It was the best of times and it was the worst of times for moviegoers last month with the releases of “Enough Said” and “Baggage Claim.” The former represents all that is good about romantic comedies, the latter all that is bad.
“Enough Said” is a rarity in the romcom realm. It’s different. For starters, its leads - James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus - don’t fit the typical romcom profile of hunky guy and hot babe in their 20s or 30s. In fact, Gandolfini was 51 when he died earlier this year and Louis-Dreyfus is 52. The film is also intelligent, witty and wonderfully acted without relying on a preponderance of clichés. No violence, no excessive profanity and a clever plot twist. Adults of a certain age who complain that few films are made for them these days now have a film to see, and they should do so in large numbers to encourage Hollywood to repeat this process. Big box office speaks to studio bottom liners.
“Baggage Claim” is everything “Enough Said” is not. Cliché-riddled, mindless and predictable. The lead is drop-dead gorgeous yet can’t find a date even though Mr. Right, conveniently named Mr. Wright, lives right next door. There’s not one romcom cliché this film doesn’t trot out, including the smart-alecky best friends and overbearing mother. The originality astounds. When the lead says it can’t get any worse, cue the rain. The film offers a classic example of a good cast undone by a lame screenplay and uninspired direction.
Sitting through these two diametrically opposed films made me think of other romcoms that dared to be different. They may not necessarily be the best romcoms of all time, but they take delight in spinning the genre’s formula on its head and doing so with considerable skill. Think of it as Cupid shooting warped arrows yet still hitting his target. Moviegoers tired of the same-old, same-old might want to give these 10 films a look-see. They are listed in alphabetical order.
“ANNIE HALL” (1977) - OK, this is one of the greatest romcoms of all time, winner of four Oscars, including best picture, and one of the reasons it did is its disdain for the typical. First, Woody Allen, the film’s co-writer, director and star, isn’t exactly your typical love interest, and there’s absolutely nothing typical about the title character, played with ditsy bravado by Diane Keaton in an Oscar-winning performance. Second, don’t expect the typical denouement. Third, to further elevate the comedy, Allen shows no fear of breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience. The most memorable example involves Marshall McLuhan and an overbearing moviegoer. Fourth, lobsters. If you have to ask, see the movie. Finally, the film revels in being out of the ordinary. That its execution is flawless doesn’t hurt.
Page 2 of 4 - “CHASING AMY” (1997) - If you think Kevin Smith only wrote and directed beyond-the-norm comedies such as “Clerks,” check out this film, which proves he could also write and direct beyond-the-norm romcoms. The movie stars Ben Affleck as comic book artist Holden McNeil, who falls in love with comic book artist Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). The only problem: Alyssa is a lesbian. Well, there are other problems, too. For example, Holden’s best friend, Banky Edwards (Jason Lee), has issues with Alyssa, among other issues. And then there’s Alyssa’s past, which isn’t perfect. The film’s title comes from a story of love lost told by Silent Bob (Smith). As with “Annie Hall,” don’t expect the expected here.
“ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND” (2004) - Any film written by Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich”) and directed by Michel Gondry (“Human Nature”) has about as much chance of being standard fare as al-Qaida has of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. In this film, screenwriter and director combine their very idiosyncratic talents to create a very idiosyncratic - and brilliant - romcom. The Oscar folks must have agreed. They gave it the best screenplay award. The film focuses on the relationship of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). Now normally, when a woman breaks up with a man, she tells him to get out of her life. Oh my darling Clementine takes this one step further by having Joel erased from her mind. Crushed, Joel decides to do undergo the same procedure. Then things get interesting. The film also contains a sly subplot involving the personnel who perform the mind erasures. Carrey and Winslet excel as two star-crossed lovers, or should that be two star-crisscrossed lovers?
“(500) DAYS OF SUMMER” (2009) - Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? On different days? On days that go back and forth in time when love blooms, love fades and love drives you mad? That’s the crux of this anti-formulaic film that employs a nonlinear narrative to shine a wavering light on the relationship of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber let their imaginations run wild and crazy and director Marc Webb depicts these romantic comings and goings with comic panache. The film benefits immensely from its stars who exude likability even when they’re acting unlikable. Here, they could teach a masterclass in chemistry.
