Sure, people fight about superhero movies and sci-fi movies and who was the best James Bond. But if you want to see some deeply felt disagreement, get in a fight about romantic comedies. Or, if you don't care to, just enjoy this Twitter debate I had a couple of weeks ago with actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who has almost as many opinions about such things as I do. (Almost. And I really do think we should have a podcast called "Isn't It Romantic?" where we fight about this weekly, because I think it would take a long time to run out of ideas.)
Part of what animates these discussions is that what you think of a particular movie often springs from what you consider romantic in the first place — and, maybe, from your sense of who deserves a happy ending. If you ask Kumail, the answer is "not Julia Roberts in Notting Hill." If you ask me, the answer is "not whoever wrote Winona Ryder as a dying hat designer in Autumn In New York." And there's no doubt that some romantic comedies are ... not very romantic. Let us take a tour.
The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). One reason for some of the bad romantic comedy product of the 1990s was sheer volume. There was a time in the late '80s and '90s when experimentation with basic romcoms was so extensive that almost everybody was doing it, in all kinds of combinations. The Ephronian-flavored When Harry Met Sally/Sleepless In Seattle/You've Got Mail trio may be the best remembered, and that's when Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts started cranking it out, too. But the whole genre was really busting out all over for a while there.
Who can forget Geena Davis and Michael Keaton as dueling speechwriters in Speechless? Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins in the (entirely imaginary) story of Albert Einstein's niece falling in love with an auto mechanic in I.Q.?* Jennifer Aniston and Jay Mohr (!!) in the fake-boyfriend caper Picture Perfect? And did you know that Gillian Anderson and Jon Stewart (!!!) are one of several couples in Playing By Heart, a multi-story 1998 film that also matches Angelina Jolie with Ryan Phillippe? It seems like more people should know that, doesn't it? Scully and Jon Stewart?
Anyway, during this period, even Barbra Streisand (who had done both romances and comedies, obviously, but perhaps not so many archetypal romcoms) wound up in this very strange 1996 film in which she plays a professor who is chosen for marriage by a man who only likes her because she's not attractive. He thinks attraction is complicated, so he picks a lady he isn't attracted to, and because she lacks confidence and doesn't want to die alone and disappoint her mother (Lauren Bacall!), she settles for this terrible, demeaning offer. Later, she gets a makeover and he has to learn to love her even though now she's conventionally attractive, which he learns to do because he's a hero. Even worse than the normal makeover plot in which being attractive is enough to land your fella is this twisty version where being attractive is both necessary and almost insufficient. They called it The Mirror Has Two Faces, but Can't Win For Losing would also work.
Sabrina (1995). Smack in the middle of those overcrowded '90s came the remake of Sabrina, which had been filmed in 1954 with Audrey Hepburn falling in love with Humphrey Bogart (who was 30 years older than she was) and was updated to feature Julia Ormond falling in love with Harrison Ford (who was a mere 23 years older than she was). But the age difference isn't really why the thing isn't romantic — age is just a number, especially if you are Harrison Ford. It's not even that it isn't romantic just because Greg Kinnear is so charming as the wrong guy for her that you kiiiiind of wonder whether he really is the wrong guy. That's a casting issue.**
No, the reason it isn't romantic is that they don't go to the slightest effort to explain why this is a good deal for Sabrina. There's a nice story about how Linus (Ford) is learning to be 10 percent less of a heartless, angry mope, but that doesn't translate into "kiss him, hug him, marry him." What you want at the end of a romantic storyline is to feel that now, these people will be happy together. What you do not want is to feel that now, they will be in therapy for a very long time until he masters the skill of smiling at other humans.
In truth, the only reason to watch this movie is for a single line reading by the great Dana Ivey, who tells her grumpy boss that she helped pack a bag for him so he could go on a romantic quest: "We were up to our elbows in your underwear drawer; it was like touching the Shroud of Turin." It is legitimately one of my favorite comedy deliveries of all time.
The Wedding Planner (2001). After the Age Of Ubiquity in the '90s, the next romcom phase was perhaps the Matthew McConaughassic Era, beginning with The Wedding Planner in 2001. While later, this span would cross over with the Age Of Kate Hudsonnocence, it started here with Jennifer Lopez. This is a movie that posits that a romantic way to meet a guy is when you're planning his wedding to someone else, which is a little like positing that a romantic way to meet a guy is when you're repossessing his car: no matter what a good person he is, the context suggests you might be better off maintaining a certain professional distance. (NOT THE CUSTOMERS, GENIUS!) This movie also features Justin Chambers, who plays Karev on Grey's Anatomy, doing a comically disastrous Italian accent, and there's no bad romantic comedy that isn't worsened by bad accent work.
The Ugly Truth (2009). If we ever do start the podcast "Isn't It Romantic," we will have to do a miniseries on the Katherine Heigl situation that took place between about 2007 and 2011. And right in the middle is The Ugly Truth, which features Gerard Butler playing a monstrous, sexist jerk who somehow persuades Heigl's morning show producer that she can't do better and ends with them making out during — and Wikipedia backs me up here, though I thought I might be misremembering — a "hot air balloon festival." Which is a real thing, sure, but so is a chocolate bunny manufacturing facility, and it would still be a pretty corny setting for your climactic romantic scene. "The one where she and Josh Duhamel inherit a baby is much better" is a statement that is both depressing and, I assure you, 100 percent accurate. (Don't come at me with 27 Dresses. 27 Dresses is actually a pretty cute movie. I will fight you.)
The Bachelor (1999). Oh, this horror show. See, before The Bachelor was the title of a 25-weirdo pileup of a television show, it was the title of a movie in which Jimmie (Chris O'Donnell) has to get married in one day or lose a $100 million inheritance. He alienates his girlfriend (Renee Zellweger), so he goes and visits all his previous girlfriends, who turn out to be ... crazy monsters! Oh no! And when his buddy resorts to an ad in the paper to recruit convenient, presumably disposable gold-diggers, Jimmie finds himself literally attacked by a mob of (wait for it) crazy monsters who have shown up in wedding dresses. The women willing to get married for $100 million are revolting, you see, while Jimmie, who is willing to get married for $100 million, is just an average Joe with a dream. A dream, more specifically, of getting $100 million. Fortunately for him, his girlfriend (for some utterly baffling reason) comes back to him, so he can marry someone he knows. Whew!
This movie is not romantic. Don't make me explain it.
*If you don't remember this movie, you might remember the trailer, in which Walter Matthau as Albert Einstein uttered the line, "I'm steering za boooat."
**Somewhere in an alternate pop-culture timeline, Greg Kinnear became a huge romantic comedy lead. Watch him in this movie and in You've Got Mail, playing the not-the-guy guy both times. He's great. Coulda been.