The Rom-Com - A new look of love

Another week, another rom-com. But today's offerings can't come close to the classics, says Geoffrey Macnab

The romantic comedy hit its peak in the 1930s – and it has been largely downhill ever since. Watching the new film (500) Days Of Summer, which has been heavily praised in the US for re-invoking the glory days of the genre, it is still hard to avoid a certain sinking feeling. This is the latest in a very long line of films that have been down this path. However, try as they might, contemporary film-makers simply can't emulate the work of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks et al. Depression-era rom-coms simply had more zing about them. They were anarchic and abrasive in a way that films made in more comfortable times were not.

The best films of the eras often played like mini war-movies. Think of the "resist and surrender" routines between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their musicals together, or of the attritional relationship between spoiled little rich girl Claudette Colbert and blue-collar Everyman Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. The saccharin in such works was kept to a minimum.

It helped that these romantic comedies often had such strong screwball elements. The women were wild and headstrong while the men often tended to fret and cower in their presence. In films like Bringing Up Baby and (later) Pat and Mike, Katharine Hepburn – Katharine of Arrogance, as she was once nicknamed – was a force of nature: a golf-club wielding Amazonian with a lust for life that left the menfolk, even when played by such redoubtable actors as Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy, cowering in her wake. And no-one, not even James Cagney, could spit out dialogue as fast as Rosalind Russell's motor-mouthed journalist in His Girl Friday.

(500) Days at least attempts to avoid the gooey sentimentality that often makes modern-day forays into the genre so hard to digest. Like its best forebears, this is a love story with layers of irony. Would-be architect Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a romantic, even if he makes his living writing trite and syrupy greetings cards. Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is the woman he idolises. He sees her as the woman of his dreams. After all, they both like The Smiths. However, his puppy-dog devotion isn't quite reciprocated.

The narrative certainly taps universal themes. All of us – or at least most of us – have lived through the indignity of being summarily dumped by the would-be love of our lives. It's one of the rites of passage that teenagers and young adults face – falling headlong in love and then landing flat on your face. The possibility of humiliation is something found in all the best romantic comedies. They're not simply celebrations of dewy-eyed lovers falling for one another. They're closely focused studies which chronicle the behaviour of the lovers in all their absurdity and their contradictions.

In box-office terms, romantic comedies rival gangster pictures as one of the industry's most reliable staples. Audiences have always lapped them up, in good times and bad. Perhaps for this reason, critics have often sneered at them, even when they are done well. It's easy to be dismissive of the Working Title romantic comedies – Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill etc – without realising just how well they were crafted and what a fillip they gave to the British film industry of the 1990s. Hugh Grant had at least some of that mix of self-deprecating charm and diffident bravado that characterised his namesake Cary in his pomp. Julia Roberts was as close as the era came to a Colbert or Hepburn.

Still, there was always a maudlin and formulaic quality to these films that made them seem too rich and sickly for many tastes. The same was true of the Nora Ephron/Meg Ryan romantic comedies. They were funny and affecting... but grossly manipulative too. There was always a sense that the film-makers were chasing after audiences. Originality was often strained out as rom-coms were mass manufactured by studios which invariably repeated the same recipe.

The most original romantic comedies are often films that wouldn't even style themselves as belonging to the genre. The Woody Allen comedies, for example, come laden with such self-consciousness and anxiety that they are never liable to appear mawkish. Guilt, sexual jealousy and paranoia aren't generally regarded as promising ingredients in rom-coms but films without them can seem very bland indeed. Alfred Hitchcock's version of The 39 Steps may seem like a rip-roaring thriller but it's as close as 1930s British cinema came to the anarchic zest of the Hollywood screwball rom-coms appearing at the same time. Hitchcock even contrived to have his hero and heroine, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, handcuffed together without a key – not a scene that you find in the John Buchan novel.

(500) Days Of Summer director Marc Webb has complained about "formulaic"romantic comedies that are trying to "sell a bill of goods." To its credit, (500) Days Of Summer isn't cynical and contrived in that way. Nonetheless, the film illustrates the almost insurmountable challenges facing contemporary directors who want to evoke the golden days of the genre. One problem is how callow the protagonists appear. Even actors as skilled as Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt can't give much emotional depth to their characters. Webb's background is in making pop videos. At times, the film seems like a feature-length version of a pop promo, about and for teenagers. There is far less sexual tension than in the barbed work that directors like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges used to make. It can't escape its own wholesome cheeriness.

In recent years, US indie rom-coms have been appearing in increasing numbers alongside the more glossy studio offerings. These are the kooky films about young love that tend to start their lives at the Sundance Festival. Some have been very impressive. For example, Greg Mottola's Adventureland, about a bright kid with a hint of Holden Caulfield about him who whiles away a summer in a dead-end theme park job, finding true love in the process, was both funny and moving. Another trend has been the collision in US indie cinema between romantic comedy and dysfunctional family drama. Movies like Noah Baumbach's underrated Margot At The Wedding and Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married have blurred the lines between the two forms in an inventive way. Even so, these movies remain several notches below the rom-coms of the 1930s, which managed to be both light and provocative.

Directors' obsessions with their leading actors and actresses can help. Woody Allen was clearly besotted by Diane Keaton at the time he made Annie Hall. When film-makers are in thrall to their leading ladies, there is a double level of irony. It's not just the fictional protagonist on screen who suffers because of his or her romantic obsession. The anxiety is built into the very fabric of the film. Audiences immediately pick up on this.

In It Happened One Night, viewers are also made aware of the social context. We know that this escapist love story about the journalist and the runaway heiress is being played out against a backdrop of class tension and economic deprivation. That is what gives the film its urgency..

Too many contemporary rom-coms take place in a near make-believe world in which nothing very much appears to be at stake. There is a narcissism about the protagonists that prevents them from ever acknowledging their own absurdity. One blandly good-looking teen character falls in love with another. Spectators don't need to be put through the emotional wringer and made to think they're watching Ken Loach when they go to a rom-com.

Nonetheless rom-coms that give a sense of their characters' vulnerabilities and of their problems register far more strongly than those that take place in a picture-postcard vacuum. This was something that Hawks, Capra, Sturges and other great practitioners of the genre all realised. Their films weren't just about throwing opposites together and putting them in the most trying and absurd situations the screenwriters could imagine. The secret was simpler than that. For escapism to work, they knew it needed to start from a place that we can all recognise.

(500) Days of Summer is out now. Read Anthony Quinn's review on page 10

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there