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FILM COMMENT : Why Do the Movies Kiss Off Romance?

<i> Peter Rainer is a Times staff writer</i>

Having three romantic comedies out at the same time--"Singles,” “Honeymoon in Vegas” and “Husbands and Wives"--only points up once again how rarely romance, grand or lowly, takes center stage anymore.

Where are the films that deliver the kind of sexy shoptalk and entrancement that used to bring audiences together in a shared swoon? Have we become so cynically self-conscious that we can no longer accept the grand romantic gesture without mockery, or at least irony? Such a gesture has become a lost art--worse, a lost impulse.

The three current films could almost act as a linked series: Cameron Crowe’s “Singles” is about a bunch of mixed-nut twentysomethings ardent for true love. Andrew Bergman’s “Honeymoon in Vegas,” in which Nicolas Cage plays a guy who clambers across the continent to reclaim his fiancee, Sarah Jessica Parker, from a lovelorn smoothie played by James Caan, takes in a somewhat older generation. It’s about recapturing the first flush of romance. Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives” is at the bitter end of the generational spectrum; it’s about how love doesn’t last.

Even the music that underscores these films is a kind of linked progression, moving from the Seattle alternative rock scene of “Singles” to the wall-to-wall Elvis soundtrack of “Honeymoon” to the Cole Porter of “Husbands and Wives.” The blast of raucous post-adolescent yearnings gives way to the King’s pop croon and, finally, to a tone of nostalgic, romanticized regret.

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Not that these films are equally successful in the ways they deal with romance. “Singles” isn’t much more than a bright and companionable piffle, but it’s probably the cheeriest and most emotionally unfettered of the three. Crowe, unlike Allen, doesn’t project his own malaise onto his own characters. He lets them play out their miseries without a lot of muss or fuss.

The characters in “Singles"--Bridget Fonda’s waitress, Matt Dillon’s rock guitarist, Campbell Scott’s city engineer, Kyra Sedgwick’s environmentalist, Sheila Kelley’s husband-hunter--are so avid for romantic connections that they can’t help looking foolish, which, in Crowe’s affectionate view, only makes them seem more attractive. Some, like Sedgwick, affect a been-there cynicism, but it’s the most transparent of poses. Scott’s pose is to have no pose at all, but his gambit is guileless. This new-generation Sensitive Man really is sensitive.

The kids in “Singles” have absorbed the humors of a whole slew of styles: They’re the safe-sex generation in ‘60s civvies; they’re post-adolescents in a post-psychoanalytic time warp. They spout some of the same romantic cynicism as Allen’s characters, but they’re just trying on the slogans and the disaffection as they might try on a pair of jeans. They act willfully shell shocked without ever having been shelled.

“Honeymoon in Vegas” is throwaway burlesque with a core of romantic feeling. When Cage, who has finally roused himself to marry, loses his fiancee in a rigged poker game to Caan, his addled mooniness turns comically desperate. Having worked himself up to the point where he can actually take the plunge, he realizes he’s drained his own pool.

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Bergman understands a fundamental truth of movie romance: how the lack of love can turn you into a screwball. It may not make much sense, at least non-Freudian sense, that Cage forfeits his fiancee in the first place. But once he’s lost her he’s as ardent as any Romeo banished from his beloved. Cage’s lovestruck, dumbstruck character can’t quite believe what’s happening to him. He’s turned his life into a speedy, fractured-flicker version of all those lame Elvis romantic comedies summoned up by the soundtrack. In a movie teeming with Elvis impersonators, he’s the one impersonator who really connects with the bleeding heart inside the King’s brash, vibratoed balladeering.

Located in Woody Allen’s usual gentrified Manhattan, “Husbands and Wives” charts the disruptions of two married couples: Gabe and Judy, played by Allen and Mia Farrow, and Jack and Sally, played to a much-needed fare-thee-well by Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis. Everyone has a straying eye, a wandering heart.

Placed beside “Singles” and “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Husbands and Wives” might seem like the most “honest” of the three films and not just because of its peekaboo relationship with Allen’s real-life woes. But it may not be honest enough. The film has its incisive and uproarious moments, but its tell-all, documentary-like surface is a fancy smoke screen; the deeper truths about love and lovelessness that all this bare-your-soul stuff is supposed to be revealing reveal something else instead: Woody Allen’s overweening narcissism.

