Film Reviews: Wednesday, February 6, 2003
The Gameof Love

Two movies reveal the sad state of a once-brilliant Hollywood genre.


Is romantic comedy dead? That’s what I wondered while watching two fairly brutal examples of the form: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Deliver Us From Eva. We’re a long way from the 1930s and ’40s, when Hollywood turned out an astonishing plethora of great romantic comedies in a short span of time: Frank Capra’s archetypal It Happened One Night (1934), Leo McCarey’s urbane The Awful Truth (1937), Howard Hawks’ surreal Bringing Up Baby (1938) and his hardened His Girl Friday (1940), William Wellman’s caustic Nothing Sacred (1937), Ernst Lubitsch’s affecting The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Garson Kanin’s subversive My Favorite Wife (1940), not to mention any of Preston Sturges’ anarchic masterpieces (1940-44).

These movies differed widely in pace, atmosphere, and sensibility, but they all had penetrating insights into relationships and dialogue sharp enough to cut glass, delivered by fearsomely bright movie stars. That’s why they look startlingly contemporary now, despite that era’s censorship and a few dated references. Mainstream American cinema never approached that level again, except during Woody Allen’s heyday in the 1970s. Today you can find Hollywood movies that are smart and funny about love, but they’re movies in other genres. How many romantic comedies from the major studios in the last 20 years have possessed the whole package of laughs, star power, and insight? Maybe My Best Friend’s Wedding and When Harry Met Sally... and that’s it. Not Pretty Woman, not Sleepless in Seattle, not Four Weddings and a Funeral, not There’s Something About Mary, not even (it hurts to say this) Jerry Maguire. This is the state of a genre that Hollywood used to do so brilliantly. Where did it all go?

I’ll tell you where it went. It went into television shows like Friends, Sex and the City, the late lamented Seinfeld, and other less consistent sitcoms about single people. These programs at their best display the same level of wit and sophistication as those classic films, the same verbal dexterity, and the same wisdom about the ways men and women relate to one another. Maybe they have even better insight, as today’s tv shows can be much franker about sex, and the weekly format of a tv program allows for depicting the ins and outs of long-term commitments.

This is great for television, but it’s bad for movies dealing with the same subject. High concepts and star power are easier to sell than clever dialogue, especially to overseas audiences. The need to appeal to the widest possible demographic has deprived comedies of their quirkier edges, as it hasn’t with indie romances (especially those pitched to niche audiences like ethnic minorities and gay viewers). Not only that, these films have turned deadly serious about their characters’ feelings — almost every romantic comedy has a speech that’s a pale copy of the famous one that Renée Zellweger gave in Jerry Maguire. (“I love him for the man he wants to be, and I love him for the man he almost is.”) The trouble is, not everyone can write like Cameron Crowe, and all this earnestness has resulted in terminally bland movies.

Proof of that can be seen in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which is about a New York writer named Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson). She writes a column about fashion and dating in a popular women’s magazine. (She yearns to be a serious journalist, to the point of having a peace plan for Tajikistan filed away on her computer, but we never hear anything further about this potentially interesting detail.) Inspired by her friends’ frustration at dealing with men, she decides to get material for her next column by dating a guy for 10 days and doing all the things that women do wrong that drive men away.

The whole story idea would probably work better as a column in a women’s magazine — Andie’s friends immediately brainstorm about relationship mistakes. (“Ooh! Call him up in the middle of the night and tell him everything you ate that day!”) The setup becomes rickety when two female ad executives hear about Andie’s plan and line her up with their male colleague, Benjamin Barry (Matthew McConaughey), who doesn’t know about the column. Andie promptly redecorates his bachelor pad, fawns all over him in public, cries on the slightest provocation, insults his male friends, puts together an album to show him what their kids will look like, and gets herself a tiny dog. Benjamin endures the torture because his co-workers have bet him that he can’t stay with the same woman for more than 10 days.

Andie’s behavior is so unpleasant and over-the-top that it borders on psychotic, which only makes Benjamin look dense for not suspecting that something’s up. Because he never turns the tables and starts playing mind games with her, the comic abuse only goes in one direction. The wager supposedly keeps him attached to a woman whom most reasonable men would flee from in terror. We never understand why Benjamin might actually care about her, so we never get emotionally invested. Hudson’s overacting compounds the trouble. Her character spends most of the movie putting on an act, so it’s possible that Andie is giving the bad performance and not Hudson. Still, she’s starting to emanate that “aren’t I cute?” vibe that Marisa Tomei gave off in her mid-1990s post-Oscar performances. (Hudson should be warned; Tomei’s only now starting to recover from that patch in her career.) It only further curdles this already rancid enterprise.

If How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days strikes you as immature, you won’t get any relief from Deliver Us from Eva, which is every bit as juvenile as its title suggests. Speaking in very general terms, recent romantic comedies about African-Americans, such as Brown Sugar and The Wood and The Best Man, have depicted their male and female characters as quite a bit more mature than their white counterparts in similar movies. Deliver Us From Eva, though, takes us back to the days of Booty Call and The Players Club, in which black men and women keep to themselves and regard one another with mutual suspicion if not outright fear. If it weren’t for sex, these people would never seek out the company of the opposite gender. The makers of these films tend to aim for vicious humor. Here and elsewhere, they only get the vicious part right.

The woman in the title is Eva Dandridge (Gabrielle Union), who compensates for her lack of a boyfriend by constantly meddling in the lives of her three younger sisters. Since the sisters’ men are too weak and/or stupid to stand up to Eva themselves, they hire an über-player named Ray (LL Cool J) to seduce and destroy her.

Ray is the most sympathetic person in the whole movie, and he doesn’t even show up until it’s half over. Until then, we’re stuck with Eva, who manipulates her sisters like they’re marionettes and harangues the guys with laboriously overwritten speeches when they want to watch the football game at the same time she wants to screen Beloved for her book club. We’re meant to think that she’s smart, unhappy, and bluntly spoken, but quite simply, Eva’s a bitch out of hell. By the time LL Cool J and his sly charm arrive on the scene, the damage has been done. We’re massively turned off Eva, and we can’t buy her subsequently falling in love with this smooth talker. (Poor Gabrielle Union deserves so much better than this.)

These movies come to us in time for Valentine’s Day, but you wouldn’t want to take your date to them. The men in these movies are hardly shining exemplars of the male of the species, and the women are downright awful. I get the queasy feeling that the filmmakers think manipulative behavior and verbal abuse are what strong women do. Look at those vintage films from the 1930s and you’ll find many different women holding their own against the men in those pre-feminist days and doing it with a lot more intelligence and style. Not that male and female characters in those movies (and, for that matter, today’s tv shows) don’t occasionally behave immaturely or play their own head games on one another, but you usually get the sense that these are basically smart, decent people. That’s missing in most Hollywood romances. The relations between men and women have undergone seismic shifts in the last few decades, and the studios don’t know anybody who can take that subject and turn it into light, sparkling entertainment.

There are still filmmakers who make romantic comedies that are intellectually challenging rather than intellectually challenged, but they don’t work in Hollywood. They’re independent writer-directors such as the dreamy Brad Anderson (Next Stop, Wonderland, Happy Accidents), the incisive Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing, Walking and Talking), and the hyper-intellectual Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco). In an ideal world, these people would be working with Gwyneth Paltrow and Hugh Grant and Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, providing A-list movie stars with A-list material. We don’t live in that world.

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