observations and opinion
Following the long hiatus of the RomCom (quiet from the early 1960s) the late 1980s saw a re-birth of the art form, a return to glory which crested at the turn of the century and then petered out. Two artists were the most significant contributors to the genre: Meg Ryan and Richard Curtis.
Meg Ryan created and epitomized the female lead of the modern American romcom: smart, sweet, slightly neurotic and wistfully sad; Ryan perfected the art of looking confused – a necessary element in these stories. It all began, of course, with When Harry Met Sally, the film which in 1989 stamped out the template for the genre:
I invite you to scrutinize any of the modern American (or British, for that matter) romcoms for evidence of this template. The Meg Ryan Canon of course is a perfect example of it. It began with When Harry Met Sally (journalist, politico, Bruno Kirby & Carrie Fischer) and next sleep-walked through the tepid pseudo-magical Prelude to a Kiss. In 1993 came the monumentally important Sleepless in Seattle (beginning the Tom Hanks connection, which she continued with the odd Joe versus the Volcano, barely a romcom). Then in 1995 she joined Kevin Kline in French Kiss (an outlier but in my view, the best film in the oeuvre). Ryan concluded her swing through this territory back where it all began – at the Shop Around the Corner, which in You’ve Got Mail is the name of her charming, hopeless book shop competing gamely with Tom Hanks’ mega-store, Fox Books.
You’ve Got Mail was not a well-liked film when launched. It’s long, meandering and a little full of itself. But it is intensely emotional, maybe more so than the other films, and it has the distinction of being something it was not meant to be: the end of an era. You’ve Got Mail is fin-de-siècle Twentieth Century New York – pre 9/11, pre-war, pre-recession, pre-financial crisis rich-as-hell Manhattan. The NYC described in Adam Gopnik’s book of essays “The Children’s Gate”. The clean safe, crime-free, affluent, comfortable, Giulianized NYC.
Ironically the film, being an exemplar of all those modern Manhattan traits, takes a weak stab at protesting them. Turning her shop’s failure into a lefty-liberal cause, Ryan rails at Hanks’ arrogant, impersonal, globalized world:
But I wouldn’t expect you to understand anybody like that. You, with your theme park, multilevel, homogenize-the-world mochaccino land. You’ve deluded yourself into thinking you’re some sort of benefactor bringing books to the masses. But no one will ever remember you, Joe Fox. And maybe no one will remember me, either. But plenty of people remember my mother. And they think she was fine. And they think her store was something special. You are nothing but a suit.
An enduring element of this scene, and a testament to Ryan’s artistry, is that when the words leave her lips you see, in a shadow underneath her face, a recognition that she herself has just been cruel. It shocks her and arguably, it is here when the movie matures from frothy comedy to something slightly deeper. Because they’re living in mochaccino land, and they know it, and suddenly time is running out to pretend they’re not grownups.
Watching Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan float about the West Side in the last half hour of the movie, You’ve Got Mail reminds me of the Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jette” – the pointillist depiction of a warm, magic, not-slightly-real Parisian world which existed (maybe) before the First World War. Denial is in the air. It is impossible not to witness Nora Ephron’s beautifully-crafted Manhattan street scenes without a feeling of loss, a nostalgia for a time when everything seemed possible. Even true love.
The New York moment can be seen in non-Meg Ryan romcoms: Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney’s rather creaky take on the genre One Fine Day (1996) coughed up a great soundtrack but already showed signs of how these movies could be over-cooked; Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson pulled down Oscars for theirs (As Good as it Gets, 1997). Serendipity – stamped with exactitude out of the template – played out mainly in Manhattan (Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack, with perfect sidekicks Molly Shannon and Jeremy Piven). Having been filmed in 2000 , Serendipity required digital re-touching to remove the painful site of the Twin Towers in all their pre 9/11 glory. No digital re-touching was capable of speeding the thing up, though. And if we can take the Manhattan ethos and transplant it slightly westward, one of the best of the breed is set in a super-rich, super-clean, super-safe Chicago: My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997).
Contrary to what you may think, I haven’t seen every American romcom (I refuse to watch some of them) but it would be fair to say that, with some experience observing film and history behind us, we can chart the genre from first buds, to full bloom, to petals dropping on the floor. When Harry met Sally deserves special recognition, both for spawning the “golden age” of these films and for its many charming moments (the wagon wheel coffee table, or “I’ll have what she’s having”). Sleepless in Seattle might be the perfect distillation of the modern romcom – the perfect couple (Ryan and Hanks), the perfect scenery (the Empire State Building, as seen from the doomed World Trade Centre) and the perfect music (Louis Armstrong’s Kiss to Build a Dream On, especially). Ryan and Hanks gave the genre a decent burial, I think, with that last kiss in You’ve Got Mail – the sweet voice of dead Harry Nilsson, pouring out “Over the Rainbow” as the camera pushed up into the blue sky above Manhattan.
Just as these big U.S. cities revelled in the splendor of 1990s gentrification and unlimited mortgage borrowing, so too did London. And it was there that the other key figure in romcom-hood, Richard Curtis, set his stories.
Curtis of course is not an actor, but a writer-director-producer. He has wit but more important, an unerring ability to dish out flip, charming dialogue for flip, charming actors to dish out to an audience which thinks it is flip and charming. We all know the key Curtis films, with their English (not British) sensibility adding a dose of tartness to the sweet American cocktail:
These films of course are also the “Hugh Grant Canon”, a list of romcoms which without Richard Curtis could be ghastly (Two Weeks Notice with Sandra Bullock, Music and Lyrics with Drew Barrymore) but included one absolute gem: About a Boy (with Rachel Weisz).
In all of that, the UK variation on the modern romcom will always come down to three films: Four Weddings, Notting Hill and Love, Actually. The first is the tightest, most creative and sweet-natured of the trilogy, containing some eternal film moments:
Just as the American romcoms depicted the last days of the American empire, the Richard Curtis films were the embodiment of Tony Blair’s pre July 7th “Cool Britannia”: a modern but slightly unkempt Englishness (bathed in money, of course – nobody lives in RomCom London without one of those magic, invisible, well-paying movie jobs): Ferris wheels, internet cafes, stainless steel kitchens and multi-racial couples in skinny jeans. Princess Diana’s divorce, and then her death – happened during all this, starting the modern practice of wildly over-the-top public funerals.
Whether in England, America or any part of the easy mortgage-inflated West, life was simpler in that RomCom Era: prettier, easier, seemingly richer, probably stupider. You can’t watch Hanks ask for Ryan’s forgiveness outside that You’ve Got Mail brownstone (“oh how I wish you would”) without wishing you had his courage, and her apartment. You can’t help but wish that you didn’t know what Tom Hanks didn’t know that day, about what was coming to Manhattan. Similarly, the sweeping scenes of a London Christmas in Love, Actually are among the most sumptuous, glittering images of a lost age. A time of a curious innocence, mixed with arrogance and maybe wilful blindness. As I say, “denial was in the air.”
Fifteen years on, the 1990s looks like yesterday but feels like a thousand years ago, all at once. Gone in a ball a flame. I guess we’re all too grown up for romantic comedies nowadays.
For now, anyway.