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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At this year's Academy Awards, Jennifer Lawrence took home the Best Actress statue for her role in "Silver Linings Playbook." It's a romantic comedy with Bradley Cooper, about two people struggling with mental illness and trying to find a connection.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK")

BRADLEY COOPER: (As Pat) You ever take Klonopin?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) Klonopin, yeah. (LAUGHTER)

COOPER: (As Pat) Right?

LAWRENCE: (As Pat) Jesus.

COOPER: (As Pat) It's like - what?

LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) Yeah.

COOPER: (As Pat) What day is it? How about Trazodone?

LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) Trazodone?

COOPER: (As Pat) It flattens you out. I mean, you are done. It takes the light right out of your eye.

SHAPIRO: Most romantic comedies do not pull critics' heartstrings the way "Silver Linings Playbook" did, and a lot of film critics are asking why. How did we go from swooning over Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant to nursing a toothache over today's cotton candy schlock? Our own Linda Holmes recently explored this question on the NPR blog Monkey See. She'll join us in a moment.

But first, we want to hear from you. Tell us about a romcom that you think rises above the fray, and explain what makes it stand out. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Linda Holmes joins us now. She writes the Monkey See blog, on entertainment and pop culture, at npr.org. And she's with us in Studio 3A. Welcome, Linda.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Were the halcyon, golden days of romantic comedy actually halcyon, golden days; or are we just revising history here?

HOLMES: I think it's a combination of the two, which is sort of a weasely answer. But you know, there's no question that when you look back at a movie like "His Girl Friday," or you look at the old Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movies, you can always look at those and say, nobody makes movies like that anymore - which is true. Nobody makes epics like "Lawrence of Arabia" right now. Nobody makes Hitchcock movies anymore. It's hard to make great movies.

So in that way, it's probably a little bit overblown. But I do think we've had a run of ones that are spectacularly unimaginative, and some very weak work that - the genre has kind of earned the fatigue that people have with it; particularly in its purer forms where it's really just the people fight and fight and fight, and then they kiss.

SHAPIRO: Is that because even those terrible romantic comedies can still make money?

HOLMES: I think that's part of it although really, aside from maybe "The Proposal" with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds - that movie made a lot of money. Laugh if you will, and you should. But aside from that, you don't see a lot of big hits in the last few years, either. It's also been a pretty dry time, moneywise. So I don't think they have an answer.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I have this theory that romantic comedy is the female equivalent of horror, where producers know they can just throw something really sloppy and terrible on screen and they will get a demographic to go see that movie, even if it's sloppy and terrible. So there's no incentive for them to make a really fantastic romantic comedy. It's just - there's really no incentive to make a really fantastic horror movie.

HOLMES: I think that's true. I think the difference is - I think people who study box office would often tell you that men are better at getting women to go to horror movies than women are getting men to go romantic comedies. I don't know if that's true, but I think that certainly something that many of us believe might be true.

But I think your general point is sound, and what's interesting is with horror movies, you still see people - it's true with action movies as well, something like even - something like "Die Hard,"- there are people who are working hard to elevate that genre. And so I think it's important for people to be open minded to people elevating that romantic comedy genre and not treating it like it's automatically not worth anything.

SHAPIRO: Let's take a caller from a man, I must say. This is Brian in Lewes, Delaware, calling. Hi, Brian. Go ahead.

BRIAN: Hey, how are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. Thanks.

BRIAN: I'm always partial to "Love Actually." I'm curious what she thinks about that.

SHAPIRO: OK. So I have to tell you, before the show, we had a conversation about "Love Actually," and couldn't agree on whether it was a romantic comedy.

HOLMES: I think a lot of movies are like that, where they're not always pure romantic comedy. Certain stories in "Love Actually", the story with Emma Thompson and the story with Liam Neeson; these are not romantic comedy stories. These are sad stories, in some cases. But the story with Hugh Grant is pure romantic comedy. I like "Love Actually." I like parts of it better than other parts. A lot of people have pointed out there's an awful lot of stories about men and women who work for them, but I like it.

SHAPIRO: And there's something uncommon between "Love Actually" and "Silver Linings Playbook," another highly acclaimed romantic comedy that had some very dark themes in it.

