, A Fine Romance, My Friend, This Is, published in 2008. The article continues to be relevant and brilliant. While I was Googling for some Nora Ephron information, I stumbled across Kid in the Front Row's hilarious post about how awesome Nora Ephron is. So make sure to check 'em out.

And I would like to open a discussion: What are your favorite conventional romantic comedies (happy endings, etc.) of the past 30 years? What would you like to see in future romantic comedies?


  1. Fascinating discussion, girl.

    How about I just jump in here and kickstart it...?

    All righty then...

    I find rom coms highly enjoyable if they're intelligent, well acted and generally done right.

    There haven't been many over the last thirty years that have accomplished these goals in a reasonable manner. The formula's been done to death. So the genre is in a rut that it may never be able to dig itself out of.

    I liked JULIE & JULIA. I also finally caught YOU'VE GOT MAIL on the Encore movie channel about six months ago. That was fun. It had a lot of charm.

    Of the films that you mentioned in your post, I own NOTTING HILL, JERRY MAGUIRE and the original SABRINA with Audrey, Humphrey and William. (I'm not very hot on the remake with Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear. I'm fond of all three actors. Not the flick, though.)


    (Sorry about the last two, Marcy...)

    So you want a list? Hell, I'll give you one.

    Just went downstairs and had a look through the voluminous vault to see what sort of gems in this genre caught my eye.

    I'll be honest. I am a passionate romantic who is also a pragmatic realist. So I don't care for sappy, candy ass, goofy, silly, unrealistic scenarios and characters.

    I'm drawn to the subversive. A LOT.

    If it's gonna make me swoon, it has to appeal to my take my prisoners nature.

    Consequently, I tend to like romantic dramedies more. So I can actually get my sexy fix without drowning in the usual annoying fluffiness.

    Here are some awesome films that I own that MORE OR LESS fit your criteria.


    They all have happy endings except for the ALFIE remake, ALICE (she's deliriously ecstatic at the end - living a very fulfilling life - but she's not with a guy) and CHERI.


    And if you like the power of a Hepburn/Tracy, Grant/Hepburn or Lemmon/MacLaine combo (and I know for a fact that you do...), then you should really check out DUPLICITY with Julia/Clive.

    Here we go...

    ALFIE (with JUDE LAW)
    BRIDGET JONES' DIARY (the original - the sequel is LAME ASS)

    Thanks, Marcy. It's always great fun jumping the fence and discussing film with you.

  2. Uh...

    That should be take no prisoners nature.

    But you knew that all ready.


  3. @Miranda - Yep. Got it.

    Juno is probably the most beloved film I've ever encountered, especially for kids in my age group. It's pretty close to being The Breakfast Club for my generation.

    So I loved Ellen Page and Jennifer Garner. Didn't care for Diablo Cody's self-conscious, bubblegum script. It's a little too precociously adorable for its own good. I don't hate it, but I definitely find it overrated.

    I just don't understand Joe Versus the Volcano. That's my loss.

    As for your list...

    I love Hannah and Her Sisters and Tootsie. Those are really great films.

    A Room with a Viewis a good film. Terrific cast.

    I've seen parts of Moonstruck and Mystic Pizza. I have a videotape of Mystic Pizza somewhere, though it may be easier for me to just go out and borrow it at the local library than to search for it in my garage.

    Bridget Jones' Diary doesn't hold up in repeat viewings. I watched it again on TV several years ago and I swear it lost half its charm. There's a wonderful cast, though. I really do like Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, and Hugh Grant. They look like they're having fun.

    But still, the movie is much better than Helen Fielding's novel. Zellweger just brings so much likability to the character.

    I've heard some great things about Sixteen Candles. John Hughes' teen classics seems to influence even today's teens. I have yet jumped on the bandwagon.

    Thanks for sharing your list with us, Miranda. You've brought a lot to the discussion!

  4. I'm a total rom-com dork and films I love range from the classics (The Philadelphia Story), to the teens (10 Things I Hate About You), world cinema (Priceless), mainstream (What Women Want), alternative (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and indie (In Search of a Midnight Kiss). I can't get enough of them and they are the kind of film I find most entertaining and enjoyable.

  5. hmmn, most rom-coms I like aren't conventional - if we want conventional though, then I guess Pretty Woman, Love Actually and Only You...

    I do like rom-coms but they have to be a bit original and witty to keep me hooked, otherwise they are prone to slip into cheesy chickflick territory, which is fun to watch once, but never becomes a favourite. I agree with you, nora ephron does a good job of this :) xxxx

  6. @filmgeek - I love how you categorized your favorite romantic comedies.

    I would say...

