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A history of romantic comedies

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is Valentine's Day. I know you have probably heard that way too many times today. There are, of course, all the little rituals around this holiday - right? - like the cards, the chocolates, the overpriced flowers, the way overpriced dinner for two. And then there are some people who choose to spend the holiday, as I've certainly done here and there, curled up on a couch watching a romantic comedy. Love them or hate them, rom-coms suck so many of us in, right? Like, there's the snappy dialogue, as in "When Harry Met Sally..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY...")

BILLY CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) Men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.

MEG RYAN: (As Sally Albright) That's not true. I have a number of men friends, and there is no sex involved.

CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) No, you don't.

RYAN: (As Sally Albright) Yes, I do.

CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) No, you don't.

RYAN: (As Sally Albright) Yes, I do.

CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) You only think you do.

CHANG: ...Or the awkward coincidences, like this scene in "Something's Gotta Give."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE")

DIANE KEATON: (As Erica Barry) Yes, I have an intruder in my house - 29 Daniels Lane, Sagaponack...

JACK NICHOLSON: (As Harry Sanborn) I'm dating your daughter, Marin. She invited me here for the weekend. She's in her room right now, changing.

KEATON: (As Erica Barry) You're dating my daughter?

NICHOLSON: (As Harry Sanborn) Now, who would have thought that would be worse news?

CHANG: And, of course, there is this sputtering, clumsy profession of love, as in "Bridget Jones's Diary."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY")

COLIN FIRTH: (As Mark Darcy) What I'm trying to say, very inarticulately, is - in fact, perhaps despite appearances, I like you very much.

RENEE ZELLWEGER: (As Bridget Jones) Apart from the smoking and the drinking and the vulgar mother and the verbal diarrhea.

FIRTH: (As Mark Darcy) No, I like you very much - just as you are.

CHANG: Just as you are - you may have noticed that all of those scenes that are so recognizable now are from rom-coms that are at least a couple decades old because somewhere along the way, around the early to mid-aughts, studios just kind of stopped making as many rom-coms as they used to. And that is what we're going to talk about now with author Scott Meslow. His new book is called "From Hollywood With Love: The Rise And Fall (And Rise Again) Of The Romantic Comedy." Welcome.

SCOTT MESLOW: Thank you. Happy to be here.

CHANG: The high point that you write about, this golden era that happened for rom-coms, was during the 1990s and the early 2000s. Can you, first of all, list the greatest hits for rom-coms during that period and then just remind us what was going on culturally at the time that maybe made audiences more receptive to these kinds of stories?

MESLOW: I mean, the movies we're talking about, it's a pretty incredible list - "When Harry Met Sally...", "Pretty Woman," "Bridget Jones's Diary," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "Love Actually," "How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days" - I mean, it's just - it is a list of just hit after hit.

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.

MESLOW: And in terms of why those movies hit so well, I - sometimes it really is the simplest answer. Those were very good movies. They were movies that were doing what they set out to do in a way that really connected with audiences.

CHANG: Then what happened after that? - because you talk about how these films started falling out of favor. Audiences started feeling a disconnect with these movies. Why do you think that was?

MESLOW: I think from the audience side, rom-coms got a little more contrived. It's kind of what happens across the board in Hollywood. There's a thing that can happen to romantic comedies where they can become a little untethered from reality.

CHANG: Yes.

MESLOW: I will shout out one of the movies that I don't like as much, which is "Serendipity," where - that's a movie that could be over in two minutes if the people who are obviously in love would just say, OK, we should be together. Let's stop playing all these weird tricks where we're going to see if fate brings us back together.

CHANG: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SERENDIPITY")

KATE BECKINSALE: (As Sara Thomas) OK, see this book?

JOHN CUSACK: (As Jonathan Trager) Yeah.

BECKINSALE: (As Sara Thomas) So when I get home tonight, I'm going to write my name and my number inside this book. And then first thing tomorrow morning, I'll sell it to a used bookstore.

CUSACK: (As Jonathan Trager) This is just wrong. You don't just have the most incredible night of your life with a perfect stranger and then leave it all to chance, do you?

MESLOW: To me, that's the most frustrating kind of rom-com, where it's just like you're creating your own obstacle. And there's no real drama in the actual love story because they should clearly be together. I think those tropes became a little frustrating to audiences.

