Why Harry Can't Meet Sally

Hugh Grant is sent many scripts for romantic comedies. "There's one sitting on my computer right now," the movie star says from his home in England. "It starts in hell. I won't go any further."

Indeed, what's offered to Grant, the swankily good-looking star of memorable romances including "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill," often isn't pretty. Or romantic. Or funny. It's mostly disappointing, though being Grant, he partly blames himself for his perennial disenchantment with what Hollywood has to offer.

"I'm very queeny and difficult to please when it comes to scripts," says Grant, whose new effort, "Music and Lyrics," opens this week. "On the very rare occasion when my interest is piqued, it's because of two things. One is that the jokes are actually funny, which is amazingly rare.

"The other is that it comes from someone's heart. Oddly enough that really matters. There are a lot of these things that don't seem to come from someone's heart -- they seem to come from a conference room with a lot of hard-nosed studio executives sitting around the table. I think you have to mean it."

Indeed, it seems as if it has never been harder to say "I love you" and mean it -- at least cinematically. Nothing brings this home more than Valentine's Day, the holiday for the perennially disappointed, when Hallmark and Hollywood trot out their wares and a couple of million people are left with nothing but a few flaps of red paper, and a mechanized cha-cha of love unspooling across the local cineplex. No one thinks the genre that spawned the likes of "The Philadelphia Story" and "Sabrina" is dead, but the cinematic espousal of love is having a hard time staying relevant in the age of "The Bachelor."

Unlike staples such as action or fantasy, which can thrive equally well with swords or stinger missiles, Russell Crowe or Jean-Claude Van Damme, romantic comedies are gossamer confections, illusions that nonetheless must dance wittily within perimeters of cultural mores. Unlike tent-pole movie juggernauts, they need real human stars with dazzling amounts of charisma -- otherwise who cares if our lovers end up together? One can't just proffer Debra Messing instead of Julia Roberts and expect the audience not to notice.

Some people blame the decline of the romance on the cultural climate. One of America's favorite pastimes these days is ritual humiliation -- a penchant for shame that can zap even the sturdiest lovers.

"I do think there's a hardening of the culture that's undeniable. I think reality TV -- if you just look at what's going on this week on `Idol,' meanness is king. That offbeat behavior. You're left wondering about the legitimacy of relationships," says writer-director Nancy Meyers, who channeled women's feminist concerns into pop films including "Private Benjamin" and "Something's Gotta Give."

"Reality TV has, I believe, lowered the standards of entertainment, to put it mildly," Meyers says. "I think it's probably harder to entertain the same people with a more classic form of writing, and romantic comedies are a classic genre."

Other people say that the problem is more intrinsic to the ritualized -- and dated -- form of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, lovers reunite. As film historian Molly Haskell notes, "Sex is so easy you can't pretend that it's the holy grail. The condition that made for the sparkle and sexiness of the old films was the fact that there wasn't any sex. You could easily keep two people apart for an hour and a half. Now the ways of keeping them apart are increasingly strained."

Indeed, one of the brighter romantic comedies on the horizon, Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up," begins with a one-night stand between a career gal and bong-toting slacker after which the lovers must repent at their comic leisure.

"Romantic comedies have become very difficult to do since the sexual revolution in the (19)'60s," agrees Grant. "Are they going to shag? If they don't do it, it's weird, and once they do, all that delicious preamble what's that delicious word?" he stumbles around. "Preamble" doesn't quite have that romantic zing.

Foreplay?

"Yes. I never do any of that." cracks Grant. "All that banter. It's become difficult since the '60s. {hellip} [Before] you could still feel this kind of electricity through wicked dialogue."

Business considerations also play a huge factor in what is seen on the big screen. Simply put, studios nowadays love popular male movie stars -- no one will ever get fired for casting Ben Stiller. Corporations such as Sony and Universal happily make romantic comedies, but more and more from the male point of view: films such as "Hitch," or "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," or even "Wedding Crashers," which blends the old-fashioned buddy movie with the romantic comedy. In "Wedding," even though the romances with Rachel McAdams and Isla Fisher are charming, the real relationship is between the swingers, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.

Coming up this year is an updated version of Neil Simon's classic "The Heartbreak Kid," starring Ben Stiller as a guy who falls for another woman on his honeymoon. There's also Chris Rock's remake of Eric Rohmer's "Chloe in the Afternoon," "I Think I Love My Wife," about a happily married man inexorably attracted to a free-spirited young woman, and "Dan in Real Life," in which Steve Carell plays a widower who falls in love with his brother's girlfriend.

None of these movies features a major female star as a love object, because why not save money by using a beautiful young ingenue?

