FACE IT: This Is Not a Romantic-Comedy World

01/03/2011 08:05 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why can't anyone make a good romantic comedy anymore?

I sat in a theatre at summer's end and watched four straight trailers for films of that genre. They seemed practically indistinguishable: in fact, I would swear each began with the same tease: "Just when you thought..." I figured with those odds, at least one would turn out to be worthwhile.

First up to bat featured Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel. The gimmick was boy meets girl on bad date, boy hates girl, boy and girl get saddled with dead friends' baby, and boy and girl fall in love. Strike one.

Next came Rachel McAdams and Patrick Wilson against a backdrop of morning television, with Diane Keaton -- who may have been one of the last to do this genre well -- in a thankless supporting role. Strike two.

Then we had Jake Gyllenhal and Anne Hathaway, who at least offered one new twist: they weren't blonde! Plus, there was nudity aplenty and even a disease, both iffy ingredients in this tricky stew. Strike three.

Surely, writer-director James Brooks would come to the rescue and show Hollywood how it is done. With $100 million and four stellar stars to play with, how could he go wrong? Rather than counting the ways, let's just quote Sondheim and say that Jim has lost his timing this late in his career.

There were more attempts at romantic comedy during the past year -- Drew Barrymore and Justin Long here, Jennifer Aniston and anyone there -- with barely a laugh or modicum of magnetism.

It is possible that the last person who could really do romantic comedy well was Nora Ephron, but let's remember that Harry met Sally a long time ago. (Even in "Julie and Julia," it should be noted that the most endearing relationship was between Julia and her husband.) Besides having a biting wit herself, Ms. Ephron grew up with repartee-filled parents who made a good living writing romantic comedies. While genetics may have been involved, she clearly appreciated a different era when, frankly, there was time and patience for cinematic romance.

This is not a "they don't make them like they used to" plaint. Well, not entirely. We live in much cruder, faster times, and it is reflected in the constant but sorry attempts at these kinds of films. Filmmakers are trying to have it both ways: re-imagining a beloved genre with a wholly contemporary feel. The result is a mess of creative dissonance. The great romantic comedies were fast in language, yes, but slow in building relationships. The coveted demographic today hardly knows slow.

The New York Times recently reported that young people no longer want the "boringly long process" of signing into an e-mail account -- not when there is texting. I am not even sure they would know good romantic comic dialogue, because they don't ever hear people talk anymore. Words (or their abbreviated versions) aren't spoken; they are read. Speed dating is their courtship of choice. So why wouldn't they expect the same in the movies? When a man and woman gaze into each other's eyes the first time, or meet in a cute way (Anne and Jake on the doctor's table), the next scene is usually the two rolling around in bed. Long-term thinking has gone out the window, and apparently so has long-term seduction and commitment. It may make real sense, but it does not make for much reel pleasure.

It is also very possible that we just don't have the writers -- at least they are not being hired -- with the perspective, experience and sophistication to do romantic comedy. Nancy Meyers clearly has her ardent fans -- and god bless her for daring to deal with women at midlife -- but her characters tend to sound alike, and like her! For the younger generation, I fear Judd Apatow is the man: crude, crazed, chauvinistic, squirm-worthy leading men seeking instant gratification. (Neil LaBute is doing the same on the stage.) Try to get your teenaged son to sit through "The Thin Man," "Philadelphia Story," "Charade" or even "Pillow Talk."

It's not that we don't have the actors who can resuscitate the genre: Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney are both delightfully funny, though even they could not make conversation sound like wit. (Ditto George with Renee, Renee with Ewan and so on.) Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks can do it, but their sparring in "Charlie Wilson's War" was only a minor part of a different kind of story. The writer of that film, Aaron Sorkin, arguably wrote one of the most delightful love stories in modern times, "American President," but that was in 1995. His latest sort of sums up where we are: boy meets website.

Not too long ago, I watched two films on television that I had not seen previously: "Forsaking All Others" starred Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, and "Too Many Husbands" featured Jean Arthur, Fred McMurray and Melvyn Douglas. I found myself laughing from start to finish during both, and rooting for the romantic entanglements to work themselves out to my satisfaction. They reminded me that there is a huge difference between coarse humor and honest wit, between talking fast and actually saying something. Someone famously said, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." Apparently romantic comedy is even harder.