“GROUNDHOG DAY” (1993) - If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ever presented an award for best curmudgeon, Bill Murray would have his mantel populated with statuettes. In this film, he plays Phil Connors, a weatherman not even a mother could love. As he begrudgingly covers Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pa., he discovers that he keeps reliving the same day over and over again. Suicidal at first, he decides to take full advantage of the situation, including the wooing of his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell). Directed and co-written by Harold Ramis, the film takes full advantage of Murray’s comedic gifts. Take note that in the pantheon of traditional love interests, Murray won’t be confused with Channing Tatum anytime soon. Bottom line, if you like romcoms that mix fun with fantasy, this film is a doozy.
Page 3 of 4 - “HAROLD AND MAUDE” (1971) - With apologies to the Rolling Stones, I see a romcom and I want it painted black. And that’s exactly what screenwriter Colin Higgins did with decidedly colorful results. Initially a box office failure, it has since become a cult classic, and for good reason. You can’t go wrong when script, director (Hal Ashby) and cast (Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon) fit on the same page so smugly. The film stars Cort at Harold, a young man obsessed with death, including a proclivity for fake suicides, much to the dismay of his socialite mother (Vivian Pickles). He also likes to attend funerals, and at one such event he meets 79-year-old Maude (Gordon), who shares his appreciation of internments. Romance eventually blossoms much to the horror of Harold’s mother, who attempts to find a more suitable partner for her son. The attempts don’t work out well. With this odd couple, it’s the morbid the merrier.
“IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT” (1934) - This film doesn’t so much break the rules as establish them while setting the standard for other romcoms to follow. And it’s a very high standard. No talk of this genre can be complete without mentioning it and paying tribute to its stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, its director Frank Capra and its screenwriter Robert Riskin. FYI, the film is based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams. In the movie, Colbert plays heiress Ellie Andrews who doesn’t the marry the right man, at least in her daddy’s eyes. Furious at father, she boards a bus to get to her husband. There, she meets reporter Peter Warne (Gable), who sees money in her story. And then things happen, you know, during the night, and then the day. The hitchhiking scene, alone, is worth the price of admission. For trivia buffs, “It Happened One Night” became the first of only three films to win all four major Oscars: best film, best director, best actress and best actor. In case you’re curious, the other two are “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Silence of the Lambs.”
“LARS AND THE REAL GIRL” (2007) - You know how guys used to describe their girlfriends as real dolls? Well, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling), a socially challenged young man, goes literal with that description and brings home a girlfriend who is a real doll - a real sex doll. Mildly delusional, Lars treats Bianca - that’s the doll’s name - like an actual girlfriend. Seeking to help Lars, family members treat her like one, too. Eventually, everyone in town gets in on the act. And then ... sorry, you have to see this film. Just don’t expect a farce. Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Nancy Oliver, this is a bold and, dare I say, off-beat movie. As such it is not for everybody, like people who prefer their films to be safe and antiseptic.
Page 4 of 4 - “THE LADY EVE” (1941) - Far too often, the man pursues the woman in romcoms. Here, the woman pursues the man. However, she doesn’t want to love him. She wants to fleece him. Barbara Stanwyck plays con artist Jean Harrington who finds an easy mark in herpetologist Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to an ale fortune. If you think you know where this is going, you don’t know writer-director Preston Sturgess, who delights in veering off the beaten path at a high rate of speed. The crackerjack supporting cast includes Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette and William Demarest. Oh, as for Stanwyck and Fonda, they can act a bit, too. The title refers to Jean’s new identity.
“THE PHILADELPHIA STORY” (1940) - Heard of this film? If not, hang your heard in shame and see it. Stat. If you’ve seen it, see it again. You can’t get enough of the classics, and this is a classic. And it breaks all kinds of rules. Start right with the opening scene where husband and wife don’t exactly separate amicably. In the film, based on the Philip Barry play of the same name, Katharine Hepburn plays Tracy Lord - not to be confused with Traci Lords - who is supposed to marry stuffy George Kittredge (John Howard). Her high society wedding plans get complicated when she meets a reporter Macaulay Connor (James Stewart, in an Oscar-winning performance) and develops a crush on him. Then her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) shows up. Then hilarity ensues. Virginia Weidler is priceless as Tracy’s younger sister. The ridiculously gifted George Cukor directs. Donald Ogden Stewart won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. My, this film is yar.
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