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Friday, 22 June 2012

You've Got One Fine Sleepless Decade: A Celebration of the 90's Rom-Com

1989 saw the release of 'WHEN HARRY MET SALLY', 'PRETTY WOMAN' and 'SAY ANYTHING'. It could be argued that none of the romantic comedies of the proceeding ten years bettered those. That being said, I have a huge affection for the rom-com's of the 90's. They had a huge impact on my love for cinema and storytelling. The criticism of the genre is that it's predictable and always stays the same. This is a concept which I would like to gently challenge. 

I don't rank films based on their complexity or originality. I am more interested in how much I relate to them. This is probably why I have always been interested in the romantic comedies. Within the confines of an often predictable genre, there's the opportunity for fun, randomness, and big laughs, with the occasional life-lesson thrown in. 

'NEVER BEEN KISSED' was released in 1999; and was one of the final films of its kind. The typical yet enjoyable rom-coms that had come in the previous few years, such as 'YOU'VE GOT MAIL' and 'ONE FINE DAY' were being replaced by edgier material such as 'CHASING AMY' and 'AMERICAN PIE'. While traditionalists would perhaps bemoan the different style of material, it was undoubtedly necessary. 'NEVER BEEN KISSED' aside, the other romantic offerings of that year were the likes of the weak 'FORCES OF NATURE' and the atrocious 'THE BACHELOR'. 

In the U.K, one screenwriter was becoming the definitive romantic voice of his generation. 'FOUR WEDDINGS & A FUNERAL' and 'NOTTING HILL' are two of the most watched and loved romantic comedies of all time, and with good reason. When people dislike a genre, it's usually because they know what to expect. The rom-com, at its very worst; is cliche-filled and predictable. You can't relate to the characters because you're screaming at the screen, "this is too obvious!" or "that would never happen!" That's why Richard Curtis' arrival on the scene was great. The rom-com now had something it has seldom had in modern times; a great writer. When I think of his films, I tend to remember them as being cheesy and romantic. But when you sit down and watch them, you realise the most important thing about them is that they're HILARIOUS. Hugh Grant was one of the most important things to happen to the genre in this period, because he was someone we could relate to. His fumbling nature was human, we could connect. 

If there are three films that typify the 90's rom-com, they would be 'ONE FINE DAY', 'YOU'VE GOT MAIL' and 'AS GOOD AS IT GETS'. They are not necessarily the best, and certainly not the coolest, but that's never the job of the rom-com. Films that got greater critical acclaim, such as 'JERRY MAGUIRE' and 'BEFORE SUNRISE' are deserving in their own right, but don't sit as neatly into the rom-com box as the aforementioned flicks. 

What made 'ONE FINE DAY' so appealing was the charisma of its leads. Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney are two of the top actors in the industry. Pfeiffer was at the peak of her career - but Clooney was still proving himself. He had the popularity from 'E.R.' but this was four years before 'O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?' -- he was still finding his way up the ladder and the film proved a good platform for his distinct talent. Pfeiffer and Clooney were able to find that rare and elusive thing: chemistry. Remarkable, considering that most of their screen-time was apart.

A more obvious example of capitalising on star-power was Nora Ephron's two films 'SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE' and 'YOU'VE GOT MAIL'. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, together; were box-office gold. 'SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE' resonated with audiences the world over, and still does to this day. Why? It's hard to say. That's the thing about romantic comedies, some of them just hit. It'd be naive to attribute it solely to the writing, or the strength of the actors. Romantic Comedy is about dealing with matters of the heart. Just like in life --- most of the time these matters will be struck down as being cheesy or ridiculous-- but occasionally, if we're open enough, they get through to us. 'SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE' is one of the most viewed films on television of all time. The formula was repeated again four years later with 'YOU'VE GOT MAIL', one of the first films to deal with finding love over the internet. The film is a personal favourite of mine. Is it one of the greatest films of all time? Of course not. But for many people who love rom-coms, it stands tall. 

As I'm writing about all of these films, I keep thinking about Woody Allen. It's impossible to write about this genre without referring to him. He's not often referred to as being a 'rom com' guy, but I don't think there'd be a Nora Ephron without him. It's interesting to look at what Woody Allen was doing during this time - especially as he wrote and directed one of the funniest and most underrated rom-coms of the decade, 'EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU'. The film was a musical, with a fantastic cast which included Alan Alda, Goldie Hawn, Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton. It's a hilarious and very warm film; probably the sweetest motion picture that Mr Allen has ever made. If you are a fan of this genre, you have to see it. And Woody's scenes with Julia Roberts are comedic gold. 

