Monkey See
9:48 am
Mon March 4, 2013

Are Romantic Comedies Dead?

Originally published on Wed March 6, 2013 6:45 am

The March issue of The Atlantic features an essay from Christopher Orr called "Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?"* In it, Orr asserts that romantic comedies have been "lackluster for decades." Decades. He goes on to acknowledge that "classics of the genre," in which category he includes Annie Hall (sure!), When Harry Met Sally (sure!), and Pretty Woman (...), have been sprinkled around, but says we're not getting the amazing films "reliably churned out by the likes of Tracy and Hepburn and Grant and the other Hepburn."

Orr cites A.O. Scott of The New York Times in throwing some of the blame on stars — especially actresses he doesn't like (including Katherine Heigl) for not being good enough and actors he likes (including George Clooney) for opting out of the genre altogether. But in the end, Orr chalks up the problem mostly to the idea that romantic comedies require an obstacle to love: class, geography, parents — something that artificially keeps the lovers apart until they can kiss at the end. And those obstacles, he says, are fading.

The piece is a little all over the place, but part of it is sound: it's certainly true that there aren't a lot of pure romantic comedies of the stereotypical obstacles-culminating-in-a-kiss variety that are either making a lot of money or earning a lot of critical praise.

Rewriting History

But it's important to keep in mind that the classics Orr misses so much, from Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, were rarely of that variety in the first place. Think about the movies that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn actually made together. In Adam's Rib, they're already married — that movie isn't about navigating a courtship; it's about navigating a marriage. In Desk Set, there's much more of what you would call companionate love (good conversation, mutual respect, that sort of thing) than swooning, exciting romance, and when there's a proposal of marriage at the end (made from one 50-ish actor to another), it's the culmination of a story about folks getting to know each other, not the culmination of a story about obstacles to heart-pounding romantic love that finally cleared.

Moreover, if you really examine these films, what you'll find is that ... story-wise, they're resoundingly silly. They are exercises in flawless scene-level execution, not storytelling — the stories, such as they are, are really just frames to hang great conversations on. When Tracy and Hepburn sequester themselves in the upstairs stacks of her research library and talk about the beautiful fashion model who once bored him to death talking about women's necklines getting higher, that's a breathtaking scene because of the chemistry and the dialogue.

But the scenes where the computer is smoking and spitting out pink cards while the tight-bun-wearing lady freaks out and runs out of the room? That stuff is ridiculous. It's frankly awful. It's just that it doesn't matter, because it's there to hang that library-stacks discussion on, and to hang the girl-talk scenes with Hepburn and Joan Blondell on. And if you reviewed Desk Set today, you would be absolutely obligated to mention how silly and broad a lot of that story is, and you'd be right. You'd also be missing the point.

In other words, many of the romantic comedies we revere have always had something in common with the ones we don't: something I used to call the "hum-through plot," meaning that you just hum really loudly and ignore how dopey it is until you get back to the great scenes where people are talking to each other. It was there in Desk Set. It's there in Bringing Up Baby. It's there in Roman Holiday, to name just one lark featuring the other Hepburn.

So you can't really be surprised that it's there in While You Were Sleeping. The history of the classic romantic comedy is littered with things we would be far less likely to forgive if they weren't classics, if they weren't tinged with iconography and nostalgia. That doesn't mean they're not great — they are great. They are absolutely, undeniably great. But greatness in romantic comedy has always been about what happens when the leads (and sometimes the supporting characters) interact with each other within that story. The Lady Eve is pretty dopey too, if you pay a lot of attention to the plot. It's when you pay attention to the scene where Barbara Stanwyck is playing with Henry Fonda's hair that you get why you're watching the movie.

Great or greatly loved?

