BY JEANNETTE CATSOULIS
When I was a teenager, and on into my 20s and 30s, romantic comedies were filled with women like me: smart, ambitious, often ambivalent and occasionally weird. Marriage was something to be deferred, perhaps indefinitely, and children an unthinkable horror. (Sex served many purposes, but auditioning husbands was not one of them.) Contraception was as essential to my romantic life as conversation.
I wasn’t alone; most of my friends were of like mind, and when we went to the movies we didn’t have to look very far to find relatable characters. At various times in my life, I’ve been Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, Elizabeth Perkins in About Last Night, Hope Davis in Next Stop Wonderland, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Judy Davis in My Brilliant Career. (For a while I was Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, but luckily my fear of prison prevailed.)
Watching those movies, I felt warm and fuzzy and understood. Nowadays, I mostly feel confused and, too often, depressed. So in a spirit of gratitude for the girl power of Legally Blonde and the knowingness of Notting Hill, for the piercing sweetness of Truly, Madly, Deeply and the very existence of James Franco, I offer the following cheat sheet for filmmakers on what this woman wants. (Hint: it’s not Mel Gibson.)
1. More work, less marriage. The outdated notion that to have and to hold—at any cost—is a universal female goal has led to a dispiriting desperation on our movie screens. In 1960, the average age of new American brides was 20.3; in 2007 it was 25.6 (and a couple of years higher for the college educated). Factor in the declining age of puberty and you have an ever-expanding dating window—room for a girl to experiment with a lot more than her trousseau. Given that dating simply for fun and self-knowledge is inherently hilarious, why spoil the fun with a wedding? Yet while real women are postponing or rejecting marriage in favor of careers, rom-coms like New in Town and The Proposal are insisting we can’t wait to trade vibrant cities and powerful professions for sleepy backwaters and happily-ever-after jam-making.
The poster child for this sort of connubial-bliss-or-bust attitude used to be Meg Ryan; now it’s more likely to be Jennifer Aniston (whose character in Picture Perfect is even unpromotable without an engagement ring) or spunky Sandra Bullock (who, thanks to All About Steve, can now add ‘crazy stalker’ to her resumé). What I wouldn’t give to hear even one of these women utter Ingrid Bergman’s famous line in Stanley Donen’s Indiscreet: “How dare he make love to me and not be a married man?”
2. More hedonism, less masochism. Even less attractive than the frantic husband-hound is the romantic masochist. You know the one: she’s gorgeous, accomplished and so insecure her expectations of a mate are even lower than the IQ and hygiene standards of the movie’s prime candidate.
There was a time when settling down didn’t mean settling. If there was a recurring theme in the romantic comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, it was an assumption that most men were woefully incapable of being decent husbands until tweaked by the wiles and witticisms of a clever woman. Increasingly, however, the multiplex message to subpar men is not only can they get the girl without changing, they can probably get her without showering.
Judd Apatow may have tapped that funny bone most insistently (and most brilliantly), but what I like to call the Katherine Heigl curse is spreading. More and more, lovely young women are throwing up their hands and falling into the rumpled beds of socially maladjusted schlubs. In The Ugly Truth, a successful television producer is not only willing to tolerate the mouth-breathing antics of her prehistoric paramour but remake herself in his image. Meanwhile, the heroine of The Break-Up is so determined to snag the attention of her video game-obsessed boyfriend she resorts to hot wax and a procedure ominously called the Telly Savalas. I’m guessing that, had Katharine Hepburn been faced with romantic options like these, she wouldn’t have been the one enduring the Telly Savalas.
3. More repartee, fewer bodily fluids. Let me just say upfront that no one is a bigger fan of bodily fluids—even if deployed as a hairstyling tool—than myself. But I still wish that the something we all remembered about Mary was her sparkling ripostes rather than her stiffening bangs. Even when deployed more conventionally, those emissions are seldom if ever intercepted by a condom—an oversight that can make a movie more tragic than comedic. The fatal flaw of Juno was a character supposedly hip enough to plan her own deflowering yet stupid enough to renege on the rubbers. As her fans may discover, STDs are rarely funny and never, ever romantic.
Given that directors are often hobbled by studio executives’ preferences in humor and sexual politics, it’s remarkable how much dexterity and flair they can bring to even the most leaden material. The romantic comedy is resilient, but its ideal components are elusive and the tastes of its target audience ever-evolving. That very evolution, however, might offer a clue to success: to paraphrase Bill Murray’s advice to the young ingénue in Lost in Translation, knowing who we are is the key to a manageable life, and what is love but a journey of self-discovery? Sofia Coppola doesn’t make romantic comedies (although her films assuredly have their moments), but she excels at portraits of young women consumed with the need to define who they are. We can do better than offer our most talented female actors only high concepts and lowest common denominator partners; and if marriage must be the ideal, why not occasionally make it the subject instead of the goal? As so many of us have discovered, sometimes divorce is the happiest ending of all.
Jeannette Catsoulis is a freelance writer and incurable romantic who reviews movies for The New York Times, NPR and the website Reverse Shot.