Film Fund-amentals: What’s Love Got to Do With It

In a race closer than the 2000 election, the two-dimensional Date Night has apparently unseated the latest exercise in 3D mythology. Or at least it had, until the slightly bizarre recount.  But no matter how the figures are re-jiggled (barring a Supreme Court decision), the race has been excruciatingly tight, and the 3D juggernaut has been (briefly) brought back to earth. This partly suggests that the 3D novelty effect is waning. It is also an indicator that the market cannot support multiple 3D epics simultaneously (an inconvenient truth that all of the majors would rather not face at the moment).

But there has also been a hunch in many circles that the market was overdue for a successful romantic comedy. Like a bunch of feverish losers at a roulette table, bets were getting placed on such movies as She’s Out of My League and The Bounty Hunter in the desperate hope that it would be the “one.” So it was inevitable that one of these movies would finally work. Oddly enough, no one expected it to be Date Night.

Which isn’t surprising. The romantic comedy genre is a tough act to successfully predict. More than any other genre, it depends on the ever elusive quality of chemistry between its performers. Much like a real date, the leads have to click with the right spark or else it’s a long wait until you can duck out the side door and run for your car. By comparison, the horror genre is an easier mix, as long as the budget stays within basic parameters. Besides, a good monster only has to have a homicidal urge for the leading lady.

But romantic teamwork is a high-risk venture with no fixed rules. For every Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan combo, you can find a dozen resembling Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. On paper, Gigli must have sounded like a quick trip to the bank. On screen, it played worse than a Dear John letter.

In fact, one of the few fixed rules of romantic comedy is to never use a couple who might actually be dating, engaged, married or otherwise connected to each other in any way, shape or form (the most recent example is The Bounty Hunter). Seriously. Just look at one of the most classic screen couple in movie history: William Powell and Myrna Loy played a delightful mix of wit and sophistication in nearly a dozen movies. They were fun, feisty, romantic and always convincing. Best yet, they saved it all for the cameras. In real life, they barely knew each other. Besides, Powell was busy pursuing Jean Harlow while Loy preferred more sensitive men (like Montgomery Clift).

No matter what their own relationships may be like, real couples stink on the screen. You can call it the Madonna effect. She’s done three films with three men she’s been involved with (Sean Penn, Warren Beatty and Guy Ritchie). Each movie (Shanghai Surprise, Dick Tracy and Swept Away) was a complete bomb. Both Shanghai Surprise and Swept Away are widely considered to be the worst movies of Penn and Ritchie’s respective careers (which means it’s more dangerous to be married to Madonna instead of simply dating her). She is the purest, most extreme example of this phenomenon and should be viewed as a horrible warning to us all.

On the other hand, you can’t have a team that openly loathes each other, either. As Machiavelli once explained, hate is a stronger force than love and it comes through with a vengeance on the screen. We will call this the Moonlighting effect after the old TV series that made a star of Bruce Willis and a complete wreck out of executives at ABC. Willis and Cybill Shepherd were the romantic duo locked into a love/hate relationship that succeeded in showcasing the underlying sense of contempt the two stars felt for each other. So they did a great, hysterical job with the hate part. Too bad the show was supposed to be heading toward the other side of the coin and there was simply no way that the cast could convincingly follow.

So let’s say you’ve got a couple that works well on the screen (and who otherwise leave each other alone). Great! But do they have personality? This is the other elusive quality that’s impossible to quantify. Cary Grant was a master of the romantic comedy genre, but not because he could act (actually, he couldn’t). All he had to do was play Cary Grant (the one thing he could do). He was the master of a single, powerful, supremely smooth “personality.” He didn’t need anything else.

The “personality” factor is a tough one, and few current performers have it. That’s why many modern romantic comedies have to fall back on “sincerity.” Let’s call it the Scarlett Johansson approach. In Lost in Translation (sort of a romantic comedy, though less a romance and focused toward a mordant sense of observation), she woos the audience with her sense of sincere angst. She doesn’t display that much of a personality, but gee golly, she is sure sincere about it. It kind of works. It’s definitely more of a post-modernist twist to the genre, but it can work.

All of which means that romantic comedy is a viable but high-risk venture in which charm and whimsy will either steer you home or off a cliff. To be honest, you might be better off making a horror film. In that genre, the cookie cutter formula at least produces a reliable cookie.