Furthermore, there is a useful distinction between romantic comedies that are great and romantic comedies that are greatly loved. I think When Harry Met Sally is great; it's wonderfully crafted, and aside from its unenlightened take on whether men and women can be friends, it's got a lot of smart things to say about both friendship and romance. Pretty Woman, on the other hand, is greatly loved, and reasonably so, largely for Julia Roberts' sparkly performance. It's right that people love it, and rewatch it, and speak fondly of it.

But ... it's not a great movie. The idea of a prostitution meet-cute, the makeover montage, the cringe-y ending where Richard Gere looks like he wants to die ... look, I've seen this movie a lot of times, and I like a good Roxette song, but this is not a great movie. Before we get too hard on the films we're getting now, we've got to get real about how good the ones we were getting 20 (as well as 60) years ago actually were.

Despite the Julia Roberts Oscar nomination (remember that?), I actually consider Pretty Woman in the "greatly loved" group, which also includes The Cutting Edge (figure skater and hockey player!), While You Were Sleeping (being more a Bullockian than a Robertsian, if I'm picking a romantic comedy purely for an actress' performance, that's my pick, and I watch it a lot), and Two Weeks Notice, and a lot of other agreeable trifles. These are pleasing, adored pieces of candy, and that candy has always been (ironically) the meat and potatoes of romantic comedies for people who are actually fans of the genre as opposed to visitors who haven't really loved one since His Girl Friday.

The changes in obstacles are overstated

So if it's not the strong, compelling, airtight plots that have been selling romantic comedies for decades, Orr is probably overstating the importance of the external obstacles — parental disapproval and so forth — that are holding the lovers apart.

But frankly, I think he's wrong about there being fewer credible obstacles anyway. Anyone who believes that geography is less of an issue than it used to be in the age of the internet has not done very much meeting of people on the internet. Orr's hand-waving at the geography issues in Sleepless In Seattle is very strange — you can't be in love on Skype forever, so even if you assume a modern Annie and Sam would have just started e-mailing each other, the ultimate question still arises exactly the same way: she lives in Baltimore with a job and friends, and he lives in Seattle with a job and a son. As a matter of fact, the ending of the movie is profoundly unsatisfying on this level if you really think about it. Is one of them moving? Is she leaving her job? Is he uprooting his son? Are they going to just keep writing letters? What comes after Jimmy Durante?

But that, of course, indulges the notion — which is false — that the obstacles in Sleepless In Seattle are primarily geographical to begin with, and that the film is about overcoming logistical hassles. If it were, they'd have had to answer those questions about location, location, location. But because it wasn't, they didn't. The obstacles in that movie are grief, fear, and the difference between what looks good on paper and what feels good in reality. That's what the characters have overcome by the end. And the advent of Skype has not eliminated those things, nor has texting.

In fact, if you saw the 2010 romantic comedy Going The Distance, you saw a pretty smart look at obstacles that are thoroughly modern. In it, the couple meets while she's in town for an internship, and when it's time for her to go, they're at that awkward point where it's too soon for them to change their plans for each other but too late for them to easily part. So they decide to stay together from across the country, which is almost impossible, but which people who really like each other do anyway in situations where it seems like saying goodbye is worse. In a way, that is the blush of love at its finest: believing that leaving somebody behind is so out of the question at that moment that being involved in some kind of quasi-situation with someone who lives many states away from you will be better. If Going The Distance faltered, it did so by allowing too easy a way out of those obstacles when, in fact, they can indeed be insurmountable.

In fact, the very entire idea that both people in a couple are likely to have important, absorbing jobs (and sometimes kids) creates all kinds of perfectly viable, workable obstacles if what you're looking for is a bunch of obstacles for a couple to overcome. (Do not get me started on the idea that Say Anything is a romantic comedy about her father standing in the way of their love, because that is so reductive it kills me.)

