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Saturday 20 April 2019

Return of the thinking woman's chick flick?

Definitely, Maybe is the best rom-com since Annie Hall, so maybe the film world is at last going to take its female audience seriously, says Wendy Ide

Sealed with a kiss: Rachel Weisz and Ryan Reynolds in Definitely,
Sealed with a kiss: Rachel Weisz and Ryan Reynolds in Definitely, Maybe
Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall

Wendy Ide

I can't be the only woman who takes most 'chick flicks' as an affront to my gender. Watching a formulaic chick flick is like being told that the entire movie industry thinks you're stupid, credulous and naive; that a pair of artfully dangled shoes or a cute, plump baby is enough to distract you from the fact that the storyline has been recycled 100 times before; that at the first chime of wedding bells, we start salivating over table decorations and party favours.

The chick flick, like its literary equivalent chick lit, has become a pejorative term. Which is why indications that the film world may finally be taking the female audience seriously are so welcome.

Working Title's latest romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe -- released next week -- stands out from the crowd. It pushes all the right romantic buttons but is smart, well-observed and immensely satisfying. It's that rarest of things -- a film about affairs of the heart that doesn't require you to check your brain in at the door. It's a film that we can take our husbands and boyfriends to without embarrassment or having to resort to bribery. Last week also saw the release of Juno, a spiky, irreverent rom-com about teen pregnancy.

What's particularly galling is that it's only when the film is targeted at the female audience that it loses its wits so dramatically. Take Judd Apatow's earthy sex comedies, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. They're the rom-com's quick-witted, trash-talking little brothers. The audience for Apatow's comedies is skewed toward young males who, while not the most discerning of movie viewers, would never put up with the witless drivel peddled to the female audience.

What was the last truly great romantic comedy? Woody Allen's Annie Hall, in 1977. The Meg Ryan years produced a few little gems -- When Harry Met Sally (1989) and the defiantly odd Joe Versus The Volcano (1990). But they will always be guilty pleasures compared with Annie Hall's neurotic brilliance.

But we have to go farther back to reach the golden era that produced not just the greatest rom-coms of all time, but some of the greatest movies full stop. The late Thirties, the Forties and the Fifties were the era of the screwball comedy in which some of the sharpest wits in Hollywood -- Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Preston Sturges -- worked on what were essentially rom-coms. Their romances were fast-paced, inventive and fizzing with ideas. They featured brilliant, troublesome, wickedly witty women -- think of Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve running rings around poor schmuck Henry Fonda, or Rosalind Russell as the wisecracking ace reporter Hildy in His Girl Friday. The screwball era gave us the suave, irresistible Cary Grant; the Nineties gave us the blustering posh boy Hugh Grant. Frankly, it's no contest.

So why did the screwball comedy fall from grace? Perhaps it's because the fast pace and zany characterisation were so distinctive and popular that, like film noir, it simply started to feel dated.

More naturalistic performance styles became fashionable; in writer-directors such as Woody Allen, fresh voices made themselves heard. The Coen brothers made a creditable attempt at a modern-day screwball comedy with Intolerable Cruelty, which was unfairly panned by the critics. Danny Boyle's attempt at the genre, A Life Less Ordinary, was rather less successful.

But, after an extended period of dumbed-down, grossed-out sentimentalism (Farrelly brothers, take a bow) and slickly packaged high-concept formula flicks, the film industry seems to be waking up to the fact that intelligent, well-written rom-coms could be the way forward. And the first place they are looking for inspiration is the Thirties and Forties.

Although most fans of the originals will have mixed feelings about the news that remakes are planned of Mitchell Leisen's incomparable farce Midnight (1939) and the ultimate bitchin' chick flick, George Cukor's The Women (1939), most would also agree that the modern chick flick could stand to learn a few lessons from the all-time greats.

Adam Brooks, the writer and director of Definitely, Maybe, is a rom-com veteran: he adapted Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and co-wrote Wimbledon. The problem with contemporary chick flicks, he says, is "lack of ambition. All they want to do is the boy-meets-girl thing. What has been rich about the genre in the past has been the opportunity to talk about other things."

Definitely, Maybe is as much about politics and one man's ideological journey as it is about romance. The film is a perceptive series of snapshots of a period of recent US history, as it follows the trajectory of the central character, Will Hayes, (Ryan Reynolds) from optimistic idealist working on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign to jaded disillusionment as his President is impeached.

Although there are three women in Will's life (played by Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher), his most turbulent love affair is with politics.

And it's not just the political backdrop that caused Brooks to span the Nineties with his story. "There is the dawning of the digital age," he says. "Then, in New York, there's the process of gentrification, the cleaning up of the city. New York is a character in the film: it's cleaner and safer now, which is great, but it has lost something of itself. For all of those reasons, it seemed like the right period."