“Husbands and Wives” pretends to a kind of evenhandedness about the rigors of love; Allen spares no one, but some he doesn’t spare more than others. Essentially he’s made a movie about how men in all their weakness are fated to be led down the garden path by manipulating women who are unalive to their torments. The men in the movie are befuddled, wayward naifs who wear their hearts on their sleeves; they ache to be coddled.

The women are a lumpier sort: Farrow’s character is a passive-aggressive waif with a whim of steel; Davis is a Brillo pad with a Radcliffe degree, a dominatrix of the mind; Juliette Lewis’ Columbia student is a feral gamin who lures older suitors to their doom; the aerobics instructor, played by Lysette Anthony, is dismissed as a ding-a-ling. In one of those curious omissions that inadvertently reveal a director’s real intentions, Allen in the end does not even allow the aerobicizer the same chance as the film’s other major characters to comment on her own life. The implication is that it’s acceptable to stoke an affair with a much younger woman if she reads Dostoevsky, but it’s not OK if she doesn’t know her Shakespeare and she’s into tofu.

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The grand romantic gesture isn’t entirely dead in our movies. It shows up occasionally, and satisfyingly, in films like “The Prince of Tides” or “Bugsy,” only, of course, to be derided by the wiser-than-thous in the press. It shows up unsatisfyingly in “Far and Away” all gauzy and bespangled, like a big-screen Harlequin novel. It shows up in psychosexual camouflage in “Fried Green Tomatoes,” and it wafts in from Hollywood’s Great Beyond in “Ghost,” where love means never having to say you’re dead.

For the most part, though, the romantic impulse has been subverted or deranged. The amorously predatory female of screwball-comedy fame who would do anything to land her man has turned just plain predatory. The shiv has replaced the quip.

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The comic impulse in movie romance has fared only slightly better. Filmmakers like Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump”) and Steve Martin (as the writer-star of “Roxanne” and “L.A. Story”) have demonstrated the kind of supernal affection for male-female confabs that makes romantic comedy not only possible but inevitable. But there haven’t been too many romantic comedies, particularly “adult” ones, that have had anything to do with our lives, even our fantasy lives. Bummers like “Medicine Man” and “Boomerang” are enough to turn us off to the whole caboodle.

We’re used to thinking of certain genres, despite an occasional flare-up, as being essentially dead--the musical, for example, or the Western. It doesn’t seem possible that something as basic as the romantic comedy could join their company, and yet that’s what seems to be happening. And it’s happening when it could be a golden time for romantic comedy. Certainly there have never been as many wildly talented and funny actresses around.

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What’s needed is precisely what’s lacking: A willingness on the part of Hollywood filmmakers to confront, rather than evade, the confusions in society, for in those confusions are the sweetmeats of romantic folly. It’s no accident that the great age of romantic comedy came during the Great Depression, when the economy-driven power shifts between men and women gave rise to all manner of electrifyingly flapdoodle pair-offs. Can’t we even salvage from our own Great Recession a comparable resurgence?

Those great ‘30s romantic comedies worked in large part because the men were matched with strong, willful women, like Barbara Stanwyck and Carole Lombard, for whom the filmmakers felt great affection. Movies like “The Philadelphia Story” and “The Lady Eve” and many others played up the comedy of class differences that gives rise to romance; they touted a liberation from outmoded traditions.

Today’s movies run in the other direction in all these categories: Women are rarely integral to movies in the way that men are; class differences are whited-out; and if we in the audience want to be liberated from the confinements of what has been defined as traditional, we won’t find our happy hunting grounds on the big screen. The Golden Age screwball comedies were a reaction to the weepy silent-movie romantic traditions that had their roots in the Victorian era. The romantic attitudes and role-modeling remained deeply old-fashioned in many of these comedies, but the taunting playfulness of the best films also ran deep.

It was more than a style; it was a philosophy of life--a way of coping.

There’s no comparable armature for the romantic comedy in our current movies. The conventions that are ripe for romantic revisionism--the ways we view our sexual roles, habits, longings--remain unsubverted. There isn’t enough sustaining faith in the old romantic shibboleths to make a drama like “Far and Away” genuinely stirring, or a comedy like “Housesitter” genuinely funny.

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Woody Allen may be overcome by his own bitterness in “Husbands and Wives,” but he had it right when he made “Annie Hall.” Alvy Singer tells Annie at the end of their affair that “a relationship is like a shark--it has to move forward or it dies.” Then he says, “What we’ve got here is a dead shark.” What we’ve got in our new romantic movies is a great big aquarium of dead sharks.


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