Gerard Butler, seen here arriving at the premiere of The Bounty Hunter in March, is not helping the romantic comedy genre.
Periodically, someone formulates a theory that romantic comedies (or date movies, or chick movies, or whatever you want to call them) are dead. We've had a little outbreak of it in the last few years.
The A.V. Club wrote in 2006 about 9 Recent Attempts To Save The Romantic Comedy. The Guardian announced the death of the genre at the time The Ugly Truth was released. The London Times lamented the lack of smart romantic comedies in January 2008. The New York Times said the state of romantic comedy was dying back in 2008 as well, and has now (through Maureen Dowd) re-announced that it's dead indeed, deader than dead, depressingly dead, and why isn't He's Just Not That Into You as good as It Happened One Night, anyway?
The problem with this "it used to be good and now it's bad" theory of this particular genre is that it's always been very, very hard to make one that isn't fundamentally kind of dumb at some level.
Why? Because there is a core of dopey, charming, unrealistic, entirely unmerited optimism in the very idea of happy endings. It's not that real life always has sad endings; it's that in real life, there are no endings at all. In real life, even "and then they lived together happily for the next 50 years" will include disease, loss, fear, fighting, uncertainty, anxiety, hardship, and the eternal knowledge that it can all be taken from you at any time. Romantic comedies with happy endings taking place in the middles of people's lives rely on the idea that a relationship has a resolution, and relationships do not have resolutions.
This, of course, presents a challenge.
This is not to say movies with happy romantic endings can't be wonderful, but they are not wonderful on the basis that they are particularly lifelike, and that goes for the great and the not-so-great. It's very popular in these "death of the romantic comedy" pieces to long for movies of the late '80s and early '90s, like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless In Seattle, to which I say: come now. Were you buying the run through the streets to the New Year's Eve party? Does the utter preposterousness of the ending of Sleepless In Seattle not bother you? (Note: It does not bother me.)
Similarly, the much-maligned "meet cute" is in the genre's DNA, because meeting cute is part of the fantasy that being in love is the result of being struck by lightning rather than the result of making an effort to forge relationships with other human beings, which is boring and time-consuming and not so snappy in a trailer.
Does this mean a romantic comedy has to be dumb, or have a stupid script, or have ear-injuring dialogue, as they often do? Of course not. But laziness is always easier and therefore statistically in greater supply than anything else, and laziness combined with the unreality and predictability of the basic romantic plot results in the kind of dreck where people fall in love for no reason, things happen to keep them apart for no reason, and then at the end, they make out for no reason. In other words, when they're dumb, they're real dumb.
But it's wildly unfair to look back at the greatest successes in a genre's entire history and ask why films to equal them are unusual. Yes, it's very rare to get a movie as good as His Girl Friday or It Happened One Night in this day and age. But it was rare in that day and age, too. A movie like that is rare because it is good, and being good is hard, and successfully doing something hard is rare — always, in any era.
The junk degrades. The junk is forgotten. The junk romantic comedies of the '60s and '70s and '80s and '90s barely exist in memory anymore, and nostalgia artificially inflates our sense of the average quality of everything. You know what was dumb? The Bachelor, with Chris O'Donnell. Nine Months, with Hugh Grant. Fools Rush In, with Matthew Perry. Are they important now? No, they're gone. And that's what's going to happen to the bad romantic comedies that come out today. Yes, in terms of big-ticket romantic comedies, there's a lull — partly because the audience keeps going to the stupid ones.
But the entire idea, it is certainly not dead.
It's a quaint and silly (and spectacularly narrow) idea that Gerard Butler could kill the woozy fantasies about wit and love that have kept the genre alive for not only as long as there have been movies, but as long as there has been literature. You think romantic comedy has been alive since before Shakespeare but our ability to create or appreciate it died between How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days and now? That's ridiculous.
Quite honestly, if we just didn't have the double bill of Butler as a swaggering jerk in The Bounty Hunter and The Ugly Truth, we'd probably be seeing about half the indignation about this that we're seeing now. Those movies are both absolutely horrible, make no mistake: they're hostile to women and hostile to men, they're not sexy, they're vulgar, they're stupid, they're lazy, they're poorly made, and they're about as romantic as cleaning the hair out of your shower drain.
But that's two movies. Cinematic love stories, for good or for ill, are a lot more mighty than two Gerard Butler movies. Or even two Gerard Butler movies plus the entire Matthew McConaughey oeuvre. When you hear the same two or three or five movies mentioned in every "what ever happened to the romantic comedy?" think piece, it's time to be suspicious that too few clunkers are driving the anxiety.
Romantic comedy is not dead because of Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past any more than action movies are dead because of the avalanche of boring explosion movies you can identify in any given year. Have no fear: you're going to see more witty love stories, because it's in our bones to write them. Will there still be dumb clutter in this field? Of course. For every movie that sings — or even hums — several will reek. It's the way of the jungle.
But most of them throughout the rest of human history, rest assured, will at least not have Gerard Butler in them.