Romantic Comedy As An Element, Not A Genre

One of the challenges of evaluating the state of "the romantic comedy" is that much of the best romantic comedy work in movies is done in ones that wouldn't classify themselves as romantic comedies at all, let alone "rom-coms." If you think nobody knows how to write dialogue between men and women that's almost breathtaking in both its simplicity and its crackle, watch the first scene between Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt in last year's Your Sister's Sister. That is not a conventional romantic comedy, at least between those two, and (to cite a familiar theme) there are some plot moments in the film that I could have lived without. But that is a stunning dialogue scene, from writer Lynn Shelton, that's absolutely worthy of anything you want to hold it up to for comparison. In fact, Duplass had quite the romantic-comedy-that-isn't-really-one kind of year in 2012, also appearing in Safety Not Guaranteed, which has romantic comedy in its DNA but also quite a lot of other stuff. The same is true of Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect; it's there, but it doesn't dominate.

Other people have mentioned Silver Linings Playbook, and frankly, the romantic elements of that story make me a little nervous owing to the "mental illness as a lovable quirk" problem that, if the film doesn't actually have it, the film is always threatening to have. But it's certainly the case that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence play some lovely scenes together, and again, that's kind of what it's all about.

How To Get Better Romantic Comedies

It seems to me that the most obvious way to get better romantic comedies is to stop stigmatizing them and putting the blame on the wrong people. If you believe that what was wrong with The Ugly Truth was Katherine Heigl, you didn't see it. That movie was cancerous and revolting from the outset, and you could have resurrected Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn and both of them, one standing on the other's shoulders, wrapped in a giant trenchcoat, and that movie would not have been any better. Ditto The Bounty Hunter and The Switch and most of the junk that Matthew McConaughey unaccountably wasted years of his life making.

What's most profoundly wrong is the terrible, mean-spirited scripts that are getting made, that are making people feel justified in using "rom-com" as an eye-rolling insult, and we've got to stop that first. Stop saying "chick flick" like it's "pile of rotten meat," and stop saying "chick lit" and "chick book" and "chick movie" and anything else that suggests that love stories are less than war stories, or that stories that end with kissing are inherently inferior to stories that end with people getting shot. Or, if you believe they are and you want to continue believing that they are, stop pretending you're open to romantic comedies getting better.

Good actors, writers and directors are not going to make it their goal to elevate this genre — the way some make it their goal to elevate action films and horror films — until we allow for the possibility, we don't make "chick flick" a dirty word, and we ensure that just like there are critics at most major outlets who are open to and interested in people who can make surprisingly great horror and action films, there are critics who are open to and interested in people who can make surprisingly great romantic comedies.

I also must admit to another fairly firm belief: that we're not going to enter another "golden age" until we address the epidemic of weirdly aggressive actress-hating that seems to befall anyone who trades on straight likability. Right now, you can get away with being a sort of cool-girl likable, like Emma Stone and Mila Kunis are, and like Jennifer Lawrence is. (This is no knock on any of them; they're all immensely likable, at least to me.) But the classic romantic comedy trades on audiences not having already decided that they hate the actress, so if we're going to devote full-time journalism beats to hating Anne Hathaway (and Jennifer Aniston and Lena Dunham and Katherine Heigl and Sandra Bullock and Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts and Kate Hudson), we're going to have trouble asking audiences to embrace the kind of low-cynicism energy that good romantic comedy requires. I mean, Katharine Hepburn had haters as it was, and that was the 1930s. If she — or even Audrey Hepburn — had existed in the age of the internet, do you really think they could have remained so loved? Or, in Katharine Hepburn's case, come back from the early sense that people didn't like her?

There is a story that circulates about Katharine Hepburn, interestingly enough, that says she gets knocked down by Cary Grant at the beginning of The Philadelphia Story in part because the audience had so fully turned on her that she had to be knocked on her behind before they'd embrace her again — a move that arguably worked pretty well, since Bringing Up Baby had flopped and The Philadelphia Story did great. It's hard not to think about Jennifer Lawrence tripping on her dress at the Oscars and wonder: is that the best thing that could have happened to her? Did falling down buy her another six months before people start more loudly saying they can't stand her and they can't put their finger on it quite but they just haaaaate her? (Don't get me wrong — some already do. But she hasn't started to have think pieces written about the exciting phenomenon of internet commenters who don't like her, like Hathaway has.)