HOLMES: Most of the really good romantic comedies have something else going on. So does "Sleepless in Seattle," so does "Notting Hill," which is the one that I really like, which has Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in it. Most of the good ones have something else going on besides falling in love.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, let's hear a little bit of one of those. This is "Sleepless in Seattle," where Sam, who's played by Tom Hanks, meets Annie, played by Meg Ryan, at the urging of his young son, Jonah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE")

TOM HANKS: (As Sam) Generally speaking, I think we should rule out anyone who doesn't live near here.

ROSS MALINGER: (As Jonah) She's willing to fly anywhere.

HANKS: (As Sam) Well, she looks like my third grade teacher, and I hated my third grade teacher. Wait a minute, she is my third grade teacher.

SHAPIRO: Have to say, you mouthed that line along with it, Linda. This is based on an earlier film, "An Affair to Remember." How do you compare them? And how do they reflect the eras that they were made in?

HOLMES: Well, "Sleepless in Seattle" is less a remake of "An Affair to Remember" than it constantly references "An Affair to Remember." "An Affair to Remember" is sort of their favorite movie. And so, you know, I think, I think - I don't think of "An Affair to Remember" as a romantic comedy. I think of it as kind of a swoony romance. By the time you got to "Sleepless in Seattle," "Sleepless in Seattle" is very self-conscious about being a romantic comedy.

In fact, at one point Rosie O'Donnell says to Meg Ryan, you don't want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie. So it's very conscious of being steeped in those romantic comedy cliches by then.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's go to another caller. This is Tom in Waynesboro, Virginia. Hi, Tom. Go ahead.

TOM: Hello. I - for my wife and I, it's "Goodbye Girl," Marsha Mason, Richard Dreyfuss. The chemistry between the two, I thought, was just fabulous. And the other thing, as I was a double major at the time and I was doing Shakespeare at the time in college, so "Richard III" as a gay man was kind of interesting too.

SHAPIRO: Hilarious.

TOM: But the play between the two: fantastic.

SHAPIRO: The play between the two: fantastic. And, Linda Holmes, one of the things you write about in your column about romantic comedies is that many of the movies we even think of as fantastic romantic comedies are awful plots with just fantastic performances.

HOLMES: I think most of them are like that. If you're absolutely completely honest, I think most of them are like that. In fact "The Goodbye Girl," which is a movie I adore, great pick. It has probably a more plausible plot than a lot of other ones do.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to another caller. This is Dove(ph) in Rochester, New York. Hi, Dove. Go ahead.

DOVE: Hi. So I was just calling to talk about "When Harry Met Sally." I think it's probably the best romantic comedy ever.

SHAPIRO: OK. Let me interrupt you before you go ahead because we've got a bit of it queued up. Let's listen to it and then come back to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY")

BILLY CRYSTAL: (as Harry Burns) And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.

SHAPIRO: Such a great scene with Billy Crystal there. Dove, go ahead. Tell us what you think makes this movie so good.

DOVE: Yeah. Well, that scene, in and of itself, always makes me tear up a little. It's just still amazing to hear that interaction. The fact that they were friends for so long - and the whole movie is built on this we're friends again, we're not, and that they didn't - the back and forth, I think it's peppered with this really interesting - you see all these other couples who've been married for years, they are hearing their love stories, and I think the other love stories that are going on, the two best friends that they try to set each other up with them and, you know, they just can't stand each other and then they end up together as well. And, of course, the restaurant scene is hilarious.

SHAPIRO: Right.

DOVE: I think the energy they have is just amazing. It's just so hilarious. And yeah, it's so wonderful to watch.

SHAPIRO: Linda Holmes, there are obviously fantastic performances in that movie with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. But I feel like it also succeeds because it's trying to say something about life in this moment, or the moment when the movie was made, anyway, that everybody kind of just wrestling with.

HOLMES: Right. I think that's right. And, you know, most romantic comedies over time that are strongly remembered have something going on that's fairly overt about relationships between men and women. If you look back at - if you look back at those Tracy-Hepburn movies, "Adam's Rib" and movies like that, they're very overtly about gender politics, and "When Harry Met Sally" is very overtly about this sort of can men and women be friends, when are you not friends, what happens if you're friends and then you're, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: So I mean, it's very overtly wrestling with those things.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's go to another caller. This is Stephanie in San Francisco. Hi, Stephanie. Go ahead.

