Where Did the Movie Romances Go?

Will Smith and Eva Mendes in 'Hitch'

Will Smith and Eva Mendes made 'Hitch' one of the few successful romantic comedies of 2005. Columbia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Columbia Pictures

Sheilah Kast talks to New Republic magazine's online film critic Christopher Orr about the decline of real romance in movies. Romantic comedies, once a Hollywood staple, are in particular decline.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SHEILAH KAST, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Sheilah Kast.

Coming up, the band that's put a blue flame under bluegrass music.

But, first, movie studios try their best to make human experience look real on film. Between computer-generated imagery and whatever else George Lucas dreams about at night, a car crash looks and sounds like a car crash.

(Soundbite of car crash)

KAST: A punch in the face looks and sounds like a punch.

(Soundbite of punch)

KAST: If all goes well, and it usually does, no one in the audience is the wiser--except when it comes to love. Movie audiences can sniff out the telltale signs of untrue love faster than they can order a supersize popcorn with extra butter, and there is no special effect to mask an inauthentic love story. In 2005, arguably the best love stories on big screen were non-traditional--an adulterous affair between two country music icons, a couple of discreet cowboys and a girl who met just the right ape.

(Soundbite of drone of airplane, King Kong snarling)

KAST: Christopher Orr writes about movies for The New Republic magazine online. He joins us here in the studio. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER ORR (The New Republican Magazine): Thanks so much for having me back.

KAST: Of the untold number of romances released this year, "Walk the Line," "Brokeback Mountain" and "King Kong" stand out. Does it make sense that only a few are memorable?

Mr. ORR: Well, I think romantic movies have been on the decline for a long time, and particularly romantic comedies, and the movies that have strong romantic elements are often not romantic films in their core. Movies that strive to simply be about romance have really not done a terribly good job for a while now.

KAST: And why is that?

Mr. ORR: I think there are a lot of reasons. One of the most obvious ones is just the decline in appreciation for dialogue. Romantic films, more even than most, really depend on sort of an interaction between two people, and the best way you can capture that on screen, of course, is with dialogue. This year, for example, there's really only one that did very well at the box office and few that did very well with the critics, for that matter.

KAST: And the one that did well at the box office?

Mr. ORR: Was "Hitch."

KAST: Which starred Will Smith and Eva Mendes.

Mr. ORR: And the film really pays attention to dialogue, particularly in the first half, when the two protagonists first meet. It's reminiscent of some of the classic romantic comedies going back to Hepburn and Tracy or William Powell and Myrna Loy. It's very sharp and you can see two smart, funny minds looking into each other, testing each other a little bit, and kind of liking what they find.

(Soundbite of "Hitch")

Mr. WILL SMITH: (As Alex "Hitch" Hitchens) Now on the one hand, it is very difficult for a man to even speak to someone that looks like you. But on the other hand, should that be your problem?

Ms. EVA MENDES: (As Sara) So life's kind of hard all around.

Mr. SMITH: (As Hitch) Well, not if you pay attention. I mean, you're sending all the right signals: no earrings, heels under two inches, your hair is pulled back. You're wearing reading glasses with no book, drinking a Grey Goose martini, which means you had a hell of a week and a beer just wouldn't do it. And if that wasn't clear enough, there's always the `(Censored) off' that you have stamped on your forehead.

Ms. MENDES: (As Sara) (Laughs)

Mr. SMITH: (As Hitch) Because who's gonna believe that there's a man out there that can sit down beside a woman he doesn't know and genuinely be interested in who she is, what she does, without his own agenda?

Ms. MENDES: (As Sara) Now I wouldn't even know what that would look like. So what would a guy like that say?

Mr. SMITH: (As Hitch) Well, he'd say, `My name is Alex Hitchens and I'm a consultant.' But she wouldn't be interested in that because she'd probably be just counting the seconds until he left.

Ms. MENDES: (As Sara) Thinking he was like every other guy.

Mr. SMITH: (As Hitch) Which life experience has taught her is a virtual certainty.

KAST: Are they able to keep that up for the whole film?

Mr. ORR: No, they're not, really. The second half of the movie, I think, comes down a bit, and the reason is there are no longer very many societal obstacles to two people getting together. It used to be there were all kinds of reasons that your main characters couldn't hook up and live happily ever after. One of them could have the wrong job or come from the wrong background, there could be parental disapproval, but as all of those impediments have fallen away, filmmakers have had to come up with ever more innovative ideas for why the couple can't get together like she's a ghost or he's a male escort, and when you get into these convoluted scenarios, it generally takes a while to disentangle them at the end.

KAST: Well, it strikes me that "Walk the Line" is an example of social obstacles. You've got Joaquin Phoenix playing Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon playing June Carter. He's married. She's divorced. They're falling in love.

(Soundbite of "Walk the Line")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) See, June, they want to see us together.