Finally, we may have to get a little more flexible about how romantic comedies are delivered. The best ones often have other elements; elements of real sadness, like the terrific and underappreciated Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts vehicle Notting Hill, for instance, which touches on not artificial obstacles, but on the way people in difficult circumstances sometimes hurt each other's feelings and let each other down, not to mention supporting characters struggling with disability and fertility issues. The twin entries that Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks made with Nora Ephron, Sleepless In Seattle and You've Got Mail, are both at times profoundly sad, dealing with grief and loss and unwanted change.

The ones that take nothing seriously except dating, those are the How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days ones, and The Wedding Planner ones. And they rarely work, and they've rarely ever worked, because love in life is usually mixed up with all kinds of other nasty stuff, and anybody who can put everything else on hold to think about banter for an entire movie's worth of life experiences doesn't come off as very interesting. The facile slickness of the Gerard Butler man-child oeuvre is boring; About A Boy, on the other hand, is only about 20 percent romantic comedy, but when it is one, it's a much better one because the Hugh Grant man-child isn't just that way when it comes to dating. And some, like Julia Roberts' My Best Friend's Wedding, are at their best when they're showing the seams and the flaws in what's assumed to be true in every love story.

Making romantic comedies as good as the ones Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made is very hard. It's art. It's like all other art — nobody is making what Andy Warhol made, either. Nobody is making epics quite like Lawrence Of Arabia. There's no new Godfather. And you don't have to go as far back as Howard Hawks and Cary Grant to feel that loss — what Nora Ephron did in the '80s and '90s was very, very hard as well. Those balances are difficult, the execution is everything, and making people care about a story where everyone usually knows how it ends isn't easy.

Obstacles, you see, are everywhere.

*Because we apparently remain in a cultural 2009 where everything that anyone doesn't like is Katherine Heigl's fault, the subhed is "The long decline from Katharine Hepburn to Katherine Heigl." If the same piece came out in six months, it probably would have said "The long decline from Audrey Hepburn to Anne Hathaway."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At this year's Academy Awards, Jennifer Lawrence took home the Best Actress statue for her role in "Silver Linings Playbook." It's a romantic comedy with Bradley Cooper, about two people struggling with mental illness and trying to find a connection.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK")

BRADLEY COOPER: (As Pat) You ever take Klonopin?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) Klonopin, yeah. (LAUGHTER)

COOPER: (As Pat) Right?

LAWRENCE: (As Pat) Jesus.

COOPER: (As Pat) It's like - what?

LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) Yeah.

COOPER: (As Pat) What day is it? How about Trazodone?

LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) Trazodone?

COOPER: (As Pat) It flattens you out. I mean, you are done. It takes the light right out of your eye.

SHAPIRO: Most romantic comedies do not pull critics' heartstrings the way "Silver Linings Playbook" did, and a lot of film critics are asking why. How did we go from swooning over Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant to nursing a toothache over today's cotton candy schlock? Our own Linda Holmes recently explored this question on the NPR blog Monkey See. She'll join us in a moment.

But first, we want to hear from you. Tell us about a romcom that you think rises above the fray, and explain what makes it stand out. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Linda Holmes joins us now. She writes the Monkey See blog, on entertainment and pop culture, at npr.org, and she's with us in Studio 3A. Welcome, Linda.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Were the halcyon golden days of romantic comedy actually halcyon golden days or are we just revising history here?

HOLMES: I think it's a combination of the two which is sort of a weasely answer. But you know, there's no question that when you look back at a movie like "His Girl Friday" or you look at the old Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn movies, you can always look at this and say, nobody makes movies like that anymore, which is true. Nobody makes epics like "Lawrence of Arabia" right now. Nobody makes Hitchcock movies anymore. It's hard to make great movies. So in that way, it's probably a little bit overblown. But I do think we've had a run of ones that are spectacularly unimaginative and some very weak work that the genre is kind of earned the fatigue that people have with it, particularly, in its purer forms where it's really just the people fight and fight and fight and then they kiss.