The generic rom-com tends to follow a set structure, something along the lines of: girl meets boy, sparks fly, they fall in love. A misunderstanding or a minor misdemeanour breaks them up but the pair are thoroughly miserable apart. They're back together by the end, usually employing the Big Embarrassing Public Declaration of Love (Working Title productions are particularly guilty of this lazy device -- and where Working Title leads, a thousand imitators follow).

One of the strengths of Definitely, Maybe is its departure from the rom-com formula. It plays out over a decade, so we get to watch the characters grow and make mistakes, we invested in them in a way we rarely do when characters are defined by their relationships alone.

Brooks's time-consuming writing approach -- the script took a year -- has crafted characters who feel like real people rather than pawns in some high-concept dating game.

By being true to life and true to the messy realities of relationships, Definitely, Maybe has an honesty that is missing in the kind of rom-com that ties itself up in knots trying to keep its characters together or apart.

The quality of the writing is particularly evident at the end. Rather than the showy public declaration that so many rom-coms opt for, Will and the lady he loved all along seal their relationship with a heartfelt kiss snatched when they think nobody else is looking. And because we've grown to care about these characters, that simple clinch is worth hundreds of shots of Hugh Grant humiliating himself in front of a room full of strangers.

The high-concept rom-com, a format that Brooks was consciously reacting against with his screenplay, is one in which a ludicrous and generally intelligence-insulting device is employed that would seem to keep apart two characters who are otherwise ideally suited.

For example, she's the spirit of a girl in a coma (Reese Witherspoon in Just Like Heaven); he has vowed not to have sex (Josh Hartnett in 40 Days And 40 Nights); she is writing a magazine article about what not to do in a new relationship (Kate Hudson in How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days). Note to Kate: if you really want to lose the guy, try hauling him along to a few films such as this.

The latter movie contains another rom-com cliché: Matthew McConaughey, who smirks from the posters of more than his fair share of substandard chick flicks (Failure To Launch, The Wedding Planner, etc), often lounging at an uncomfortable-looking angle. There is probably an equation that links the angle of McConaughey's slouch to the stupidity of the movie. But of course, that would involve maths, and us girls are too busy shopping for shoes for stuff like maths.

So does Definitely, Maybe and the screwball revival signal a cause for optimism? A trend towards chick flicks that don't assume that their audience comprises airheads dreaming of fairytale endings?

If we make the assumption that women's taste in films is reflected in the type of books they buy, we can take hope from the fact that chick lit seems to be falling from favour -- there's only one archetypal chick-lit book listed in the latest Top 10, Cecelia Ahern's PS I Love You.

New voices in cinema breathe life into the genre: notably Diablo Cody, the much-admired young writer of the Oscar-nominated Juno.

But don't get the bunting out just yet -- March sees the release of 27 Dresses, a breathless love letter to the wedding industry and kryptonite to the feminist movement.

10 best rom-coms...

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)

Billy Wilder's wonderful comedy is probably the greatest rom-com of all. It certainly has the best final line.

2. The Lady Eve (1941)

Preston Sturges's glorious farce pits con-woman Barbara Stanwyck against Henry Fonda.

3. His Girl Friday (1940)

Rosalind Russell is ace reporter Hildy Johnson; Cary Grant is her editor. Dizzying one-liners.

4. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and a leopard called Baby.

5. Midnight (1939)

Written by Billy Wilder, this is a real gem. Claudette Colbert is glorious as a chorus girl hired by a millionaire to break up his wife's affair.

6. Annie Hall (1977)

It's hard to believe that Woody Allen originally envisaged this terrific comedy as a murder mystery with a romantic subplot.

7. The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon in a smart, very adult rom-com.

8. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)

Preston Sturges's comedy about an unwed mother was controversial at the time.

9. The Palm Beach Story (1942)

A wife tries to raise money for her inventor husband by divorcing him and marrying a millionaire.

10. The Women (1939)

George Cukor's bitchin' chick flick follows the lives of a group of Manhattan women. Genius.

... and the five worst

1. 50 First Dates (2004)

Adam Sandler falls for Drew Barrymore. Unfortunately she has short-term memory loss so he has to woo her afresh each new day. Like Groundhog Day, but in a bad way.

2. Failure To Launch (2006)

Matthew McConaughey falls for a woman hired by his parents to encourage him to fly the nest. After such an auspicious beginning, what could go wrong?

3. How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (2003)

A romance based on mutual deceit between two narcissists.

4. Notting Hill (1999)

Glossy, manipulative and tokenistic. I really hate this film.

5. Music and Lyrics (2007)

Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant make beautiful music together. Only for the tone deaf.

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