CHANG: Well, yeah. And we should also talk about the problem of race. Growing up, like, every rom-com heroine I could think of was either white or J.Lo, basically. Can you just talk about that piece of this? Like, why this genre, even for Hollywood, which has been long criticized as being white-centered in their stories - why rom-coms especially have been so white-centered.

MESLOW: To a degree, it's always just about cowardice. The Meg Ryan movie did well, so who is a Meg Ryan type? And over and over again, there are plenty of great rom-coms that did not just star white protagonists. They tended to be indies, and they didn't tend to perpetuate more movies of the same kind because Hollywood, ultimately, is a risk-averse business. But it's to the detriment of the movies that were made, and it's to the detriment of the audiences that would have enjoyed them.

CHANG: And yet, J.Lo, she's an example of an actor who's not white that did make some headway into the rom-com genre. I mean, she's had a number of rom-coms under her belt at this point. Why do you think she was able to make a crack into this genre?

MESLOW: I cover J.Lo a lot in the book, and she's a really fascinating example because the simple answer is she just loved romantic comedies and really wanted to make them. And no one was encouraging her to be making romantic comedies. She just wanted to. "The Wedding Planner" - the director of that talked about how he didn't think that she would be a rom-com lead. She hadn't done one before. And then "Maid In Manhattan" - I mean, that's a movie that was turned down by a lot of the white actresses that would have come up. Sandra Bullock turned it down. But that's a really interesting example because "Maid In Manhattan" is a movie that changes because the protagonist is a non-white woman. It's - she has a line in the movie about how the male lead, Ray Fiennes, wouldn't have noticed her if she hadn't been wearing this fancy coat.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAID IN MANHATTAN")

JENNIFER LOPEZ: (As Marisa Ventura) Come on. Half the time, I'm some stereotype that they're making fun of. The other half of the time, I'm just invisible. You know what? Maybe that's the point. The first time you saw me, I was cleaning your bathroom floor - only you didn't see me.

MESLOW: That line does land differently if it is a non-white character delivering that dialogue.

CHANG: Well, you argue in your book that rom-coms have been making a comeback recently. How are you seeing this new generation of rom-coms adapt to some of the critiques that we're talking about? Like, how are you seeing studios tweak the rom-com formula to be more inclusive?

MESLOW: You can at least see an openness to more diverse kinds of love stories, and the people who are making those love stories tend to be more diverse. "Crazy Rich Asians" is obviously the big studio rom-com success story of the past few years. And that is - that's a movie that's really interesting because it was really at the nexus point between the old and the new. They were - as they were pitching that movie around, they were simultaneously fielding a three-movie offer from Netflix to just adapt the entire trilogy in one shot, which is the kind of thing Netflix loves to do, and then Warner Brothers promising your traditional kind of four-wall, big, splashy theatrical release. And that was the decision they had to make. And the creative team behind that movie very much said, we want to see this movie in theaters. We want people to come see a movie about Asian protagonists, a rom-com, across the world in movie theaters. We don't want them streaming it at home. It is a bigger statement to have it there.

CHANG: So what's your recommendation for the best rom-com to watch tonight, no matter what your romantic circumstances are?

MESLOW: Wow.

CHANG: Valentine's Day - what should I be curling up to tonight?

MESLOW: That's a great question. I'm going to shout out a more recent indie that I don't think has got as much attention as it deserved, which was "Plus One."

CHANG: Oh, I love that. I've already seen that.

MESLOW: It's so great.

CHANG: But yes, go ahead and sell it. Sell it.

MESLOW: Oh, no (laughter). It's a - when you're talking about kind of a jaded rom-com, I think that's right in the sweet spot of being romantic, but the characters are self-aware enough. It's Jack Quaid, so it's Meg Ryan's son - rom-com royalty - and Maya Erskine, who is so fun and delightful. And they're basically a couple of friends who agree, we've got a million weddings and events and stuff like this this year. We're just going to go as each other's plus one so we don't have to worry about finding a date all the time. And would you believe that sparks start flying?

CHANG: Would you believe it? Scott Meslow's new book is called "From Hollywood With Love: The Rise And Fall (And Rise Again) Of The Romantic Comedy." Thanks so much for talking with us today.

MESLOW: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

CHANG: And Happy Valentine's.

MESLOW: You, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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