STEPHANIE: Hi. Yes, I was just wondering how you also feel about French romantic comedies. So some of my favorite movies are like "Love Me If You Dare," "Shall We Kiss?" and "Romantics Anonymous," and they really deal with like the relationship between men and women and how different we are but yet the commonality. And they don't always have, like, the stereotypical Hollywood endings that are concise and like and they lived happily ever after. So I...

SHAPIRO: Right. That's the thing that strikes me about French romantic comedies is that they may be a little less predictable than American.

STEPHANIE: Yes. And the characters tend to be a little quirkier.

SHAPIRO: What do you think, Linda?

HOLMES: I have to admit to a little bit of a blind spot. Obviously this is somebody who knows a lot more about this than I do.

SHAPIRO: What, you don't know French romantic comedy? Leave the...

HOLMES: I freely admit it's a - it is a weak point. But generally, my experience of - I think of European romantic films, is that - is sort of like that, that they are a little less predictable and formulaic perhaps.

SHAPIRO: Do you have a favorite old or new romantic comedy that you think really rises above, Linda?

HOLMES: Do I have a favorite? It's really funny because you would think that I would know off the top of my head what it is, and it tends to be whichever one I saw most recently. But if I go by the one I have seen the most times, it is "While You Were Sleeping." If I talk about the one that I have seen the most times, or possibly "The Sure Thing," with John Cusack, which is also really, really wonderful.

SHAPIRO: John Cusack really made a niche out of romantic comedies for a little while.

HOLMES: For a while.

SHAPIRO: We have an email from James, who writes: What's missing? Surprise, witty dialogue. The current rom-coms are full of snark. Snark is not wit. And Linda Holmes, snark certainly seems to be a relatively recent development in comedy.

HOLMES: I agree. I mean I think there's always been banter and back and forth. But, you know, for me one of the things that happened is that when a battle of equals, when a meeting of equals ceased to be a high concept, then people tried to goose it with more conflict and more tension, which came from people being nasty to each other.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's take another call from Chad in Houston, Texas. Hi, Chad. Go ahead.

CHAD: Hi there. I would say "500 Days of Summer" comes to mind...

SHAPIRO: That's a great movie.

CHAD: ...simply because the screenplay itself is so unique, from the split screen of reality and, you know, his fantasy, attending a dinner at, you know, Summer's place to when they - the two main characters actually don't end up together, which is, you know...

SHAPIRO: And just to remind viewers, Linda, describe how differently this story is structured than your typical romantic comedy.

HOLMES: "500 Days of Summer" is as filmmaking and storytelling much more inventive than a lot of what you would think of as a romantic comedy. It involves a guy who meets a girl, and she's very explicitly a fantasy figure, and he goes through this romance with her. And then - but then it does not work out. You sort of know from the beginning that it doesn't work out.

SHAPIRO: Because it's doesn't go in chronological order. You get day one halfway through the film, day 200, day 75 and so on and so forth.

HOLMES: Right.

SHAPIRO: Again, sort of like bucking the pressure to do something cheap in order to do something interesting, although - also again, since they don't end up together, maybe we have to question whether this form of romantic comedy really applies.

HOLMES: Yeah. And then there are other romantic comedies where they don't end up together. "My Best Friend's Wedding" is a terrific movie that is good because they don't end up together.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk to Danny in Fort Collins, Colorado. Hi, Danny. Go ahead.

DANNY: Hey. How it's going?

SHAPIRO: Fine. What's your favorite?

DANNY: I was thinking about "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," just because...

SHAPIRO: Linda's swooning in the studio right now.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Go ahead.

DANNY: What's that?

SHAPIRO: Linda is swooning in the studio. Please continue.

(LAUGHTER)

DANNY: I just thought it was like a fresh take on a romantic comedy because it's science fiction and it's kind of darker a little bit. So when they finally do come together at the end it's like so much - it makes me happy, I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: You know, Linda, none of the movies that people are talking about are starring Jennifer Lopez or Katherine Heigl or any of the romantic comedies that people associate with the genre. Maybe that reflects TALK OF THE NATION's listenership, I don't know.

HOLMES: Well, yeah, I mean part of this is definitional, I think. There comes a point where what you think of as a rom-com is these trashy kind of not very well thought movies, so he look at it that way, then they're all bad. But obviously there are wonderful romantic and funny movies. "Eternal Sunshine" is a wonderful - I don't know if I would call it a romantic comedy, but, oh, what a fantastic movie.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about romantic comedies. Why so many of them are so bad and a few rise above the pack. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Matt in Anchorage, Alaska. Hi, Matt. You're on the air.