SHAPIRO: Is that because even those terrible romantic comedies can still make money?

HOLMES: I think that part of it, although, really, aside from maybe "The Proposal" with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, that movie made a lot of money. Laugh if you will, and you should. But aside from that, you don't see a lot of big hits in the last few years either. It's also been a pretty dry time, moneywise. So I don't think they have any answer.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I have this theory that romantic comedy is the female equivalent of horror, where producers know they can just throw something really sloppy and terrible on screen and they will get a demographic to go see that movie, even if it's sloppy and terrible. So there's no incentive for them to make a really fantastic romantic comedy. It's just - there's really no incentive to make a really fantastic horror movie.

HOLMES: I think that's true. I think the difference is I think people who study box office would often tell you that men are better at getting women to go to horror movies than women are getting men to go romantic comedies. I don't know if that's true, but I think that certainly something that many of us believe might be true.

But I think your general point is sound, and what's interesting is with horror movies, you still see people - it's true with action movies as well, something like even - something like "Die Hard,"- there are people who are working hard to elevate that genre. And so I think it's important for people to be open minded to people elevating that romantic comedy genre and not treating it like it's automatically not worth anything.

SHAPIRO: Let's take a caller from a man, I must say. This is Bryan in Lewes, Delaware, calling. Hi, Bryan. Go ahead.

BRYAN. CALLER: Hey, how are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. Thanks.

CALLER: I'm always in partial to "Love Actually." I'm curious what she thinks about that.

SHAPIRO: OK. So I have to tell you, before the show, we had a conversation about "Love Actually," and couldn't agree on whether it was a romantic comedy.

HOLMES: I think a lot of movies are like that, where they're not always pure romantic comedy. Certain stories in "Love Actually", the story with Emma Thompson and the story with Liam Neeson; these are not romantic comedy stories. These are sad stories, in some cases. But the story with Hugh Grant is pure romantic comedy. I like "Love Actually." I like parts of it better than other parts. A lot of people have pointed out there's an awful lot of stories about men and women who work for them, but I like it.

SHAPIRO: And there's something uncommon between "Love Actually" and "Silver Linings Playbook," another highly acclaimed romantic comedy that had some very dark themes in it.

HOLMES: Most of the really good romantic comedies have something else going on. So does "Sleepless in Seattle," so does "Notting Hill," which is the one that I really like, which has Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in it. Most of the good ones have something else going on besides falling in love.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, let's hear a little bit of one of those. This is "Sleepless in Seattle," where Sam, who's played by Tom Hanks, meets Annie, played by Meg Ryan, at the urging of his young son, Jonah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE")

TOM HANKS: (As Sam) Generally speaking, I think we should rule out anyone who doesn't live near here.

ROSS MALINGER: (As Jonah) She's willing to fly anywhere.

HANKS: (As Sam) Well, she looks like my third grade teacher, and I hated my third grade teacher. Wait a minute, she is my third grade teacher.

SHAPIRO: Have to say, you mouthed that line along with it, Linda. This is based on an earlier film, "An Affair to Remember." How do you compare them? And how do they reflect the eras that they were made in?

HOLMES: Well, "Sleepless in Seattle" is less a remake of "An Affair to Remember" than it constantly references "An Affair to Remember." "An Affair to Remember" is sort of their favorite movie. And so, you know, I think, I think - I don't think of "An Affair to Remember" as a romantic comedy. I think of it as kind of a swoony romance. By the time you got to "Sleepless in Seattle," "Sleepless in Seattle" is very self-conscious about being a romantic comedy.