    The Apartment is my favorite classic romantic comedy, immediately followed by The Philadelphia Story. Great acting, great script, great direction. That's hard to find these days. Billy Wilder and George Cukor were two of the best directors of their generation.

    I'm not too fond of teen romantic comedies. I guess I liked Clueless? That was fun. Alicia Silverstone showed so much potential in that film.

    As for foreign films, I'm guilty of not seeing enough. But I did like Amelie (also starring the incredibly sweet and charming Audrey Tautou).

    I like mainstream romantic comedies a lot, as you can tell, but I never liked What Women Want. I don't care for Mel Gibson (I've never found him charismatic, especially for such a role), though I do find Helen Hunt perfectly charming. I haven't seen it in ages, but I just didn't find the film very funny.

    While I did mention several mainstream rom-coms from the 90s, there are several I liked from the 00s: Dan in Real Life, The Terminal, Enchanted, The Importance of Being Earnest, and About a Boy.

    Stranger Than Fiction and Rushmore (a bit of a stretch) would be my picks for favorite alternative rom-com. I will have to ponder my indie rom-com favorite.

    @Anahita - Never liked Pretty Woman. I don't know. The premise is just ridiculous. And I find Richard Gere a little miscast?

    Only You is severely underrated, though. It's a lot of fun. It makes you wonder why girls aren't watching it at all their slumber parties.

    I think there are certain phases where I enjoy a really conventional chick flick and there are other times where I want to try something more daring. It's just, lately, I've been more interested in cinema as escapism.

  7. I'm a complete dork when it comes to Enchanted. Could not love it more. And I loved Stranger Than Fiction too. Strange considering I'm not really much of a Will Ferrell fan

  8. you've covered most of them, but i will toss out
    'irma la deuce'. shirley mcclain was so adorable back in the day - she could do no wrong.
    btw, marcy, you often say you loved the actors, but didn't like the movie - juno for instance. but ellen paige was the reason to see the movie -it was her movie.
    re: 500 days, i thought zooey was disappointing, but the guy? was good, and the movie was fair at best. a fairly recent zooey offering 'gigantic' is on the cable channels. i saw part of it and liked it better than her other recent movies.

  9. @Richard
    It's possible to love a performance and not like the movie. I thought Ellen Page did wonders with the material she had. Juno just wasn't my cup of tea. In a way, it was actually a little ridiculous, especially since it was so beloved by everyone I knew at the time of its release.

    I still want to (500) Days of Summer though. People either liked it or they didn't, but everyone loved Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Totally understandable. He was wonderful when he hosted SNL. Gigantic looks like a fun, quirky little movie. I've always liked John Goodman (he was always fantastic on Roseanne) and Paul Dano was really subtle and terrific in Little Miss Sunshine.

    Zooey Deschanel is, well, always gorgeous and easy on the eyes. But I haven't seen her in a show-stopping performance since All the Real Girls and it's beginning to worry me. She was just brilliant in that film and I'm sure, Richard, that's something you'd agree with me on.

  10. i would agree with you on most things...but especially on zooey's performance in 'a.t.r.g.', and the fact that she has done nothing since that even comes close. i have now seen all of 'gigantic', and it is a fun, quirky movie. zooey is still pretty adorable, but is certainly not getting roles that stretch her acting abilities. i wouldn't be surprised if she stopped acting, and just did her music. and just to stir the pot, btw, i may be the only person who feels that the 'she and him' c'd, was a little bland.

  11. @Richard
    What I love about Zooey's performance in All the Real Girls is that she doesn't put on all that cute, quirky girl BS. It's a sweet, honest performance and I hate how it's taking her so long to get back to the talent she showed in that film.

    I liked the "She & Him" CD. It was a really endearing effort. I wish the best of luck on their second album. Zooey is a really talented singer, perhaps a better singer than she is an actress. I think she's focused on acting, but she does have the potential for a full-blown music career.

    We'll see.

  12. Can't believe you guys don't love the fuck out of Juno, I think it's amazing! Script was very fresh, original, surprising - and Ellen Page is hot, which disappoints me, as she is reportedly a lesbian. Not that I don't want lesbians to be hot; it's just that, if I am to sleep with her, I'll probably have to become a woman.

  13. @Kid
    LOL. Maybe you can magically convert her to heterosexuality, like Ben Affleck did to Jennifer Lopez is the awful, yet strangely entertaining Gigli. (Is that technically a romantic comedy?)

    I didn't care for Juno. I thought it was overrated because everyone loved the fuck out of Juno, so you have good company there. But like I said, Page and Jennifer Garner were both awesome. I actually preferred Diablo Cody's spunky, terrifyingly campy Jennifer's Body.

  14. Jennifer's Body bored me.

    Okay, not true, Jennifer's body was wonderful; but the film, not so much (for me).