MATT: Hey. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Fine. Thanks. What's your favorite?

MATT: Well, I - old one is "Hobson's Choice." I call that one, but I thought you're talking more recently and I go with "Hope Springs" with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. Not 20-somethings falling for each other for the first time.

(LAUGHTER)

MATT: Twenty-somethings? No, no, they're quite older than that.

SHAPIRO: That's what I mean. Yeah, really different from the norm.

MATT: Oh, yeah. And I was telling the lady on the phone earlier, I thought that worked because you always see men allowing themselves to be older but you don't see a lot of the actresses. And Meryl Streep does a fine job in letting herself be her age, and I think it appealed to a much different crowd. And I'm not sure if it even made any money because of that, but...

SHAPIRO: Well, thanks for the call, Matt. And Linda, this reminds me of something that I think when I watched old movies, which is that I feel like today we have actresses who are known for their acting ability who tend not to be sex objects, and then we have actresses who are sex objects who tend not to be known for their acting ability.

And I watch, you know, movies with the young Elizabeth Taylor or the young Audrey Hepburn like, you know, here is a moment of Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," the famed jewelry store in New York City. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S")

GEORGE PEPPARD: (As Paul Varjak) Well, we could have this engraved, couldn't we? I think it would be very smart.

JOHN MCGIVER: (As Tiffany's salesman) This, I take it, was not purchased at Tiffany's?

PEPPARD: (As Paul Varjak) No. Actually it was purchased concurrent with, well, actually, came inside of, well, a box of Cracker Jack.

SHAPIRO: OK. So we didn't actually hear Audrey Hepburn herself in that cut. But I see the young Audrey Hepburn, the young Elizabeth Taylor, and I think these women were objects of affection and also incredible actresses. And today the two seem to be divided.

HOLMES: I don't know if they actually are as much as it's that we perceive that they are. I think we are in a very, very difficult environment for actresses right now. And I think there are actresses who are able to remain very, very serious and very, very focused and be respected and remain respected. But once you become kind of popular or people think you're trying to be popular - if you look at what's happened with Anne Hathaway. Anne Hathaway is wonderful in, for example, the movie "Rachel Getting Married." But she has undergone this really bizarre outbreak of, oh, I just hate her, I just hate her. And it becomes - it's really difficult, I think, for actresses to navigate this landscape of you can be really talented and still somehow wind up people are writing mostly about your personality and whether they like you or not.

SHAPIRO: You write that one of the best things ever to happen to Jennifer Lawrence may have been her falling down at the Oscars just because it humanized her.

HOLMES: Yeah. I think that's absolutely true, I think it's absolutely true.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's take another call. This is Kim in Wichita, Kansas. Hi, Kim. Go ahead.

KIM: Hi. I don't know if this is considered a romantic comedy or one of the best movies ever made, but there is something about the movie "The Mexican" with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts and the chemistry that they have together. And they're just kind of getting through their life without any kind of direction and she has a couple lines in there that just always have resonated with me, like when she tells Jerry that he's Forrest Gumping his way through life.

(LAUGHTER)

KIM: I said that to my husband frequently, but...

SHAPIRO: You know, I think America maybe has had several consecutive America's sweethearts, whether it was Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts. And when you talk about Julia Roberts, you have to think of this film, the iconic "Pretty Woman," where she played opposite Richard Gere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PRETTY WOMAN")

RICHARD GERE: (As Edward Lewis) What do you do?

JULIA ROBERTS: (As Vivian Ward) Everything. But I don't kiss on the mouth.

GERE: (As Edward Lewis) Neither do I.

SHAPIRO: Linda, this is probably one of the icons of romantic comedy, and Julia Roberts was even nominated for an Oscar for it.

HOLMES: She sure was, she sure was. The interesting thing about Julia Roberts, you know, she has gone through several phases of being popular and less popular, and she comes back and goes away for a while. But this is probably one of the most, you know, widely talked about and respected actress debuts or big debuts ever.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Linda Holmes, who writes the Monkey See blog for npr.org., and she joined us here on Studio 3A. Linda, thanks for being with us.

HOLMES: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, a look at the lives of 911 dispatchers. How they're trained, what they're allowed to say and the stresses they endure. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington.

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