In fact, at one point Rosie O'Donnell says to Meg Ryan, you don't want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie. So it's very conscious of being steeped in those romantic comedy cliches by then.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's go to another caller. This is Tom in Waynesboro, Virginia. Hi, Tom. Go ahead.

TOM: Hello. I - for my wife and I, it's "Goodbye Girl," Marsha Mason, Richard Dreyfuss. The chemistry between the two, I thought, was just fabulous. And the other thing, as I was a double major at the time and I was doing Shakespeare at the time in college, so "Richard III" as a gay man was kind of interesting too.

SHAPIRO: Hilarious.

TOM: But the play between the two: fantastic.

SHAPIRO: The play between the two: fantastic. And, Linda Holmes, one of the things you write about in your column about romantic comedies is that many of the movies we even think of as fantastic romantic comedies are awful plots with just fantastic performances.

HOLMES: I think most of them are like that. If you're absolutely completely honest, I think most of them are like that. In fact "The Goodbye Girl," which is a movie I adore, great pick. It has probably a more plausible plot than a lot of other ones do.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to another caller. This is Dove(ph) in Rochester, New York. Hi, Dove. Go ahead.

DOVE: Hi. So I was just calling to talk about "When Harry Met Sally." I think it's probably the best romantic comedy ever.

SHAPIRO: OK. Let me interrupt you before you go ahead because we've got a bit of it queued up. Let's listen to it and then come back to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY")

BILLY CRYSTAL: (as Harry Burns) And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.

SHAPIRO: Such a great scene with Billy Crystal there. Dove, go ahead. Tell us what you think makes this movie so good.

DOVE: Yeah. Well, that scene, in and of itself, always makes me tear up a little. It's just still amazing to hear that interaction. The fact that they were friends for so long - and the whole movie is built on this we're friends again, we're not, and that they didn't - the back and forth, I think it's peppered with this really interesting - you see all these other couples who've been married for years, they are hearing their love stories, and I think the other love stories that are going on, the two best friends that they try to set each other up with them and, you know, they just can't stand each other and then they end up together as well. And, of course, the restaurant scene is hilarious.

SHAPIRO: Right.

DOVE: I think the energy they have is just amazing. It's just so hilarious. And yeah, it's so wonderful to watch.

SHAPIRO: Linda Holmes, there are obviously fantastic performances in that movie with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. But I feel like it also succeeds because it's trying to say something about life in this moment, or the moment when the movie was made, anyway, that everybody kind of just wrestling with.

HOLMES: Right. I think that's right. And, you know, most romantic comedies over time that are strongly remembered have something going on that's fairly overt about relationships between men and women. If you look back at - if you look back at those Tracy-Hepburn movies, "Adam's Rib" and movies like that, they're very overtly about gender politics, and "When Harry Met Sally" is very overtly about this sort of can men and women be friends, when are you not friends, what happens if you're friends and then you're, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: So I mean, it's very overtly wrestling with those things.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's go to another caller. This is Stephanie in San Francisco. Hi, Stephanie. Go ahead.

STEPHANIE: Hi. Yes, I was just wondering how you also feel about French romantic comedies. So some of my favorite movies are like "Love Me If You Dare," "Shall We Kiss?" and "Romantics Anonymous," and they really deal with like the relationship between men and women and how different we are but yet the commonality. And they don't always have, like, the stereotypical Hollywood endings that are concise and like and they lived happily ever after. So I...

SHAPIRO: Right. That's the thing that strikes me about French romantic comedies is that they may be a little less predictable than American.

STEPHANIE: Yes. And the characters tend to be a little quirkier.

SHAPIRO: What do you think, Linda?

HOLMES: I have to admit to a little bit of a blind spot. Obviously this is somebody who knows a lot more about this than I do.

SHAPIRO: What, you don't know French romantic comedy? Leave the...

HOLMES: I freely admit it's a - it is a weak point. But generally, my experience of - I think of European romantic films, is that - is sort of like that, that they are a little less predictable and formulaic perhaps.