Studios are leery about plunking down a huge amount of money on a female movie star to top-line this genre, unless she's named Roberts. In the last two years, many female stars -- including Nicole Kidman, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and even Reese Witherspoon -- failed in putatively commercial ventures such as "Fever Pitch" ($42 million gross) and "Bewitched" ($63 million at the box office). After buoying the 2003 hit romance "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days " to more than $100 million domestically, the ebullient Kate Hudson fizzled in such clunkers as "Alex & Emma" and "Raising Helen" and subsequently was sent to movie jail, where she played the barely written wife role in "You, Me and Dupree," about yet another guy (Owen Wilson) struggling with the challenges of adulthood.

Indeed, a theme that runs through many of the recent male romantic comedies is male ambivalence about maturity. Here's a news flash: Men are scared of growing up.

Conversely, another subset of the romantic comedy that appears to be flourishing is the "mom-edy," in which the impediment to true love is Mom, or in the case of "Meet the Parents," Dad, in the form of a psychotically controlling Robert De Niro. The last two years have brought forth "Monster-in-Law" and "Prime," and now there's "Because I Said So." The subspecies is attractive from a business point of view because it allows studios to burnish the star quotient with some powerhouse actresses, including Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton. It also taps into a recent phenomenon, which JWT ad agency trend-spotter Marian Saltzman has termed "adultescence" -- or the now-extended period from the ages of 20 to 30, where young adults are still relying on their parents.

Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote the screenplay for last year's sparkling comedy "The Devil Wears Prada," quit writing romantic comedies about three years ago. "The romantic comedy can seem a little mechanical to the audience," she says. "When the audience sees the two stars, they know what is going to happen. The really concept-y romantic comedy seems a bit out of fashion. It's sort of a shame because the amazing tradition of romantic comedies is what inspired me to become a writer to begin with."

"Prada," says McKenna, is a love story of sorts, but the relationship is "between Anne (Hathaway's character) ... and Meryl." McKenna is in the midst of turning another female-driven bestseller into a movie: "I Don't Know How She Does It" by Allison Pearson. "That's very real. It doesn't have a lot of concept to it. It's how to stay in love on a day-to-day basis when you have children and are working. It has a low level of contrivance."

The Farrelly Brothers are rebounding from some less-inspired outings such as "Stuck on You" and "Shallow Hal" by returning to their raunchy roots with an "out-and-out sex comedy," the aforementioned remake of "The Heartbreak Kid." In the original, Charles Grodin married a shrew, and fell for a shiksa goddess-sociopath played by Cybill Shepherd on his honeymoon; now Stiller is married to the knockout and learns, "There's no woman on the planet whose physical attractiveness, and only her physical attraction, could keep a man happy," says Peter Farrelly. "It's our first R-rated comedy in seven years. We really had a ball, and busted out. This thing is quite adult -- I think Europeans are going to love it."

While some writers are attempting to expand the genre, others are simply bailing for the sunnier climes of TV, where they have more power, heftier paychecks and where women carry major hits including "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." Indeed, the small screen seems well-suited for the intimacies and foibles of modern love. "I think the genre's been a little bit kidnapped by television," says Meyers, echoing a widely held sentiment.

"Some of these television shows are more sophisticated than most movies and have better writing," says Haskell. "You have to have the right people with the right electricity, and it's more on TV than in movies. On `Bones,' there's more chemistry between the two leads (Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz) on that show than any movie I can think of. Hugh Laurie and Sela Ward on `House.' Even the tension -- the male-female mutual appreciation on some of those crime shows -- is more interesting than what you get between men and women in a Hollywood movie."

Yet, while Valentine's Day might leave the most die-hard romantics feeling a little bit empty and bereft, no one in Hollywood thinks love has been banished from the big screen. As one top literary agent noted, "Nothing is ever dead. When `The Break-Up' came out, everybody woke up that Monday morning and wanted a romantic comedy."

There are certainly new and creative innovators of the romantic genre, people such as writer Charlie Kaufman, who are trying to upend the musty conventions of the form. Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" isn't a conventional romantic comedy, but it's certainly preoccupied with love. Director Michel Gondry also made the wittily unconventional "The Science of Sleep," which shakes up formula of romance.

Grant is still in the game, debuting on Valentine's Day in "Music and Lyrics," as an over-the-hill rock star trying to write one last hit with the aid of a would-be poet who has lost her confidence. Grant mocks himself with panache, thrusting his hips about like George Michael in the Wham! period, and his costar Barrymore is luminous.

Grant says this one is from the heart of writer-director Marc Lawrence, who did the honors on Grant's last hit, "Two Weeks Notice," with Sandra Bullock. "It's ridiculously close to his own life. We shot (down the street from) his own New York apartment. Wherever we go in the movie is where he goes. He's passionate about music and he's passionate about that strange white heat of creativity where you're staying up late working under a terrible deadline. He just writes crackling dialogue between a man and a woman."

That said, Grant would be more than willing to sign up for some other tour of Hollywood duty. He doesn't watch his movies. "If they come on TV, I zap them away." What he likes to watch is "war. I love war. Preferably very violent."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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