One of the biggest challenges that constantly faces the genre, is that filmmakers and even actors rarely take it seriously. They see it as a passage they need to get through on the way to more meaningful subject matters. I always find this disappointing because these are the films that people carry with them the most. When people remember Jimmy Stewart, they don't think about the Westerns, they think about 'IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and 'THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER'. The same for Jack Lemmon, we don't think about 'GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS', we remember 'THE APARTMENT'. That's why James L. Brooks is so refreshing. Not only is he one of the all-time great film directors, but he is a master of the rom-com genre. His influence, especially in the ten years I am focusing on, deserves much credit. Not only did he  direct 'AS GOOD AS IT GETS', he also produced 'JERRY MAGUIRE' (as well as 'SAY ANYTHING in 1989'). 'AS GOOD AS IT GETS' was able to cross over from being seen merely as a 'rom-com' to something more palatable to cinematic audiences due to the expertly written and performed character of Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson in one of the best performances of his career. That was matched by Helen Hunt, who was spellbinding as the troubled waitress and mother, Carol Connelly. 

It's also worth noting the hugely watchable film 'THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT', directed by 'WHEN HARRY MET SALLY' helmer Rob Reiner. The film didn't suit everyone, but it's one of my favourite films. It was penned by the great Aaron Sorkin --- and carries all the seeds of his later TV masterpiece, 'THE WEST WING'. 

By the end of the 90's, the romantic comedy genre had gone through many highs and lows. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan starred together in two great romantic comedies, both directed by Nora Ephron. And Richard Curtis' unique writing style gave us Hugh Grant and helped hugely reinvigorate the British film industry. It was also a great time for independent cinema. After his breakthrough movies 'CLERKS' and 'MALLRATS', 'CHASING AMY' was an iconic Kevin Smith film which completely ripped apart everything we expect from a rom-com and gave it a fresh new angle. Just a year before that, Richard Linklater released the sublime 'BEFORE SUNRISE', which stripped away all of the typical conflicts that transpire in the genre and instead had two characters walking around a city talking and falling in love. It was refreshing and heartening to see- and is one of the best films of the 90's, of any genre. 

For me, the last solid rom-com of the 90's was 'NEVER BEEN KISSED'. And I'm not saying it's necessarily a great film, but it stuck to the formula and was surprisingly well-crafted. Drew Barrymore's character, Josie Geller, is a reporter who is sent back to high school as an undercover reporter. She falls back into her old habits of being studious and a hard-worker, and therefore, a bullied geek. Her superiors demand that she become popular, so she can get a real scoop. She overcomes her own limitations and becomes exactly that, popular. But of course, that isn't what she needs --- we have to wait until the end of the movie when she finally goes back to being herself, the studious geek, but with more awareness. Now she can see the popular and good looking people for what they are. She finds herself and writes an honest and moving article in a way she has never done before. And as a result, she gets the guy. 

The film nailed the formula perfectly. But sadly, the formula was getting tired -- and the rom-com was ready for a change. 'AMERICAN PIE' took the gross-out route. And although many people just see it as the dick-in-the-pie film, it actually carries within it a lot of heartfelt, romantic moments. Meanwhile, 1999 also saw the release of the cult-hit '10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU'. Although a re-imagining of old ideas and concepts, it's surprisingly fresh, open, and honest; in a way that would come to define the comedies of the following decade. But the optimism and old-fashioned feel-good nature of 'ONE FINE DAY' and 'SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE' was on its way out. 

Care to share?


  1. Just stopped by to see what's going on around here--some great posts lately!

    Love the title of this one. It makes me sad that true rom-coms are so few and far between these days while action movies are thriving. Blech. I'm a big fan of all the films you mentioned, especially Eveyone Sasys I Love You. I think, being a musical, that one was taken even less-seriously than other rom-coms. Sad that people would miss out on it because of that.

    Music & Lyrics came out in 2007, and that's possibly my favorite. Drew Barrymore is so great in rom-coms. I wish she'd do more (and more and more) of them.

    1. Thanks Teri. And yeah, Drew is like the Queen of the modern rom-com!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Why did you delete your comment Paul? It was great!

    2. Our mutual admiration for the rom-com's of the 1990s is one of the things that keeps drawing me back here, but on this occasion I felt my comment didn't do justice to how much I care about those films and how much I enjoyed your article.
      I probably should lighten up a bit!

  3. I have absolutely no problem with rom-coms being predictable – in fact, sometimes i think that's part of the appeal. Since I already know what's going to happen, I'm not trying to outsmart the film, and I truly relax and enjoy the journey to seeing things unfold. While the skill of the storyteller for thrillers and mysteries may be in the twists and surprise endings, I think the skill of the rom-com writer is displayed in HOW he/she gets the characters towards that ending.

    I love Never Been Kissed.

    1. I know what you mean! There's something to be said for being able to relax into a predictable film occasionally!

  4. This is a great write up and I do not think I could put it into a better context. All of the films you mention have a special place for me.

  5. "Before Sunrise" captivated me and, while not the best movie ever made, one of my ALL time favorites BECAUSE of the chemistry. (I love anything with Michelle Pfeiffer and can't wait for her new movie at the end of this month! Agree with chemistry of "One Fine Day" too)