SHAPIRO: Do you have a favorite old or new romantic comedy that you think really rises above, Linda?

HOLMES: Do I have a favorite? It's really funny because you would think that I would know off the top of my head what it is, and it tends to be whichever one I saw most recently. But if I go by the one I have seen the most times, it is "While You Were Sleeping." If I talk about the one that I have seen the most times, or possibly "The Sure Thing," with John Cusack, which is also really, really wonderful.

SHAPIRO: John Cusack really made a niche out of romantic comedies for a little while.

HOLMES: For a while.

SHAPIRO: We have an email from James, who writes: What's missing? Surprise, witty dialogue. The current rom-coms are full of snark. Snark is not wit. And Linda Holmes, snark certainly seems to be a relatively recent development in comedy.

HOLMES: I agree. I mean I think there's always been banter and back and forth. But, you know, for me one of the things that happened is that when a battle of equals, when a meeting of equals ceased to be a high concept, then people tried to goose it with more conflict and more tension, which came from people being nasty to each other.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's take another call from Chad in Houston, Texas. Hi, Chad. Go ahead.

CHAD: Hi there. I would say "500 Days of Summer" comes to mind...

SHAPIRO: That's a great movie.

CHAD: ...simply because the screenplay itself is so unique, from the split screen of reality and, you know, his fantasy, attending a dinner at, you know, Summer's place to when they - the two main characters actually don't end up together, which is, you know...

SHAPIRO: And just to remind viewers, Linda, describe how differently this story is structured than your typical romantic comedy.

HOLMES: "500 Days of Summer" is as filmmaking and storytelling much more inventive than a lot of what you would think of as a romantic comedy. It involves a guy who meets a girl, and she's very explicitly a fantasy figure, and he goes through this romance with her. And then - but then it does not work out. You sort of know from the beginning that it doesn't work out.

SHAPIRO: Because it's doesn't go in chronological order. You get day one halfway through the film, day 200, day 75 and so on and so forth.

HOLMES: Right.

SHAPIRO: Again, sort of like bucking the pressure to do something cheap in order to do something interesting, although - also again, since they don't end up together, maybe we have to question whether this form of romantic comedy really applies.

HOLMES: Yeah. And then there are other romantic comedies where they don't end up together. "My Best Friend's Wedding" is a terrific movie that is good because they don't end up together.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk to Danny in Fort Collins, Colorado. Hi, Danny. Go ahead.

DANNY: Hey. How it's going?

SHAPIRO: Fine. What's your favorite?

DANNY: I was thinking about "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," just because...

SHAPIRO: Linda's swooning in the studio right now.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Go ahead.

DANNY: What's that?

SHAPIRO: Linda is swooning in the studio. Please continue.

(LAUGHTER)

DANNY: I just thought it was like a fresh take on a romantic comedy because it's science fiction and it's kind of darker a little bit. So when they finally do come together at the end it's like so much - it makes me happy, I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: You know, Linda, none of the movies that people are talking about are starring Jennifer Lopez or Katherine Heigl or any of the romantic comedies that people associate with the genre. Maybe that reflects TALK OF THE NATION's listenership, I don't know.

HOLMES: Well, yeah, I mean part of this is definitional, I think. There comes a point where what you think of as a rom-com is these trashy kind of not very well thought movies, so he look at it that way, then they're all bad. But obviously there are wonderful romantic and funny movies. "Eternal Sunshine" is a wonderful - I don't know if I would call it a romantic comedy, but, oh, what a fantastic movie.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about romantic comedies. Why so many of them are so bad and a few rise above the pack. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Matt in Anchorage, Alaska. Hi, Matt. You're on the air.

MATT: Hey. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Fine. Thanks. What's your favorite?

MATT: Well, I - old one is "Hobson's Choice." I call that one, but I thought you're talking more recently and I go with "Hope Springs" with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. Not 20-somethings falling for each other for the first time.

(LAUGHTER)

MATT: Twenty-somethings? No, no, they're quite older than that.

