YEAR IN FILM We ask depressingly little of our romantic comedies, particularly considering that they’re meant, one guesses, to cheer us up. While genres like the action thriller and the disaster film engage in an arms race of catastrophe that, while riddled with clichés, requires some amount of ingenuity to orchestrate, when it comes to the rom-com, the studios display fierce loyalty to a formula of marquee names, charming emotional baggage, foolish misunderstandings, and final-boarding-call epiphanies.
You could say that our relationship with the genre is going nowhere, like the one the perky, anal-retentive heroine is perpetually on the brink of settling for with some handsome, amiable cardboard cutout, too afraid to take a chance on surly, diamond-in-the-rough Mr. Right. You could say that watching these films is an empty transaction, like those the gleaming-toothed protagonist enters into with a parade of leggy, blank-faced bar pickups before recognizing eureka!-style that the best friend who tolerates his slutty superficiality is clearly a soul mate.
We don’t quite buy it, any of it, but back and back and back we go — if often lining up in numbers sustaining the briefest of theater runs, or going no further than the Netflix queue. Which perhaps explains, though just barely, how we (by which, of course, I mean I) happened to be in the theater this year for Just Go with It, staring wearily screenward at the companionable but chemistry-free pairing of Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston; for the tortured, slightly icky mismatch of Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached; and even for New Year’s Eve, wherein an ungodly hodgepodge of Hollywood brands are desperately flung at the screen in the hopes that something will stick.
Generally compiled from interchangeable parts, the romantic comedy has been manufactured so many times that the players seem exhausted by the effort to find a fresh configuration, something unattempted and captivating. The ghosts of long-ago lighthearted pictures from the golden era of madcap romance, like It Happened One Night (1934) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), hang over the proceedings, sparking wistful visions of some magical cinematic equation that, when X is solved, will result in old-fashioned sensations like a warmed heart and toasty goodwill toward the lip-locked pair over whom the credits are rolling.
On the flip side, suffering near-continuous abuse at the hands of the studios leaves a person highly susceptible to trace amounts of handcraft and invention. Perhaps only in this spirit could I embrace Friends with Benefits, which brashly arms its hero and heroine (Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis) to take potshots at the formula while largely hewing to it. Still, as the two swear on an iPhone Bible app to uphold a vow of friendship previous to taking all their clothes off, and as they skate along on the fine, funny writing and frank talk and roll around in bed, it does seem like something better than usual has been accomplished.
Better by far is Crazy, Stupid, Love., which makes the case that a carefully woven ensemble piece need not jerk you from subplot to subplot, seeking famous-people sightings like an L.A. tourist with a star map. Steve Carell and Julianne Moore’s marriage in quiet paralysis is jarred by infidelity, triggering a badly needed upheaval and bringing one unhappy man (Carell) into the bracing orbit of another (Ryan Gosling). The creepy third-generation subplot involving a kid and his babysitter is hard to forgive, but Gosling and love interest Emma Stone, plus an intelligent script, gamely play with the conventions of the heartless womanizer and the girl who’s too much in her head.
And lastly, Bridesmaids, starring and cowritten by Kristen Wiig, arguably sidesteps both the formula and the genre itself, shifting the focus from “boy meets girl” to “woman’s life spirals wildly downward as she attempts to be happy about her best friend’s engagement.” It’s the kind of funny that makes you sink into your seat in horrified anticipation — and the kind of romance where you find yourself rooting for the inevitable rather than just resigned to it.