Ms. REESE WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter Cash) All right. Well, quit that clutchin' on me now I'll sing with you but you got to quit clutchin' on me. So what are we gonna sing, Johnny? You got me out here. Is that where your plan ends?

(Soundbite of laugher)

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) Well, I always liked that song of yours, "Times A Wastin." Let's do "Times A Wastin."

Ms. WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter Cash) Johnny, I am not gonna sing that song. It's inappropriate. I recorded it with my ex-husband. I'm not gonna sing it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) Well, there's no better way to put it behind you.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter Cash) I'm not gonna do it.

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) June, just sing it.

(Singing) I've got arms.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter Cash) (Singing) And I've got arms.

Mr. PHOENIX & Ms. WITHERSPOON: (As Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash) (Singing in unison) Let's get together and use those arms.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter Cash) (Singing) Let's go.

Mr. PHOENIX & Ms. WITHERSPOON: (As Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash) (Singing in unison) Time's a-wastin'.

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) (Singing) I've got lips.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter Cash) (Singing) And I've got lips.

Mr. ORR: I think it's telling in the case of this film that it's a period movie. Because, frankly, even impediments like marriage in contemporary film are not treated as that severe. There's not that much stigma attached to divorce or even adultery.

KAST: Is that perhaps an East Coast liberal view of things that would not be shared by most of the country?

Mr. ORR: It's certainly a coastal view. I think Hollywood certainly shares that view and, in fact, drives that view, to some extent.

KAST: Well--and at the risk of sounding like my old teacher, Sister Gertrude Agnes(ph) here, I mean, there was a time when a couple couldn't share the same bed in a movie without somebody having a foot on the floor.

Mr. ORR: Sure.

KAST: Is one of the problems these days that couples are jumping too quickly into bed?

Mr. ORR: The real problem's a little different, which is that Hollywood tends to confuse sex and romance. It used to be that sex was the culmination of the relationship, and now it can come almost anywhere in the film. In one romantic comedy that came out this year, "A Lot Like Love," it takes place right at the beginning of the film. The two protagonists, played by Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet, actually have sex before they've spoken to each other.

(Soundbite of "A Lot Like Love")

Mr. ASHTON KUTCHER: (As Oliver Martin) I'm Oliver. I just thought (unintelligible).

Ms. AMANDA PEET: (As Emily Friehl) Blah, blah, blah. See, it's ruined.

Mr. KUTCHER: (As Martin) What's ruined?

Ms. PEET: (As Friehl) Our little secret.

Mr. KUTCHER: (As Martin) Actually, I think the stewardess was kind of on to us so...

Ms. PEET: (As Friehl) Well, she'll have to be killed.

Mr. KUTCHER: (As Martin) I'm Oliver.

Ms. PEET: (As Friehl) You keep saying that.

Mr. KUTCHER: (As Martin) Wow. You don't make it easy for a guy.

Ms. PEET: (As Friehl) I think I made it pretty easy for ya, Oliver.

Mr. ORR: "A Lot Like Love" is almost pre-verbal. It's a sad movie in which the two people barely really speak to each other. You can see the physical attraction but there's no real substantive connection.

KAST: And that contrasts with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally...," when they actually explain how their romance evolved.

(Soundbite of "When Harry Met Sally...")

Mr. BILLY CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) First time we met we hated each other.

Ms. MEG RYAN: (As Sally Albright) No, you didn't hate me; I hated you. The second time we met, you didn't even remember me.

Mr. CRYSTAL: (As Burns) I did, too. I remembered you. The third time we met, we became friends.

Ms. RYAN: (As Albright) We were friends for a long time.

Mr. CRYSTAL: (As Burns) And then we weren't.

Ms. RYAN: (As Albright) And then we fell in love. Three months later we got married.

Mr. CRYSTAL: (As Burns) Yeah, it only took three months.

Ms. RYAN: (As Albright) Twelve years and three months.

KAST: You mostly write about movies on DVD. Can you suggest a movie romance we could check out this weekend?

Mr. ORR: One quite good movie that's been on my mind a bit is "Before Sunrise" from 1994, Richard Linklater movie about two young people in their 20s who meet on a train and get off the train in Vienna and wander around throughout the course of the night and fall in love and make a pact to come meet each other again in six months, and it's a really wonderful, unprepossessing little film starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. It's virtually nothing but dialogue, and yet it very slowly develops a real emotional weight to it that is quite unexpected. There is a sequel, as well, which is quite good, although I don't think quite as good, from 2003, called "Before Sunset," which follows the same two characters nine years later. I like to think of the two of them together as a little bit like "An Affair To Remember." The first film is the chance meeting, the headlong falling into love, and the second film is the movie in which there are recriminations and explanations and they reveal their wounds and come to terms with them.

KAST: Christopher Orr writes about movies for The New Republic online and he joined us here in the studio. Thanks.

Mr. ORR: Thank you.

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