SHAPIRO: That's what I mean. Yeah, really different from the norm.

MATT: Oh, yeah. And I was telling the lady on the phone earlier, I thought that worked because you always see men allowing themselves to be older but you don't see a lot of the actresses. And Meryl Streep does a fine job in letting herself be her age, and I think it appealed to a much different crowd. And I'm not sure if it even made any money because of that, but...

SHAPIRO: Well, thanks for the call, Matt. And Linda, this reminds me of something that I think when I watched old movies, which is that I feel like today we have actresses who are known for their acting ability who tend not to be sex objects, and then we have actresses who are sex objects who tend not to be known for their acting ability.

And I watch, you know, movies with the young Elizabeth Taylor or the young Audrey Hepburn like, you know, here is a moment of Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," the famed jewelry store in New York City. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S")

GEORGE PEPPARD: (As Paul Varjak) Well, we could have this engraved, couldn't we? I think it would be very smart.

JOHN MCGIVER: (As Tiffany's salesman) This, I take it, was not purchased at Tiffany's?

PEPPARD: (As Paul Varjak) No. Actually it was purchased concurrent with, well, actually, came inside of, well, a box of Cracker Jack.

SHAPIRO: OK. So we didn't actually hear Audrey Hepburn herself in that cut. But I see the young Audrey Hepburn, the young Elizabeth Taylor, and I think these women were objects of affection and also incredible actresses. And today the two seem to be divided.

HOLMES: I don't know if they actually are as much as it's that we perceive that they are. I think we are in a very, very difficult environment for actresses right now. And I think there are actresses who are able to remain very, very serious and very, very focused and be respected and remain respected. But once you become kind of popular or people think you're trying to be popular - if you look at what's happened with Anne Hathaway. Anne Hathaway is wonderful in, for example, the movie "Rachel Getting Married." But she has undergone this really bizarre outbreak of, oh, I just hate her, I just hate her. And it becomes - it's really difficult, I think, for actresses to navigate this landscape of you can be really talented and still somehow wind up people are writing mostly about your personality and whether they like you or not.

SHAPIRO: You write that one of the best things ever to happen to Jennifer Lawrence may have been her falling down at the Oscars just because it humanized her.

HOLMES: Yeah. I think that's absolutely true, I think it's absolutely true.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's take another call. This is Kim in Wichita, Kansas. Hi, Kim. Go ahead.

KIM: Hi. I don't know if this is considered a romantic comedy or one of the best movies ever made, but there is something about the movie "The Mexican" with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts and the chemistry that they have together. And they're just kind of getting through their life without any kind of direction and she has a couple lines in there that just always have resonated with me, like when she tells Jerry that he's Forrest Gumping his way through life.

(LAUGHTER)

KIM: I said that to my husband frequently, but...

SHAPIRO: You know, I think America maybe has had several consecutive America's sweethearts, whether it was Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts. And when you talk about Julia Roberts, you have to think of this film, the iconic "Pretty Woman," where she played opposite Richard Gere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PRETTY WOMAN")

RICHARD GERE: (As Edward Lewis) What do you do?

JULIA ROBERTS: (As Vivian Ward) Everything. But I don't kiss on the mouth.

GERE: (As Edward Lewis) Neither do I.

SHAPIRO: Linda, this is probably one of the icons of romantic comedy, and Julia Roberts was even nominated for an Oscar for it.

HOLMES: She sure was, she sure was. The interesting thing about Julia Roberts, you know, she has gone through several phases of being popular and less popular, and she comes back and goes away for a while. But this is probably one of the most, you know, widely talked about and respected actress debuts or big debuts ever.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Linda Holmes, who writes the Monkey See blog for npr.org., and she joined us here on Studio 3A. Linda, thanks for being with us.

HOLMES: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, a look at the lives of 911 dispatchers. How they're trained, what they're allowed to say and the stresses they endure. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.