Not to buy into blanket generalizations about the differences between men and women, but nothing separates the X from the Y chromosomes like that most cliché and predictable of movie formulas, the modern romantic comedy.
Most men would sooner get a back-waxing than go see the Debra Messing/ Dermot Mulroney "Pretty Woman" reversal, "The Wedding Date." They apparently object a bit less to this week's "Hitch" (which set a record for opening-weekend box office for a romantic comedy), presumably because of guy's-guy stars Will Smith and Kevin James. Still (and again, I apologize for stereotyping), this is a kind of film to which most fellas need to be dragged, if not kicking and screaming, then at least with a promise of return favors later in the evening.
So, it raises the question, are there any truly male-friendly romantic comedies (hereafter referred to as "Y-RC")? The answer, my Valentine's-Day-recovering friend, is yes. A few.
The key to a successful Y-RC is a leading man with whom the audience can identify. Rather than an ultra-hunk pretty boy like Brad Pitt or Prince Leo, it's gotta be a quirky everyman. Which is one of the reasons why Woody Allen's films of the '70s resonated so much. In 1977's "Annie Hall," Allen plays Alvy Singer, a nebbishy comedian who has what is best described as a tumultuous relationship with Diane Keaton's neurotic title character. It was a groundbreaking depiction of love between two very untraditional romantic leads. Two years later, Allen was again annoying but charming as writer Isaac Davis in "Manhattan," his ode to New York and teenage girls (we always knew how literal the former love was, and we'd later discover about the latter ...). Any guy who ever broke up with one woman for another and later came to regret it can't help but feel Isaac's desperation as he runs through the streets of the city to beg for one last chance with Mariel Hemingway.
What makes both films work for both sexes is not just that they're smart, funny and insightful, it's that they contain an utter lack of fairy-tale atmosphere. Love is laid bare with all its bittersweet warts.
But then, to paraphrase Matthew McConaughey in "Dazed and Confused," as Allen got older and his leading ladies stayed the same age (witness his romantic pairing with Julia Roberts in 1996's "Everyone Says I Love You"), his films became seat-squirmingly discomforting for all but his diehard sycophants.
The Y-RC baton was picked up by Bill Murray in 1993's "Groundhog Day." As narcissistic weatherman Phil Connors, Murray is forced to relive one day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, over and over again (most people don't realize it's more than 3,600 times) until he gets it right and wins the love of Andie MacDowell. But even as his heart turns to gold, Phil remains a wisecrackin' smartass ("You stayed? I can't make a collie stay!") who never goes completely soft. It's hard to imagine anyone else in this role, particularly oh, Hugh Grant or Tom Hanks.
The Farrelly Brothers' 1998 opus, "There's Something About Mary," may well be the crudest romantic comedy of all time. Any love story that features dead dogs, zipper accidents, hair "gel" and fart jokes is going to work for your average ball-capped sports fan. The brothers again tackled the genre in 2001's "Shallow Hal," starring Jack Black as Hal Larson, the kind of delusional lunkhead whose "No Fat Chicks" T-shirt would have to be size XXL. After being hypnotized by self-help guru Tony Robbins, Hal only sees inner beauty and then falls in love with Rosemary Shanahan (Gwyneth Paltrow), a 300-plus pound social worker who, to Hal, looks like, well, Gwyneth Paltrow. It's by far the Farrelly Brothers' preachiest work, and it veers dangerously close to schmaltz, but it's still rough enough around the edges to keep the fellers in the seats.
It's rare that an RC is told from the male point of view, but such was 2000's "High Fidelity," which took Nick Hornby's 1995 novel and transplanted it from England to Chicago, sticking Hollywood's most likable everyman in the lead. John Cusack plays Rob Gordon, a music geek whose recent breakup forces him to reevaluate all of his past relationships. The film's record-store setting allows for lots of scenes comparing heartbreak to Smiths singles, and Rob's cohorts Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (the hilarious Jack Black) create a triumvirate of guys to which every obsessive record collector can relate ... often sadly.
Cusack has made his share of chick flicks, including "America's Sweethearts" and "Serendipity," but he also stars in what I have to dub the all time greatest guy-friendly romantic comedy: no, not "Say Anything" (that's more of a teen flick), but the vastly underrated "Grosse Pointe Blank."
In the very black 1997 comedy, Cusack plays Martin Q. Blank, a professional hit man who returns to his Michigan hometown the dual purpose of killing someone and attending his 10-year high school reunion. Martin's primarily interested in seeing the girl he left behind, Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver), a woman who works as a radio DJ and still looks at View-Master reels and listens to the Clash (be still, my heart!). Their rekindled sparks are complicated by another hit man and some FBI agents gunning for Martin as he tries to dodge Dan Aykroyd's pitch to join a killer's union. And then, to make matters worse, Martin discovers that the man he's supposed to delete is Debi's dad! It all leads to a romantic ending punctuated by a whole lotta gunfire. "Grosse Pointe Blank" is a near-perfect melding of humor, action, pathos and romance, topped with a terrific soundtrack. If only they'd make the oft-promised sequel!
Most modern romantic comedies are a far cry from the smart entrants in this genre from Hollywood's golden age, movies like "The Philadelphia Story," "It Happened One Night" or the films of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. If women today lament the lack of romance in their relationships, perhaps they should blame the perpetrators of the chick flick. The Nora Ephrons, Garry Marshalls, Julia Robertses and Hugh Grants of the world continue to propagate the fairy-tale monstrosities that send men fleeing from the multiplexes. That's too bad, because if done well, there's nothing better than a warm fuzzy thumping in the chest brought on by the long-awaited smooch before the end credits.
Except, of course, a really cool explosion.
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