David Denby, the New Yorker’s film critic, has the usual elegiac and mildly pretentious essay on how the romantic comedy films have gone downhill from the elegance of It Happened One Night to Judd Apatow’s Knocked up, titled, “A Fine Romance: The new comedy of the sexes.”
It’s a pained old man putting an uncomfortable face on the youth culture type essay with Denby noting that what he terms the new romantic comedy celebrates slackers and disdains males who actually are grown up in favor of peter pan’s, slobs who sit around and scratch themselves before finally committing to a woman.
As fascinating and as funny as “Knocked Up” is, it represents what can only be called the disenchantment of romantic comedy, the end point of a progression from Fifth Avenue to the Valley, from tuxedos to tube socks, from a popped champagne cork to a baby crowning. There’s nothing in it that is comparable to the style of the classics—no magic in its settings, no reverberant sense of place, no shared or competitive work for the couple to do.
Ben does come through in the end, yet, if his promise and Alison’s beauty make them equal as a pair, one still wants more out of Alison than the filmmakers are willing to provide. She has a fine fit of hormonal rage, but, like the other heroines in the slacker-striver romances, she isn’t given an idea or a snappy remark or even a sharp perception. All the movies in this genre have been written and directed by men, and it’s as if the filmmakers were saying, “Yes, young men are children now, and women bring home the bacon, but men bring home the soul.”
Of course. Because comedy has gotten lazy. Very lazy. Comedy used to be hard work. And some stars like Jim Carrey really do work hard at it but the writers and the filmmakers increasingly don’t. There is no real ambition or thought put into it. You come up with a gimmick and then you see it through.
But what Denby really fails to see is the split within comedy itself by gender creating female oriented romantic comedy and male oriented slob and body humor comedy. It Happened One Night would no longer exist as it was, it would have to be oriented more strongly to a female audience by ultimately neutering the male and focusing on the female. The result is gender apartheid in comedy. Between the Adam Sandler and the Julia Roberts movies, the two extremes, both of which may regularly feature an element of romance but are miles apart.
Judd Apatow’s geek cred exists for a reason. He does not make movies for or about women. He makes them for men. For a certain type of men. You should no more expect to find a woman who can equal his main characters in humor and energy, than you should expect to find a man with a mind of his own in a Meg Ryan movie.
Gender Apartheid in comedy segregates the sexes, creating not films but pastries, feeding men heavy doses of slob comedy and feeding women, fantasies about working women ‘like them’ who find true love. Movies like When Harry Met Sally were as close as modern comedies get to gender parity and a romantic comedy with two sides to them. From then on the gap widens again.
So how can he not know that the key to making a great romantic comedy is to create heroines equal in wit to men? They don’t have to dress for dinner, but they should challenge the men intellectually and spiritually, rather than simply offering their bodies as a way of dragging the clods out of their adolescent stupor.
Because gender apartheid ensures that equality is kept out of the picture. Classic repartee challenges both partners. The whole point of segregated comedies are to coddle rather than challenge the audience. The irony of the barrier is that movies about finding relationships ultimately divide the sexes more than anything else. A man has no place in the audience of a Julia Roberts movie, anymore than a woman has in the audience of an Adam Sandler movie. Oh they come no doubt, some because of a date or to please their date and some because they genuinely like them, but those movies are not intended for them.