Romantic Comedy Critics Rant

Liz posted a link to Maureen Dowd’s op ed on romantic comedy and my head exploded. This kind of article makes me crazy (and thank you for posting the link, Liz, because it really is relevant). You’ve got two people who know absolutely zilch about romantic comedy slanging at actresses who are actually very good romantic comediennes (Aniston and Garner) because they’ve been in movies where the writing was bad. Why aren’t they smacking around THE WRITERS (and the directors and the actors who mess with scripts, as Toni McGee Causey suggests)? Because they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, they’re two people showing off at the water cooler.

This kind of stuff is cheap criticism because they don’t go on to do what criticism has to do to be valid: support their thesis by analyzing their subject, determining their definition of a good romantic comedy, actually DISCUSSING their damn topic. Instead they’re making fun of the stuff they don’t like, mourning the loss of the good old days when they had to walk five miles through the snow uphill both ways to see Bringing Up Baby and Annie Hall without explaining why those movies are good romantic comedies (uh, they’re not) and why the latest romantic comedies are so completely without redeeming value. The most modern movie they could come up with was An Unmarried Woman which, by the way, is also not a romantic comedy. So Moonstruck isn’t any good, When Harry Met Sally . . . isn’t any good, 10 Things I Hate About You. . .

It comes down to the mindset that I found often in grad school, a mindset Dowd should have matured out of by now, the idea that if she doesn’t like it, it’s no good, and nobody else should like it either, and she doesn’t have to explain why or make intelligent analysis (really, you’re blaming the actresses, Maureen? and you’re a writer?) because everybody thinks like she does. For Dowd and her pal, Snotty Guy, romantic comedy is like porn, they can’t explain it or define it, but they’ll know it when they see it. This is Mean Girls stuff, not insightful discussion. Maureen Dowd has had some stupid columns in her career, but this one is right up there with her moronic take on romantic comedy novels in which she quoted and agreed with a friend of hers that women should put down their romances and pick up The Red Badge of Courage because, uh, Dowd doesn’t like romantic comedy novels.

Bad criticism, bad writing, bad thinking. Jennifer Aniston could write a better op ed.

20 thoughts on “Romantic Comedy Critics Rant

  1. Okay, having just read her column, I have to shake my head in wonder.

    Writers do not have the power, in film, to get what they envision onto the screen. Not only is it not fair to pick on the actresses (though big named actresses like Garner and Anniston have script approval and scripts are routinely changed per the actress’ notes), it’s not fair to pick on the writers, since so many times, there are multiple writers, uncredited rewrites by many others, script doctors, and producers (and assistants) who are tinkering with the script.

    It’s a CYA mentality–and it takes an incredibly successful writer–usually a writer/director with a current hit–to muscle through a script intact. (Intact is a laughable word, in that industry.) It occasionally happens, but it’s usually in a smaller film, where there aren’t as many chefs overseeing the kitchen.

    Screenwriting is the only area where the Writers Guild ceded copyright to the studio who pays for the script. This allows them to fire the original writer and bring on any number of people to futz with the project. If a writer gets on board a star-driven project, there is a great chance that the film will get made, which means that the back-end production portion of the writers’ fee will get paid… which means that anyone who can grab credit on a film like that will have two things: a bigger paycheck and screen credit on a star’s film. In that business, that translates into many more jobs, because writers line up jobs based on their last project well before the current one comes out.

    Writers have no control over who else works on the script behind them. In THE FUGITIVE, for example, there were 19 writers. You don’t see that in the IMDb, because WGAw rules that only 3 (or 4 if it’s two teams of 2) can get actual credit.* For a writer to actually get credit–and that chance of a back-end payoff, they have to change the script they’re given by a significant amount. (I can’t remember the percentage as defined by the WGAw, but I believe it’s 51%. I’m sure someone will correct that if I’m wrong.)

    That means that Joe Schmoe, Writer, has every incentive to take a very well-written script that might need a little “something” and make wholesale changes. He has very little incentive to just do a little bit of futzing, because the studio execs won’t know what it is he did, and won’t think he’s all that useful the next time a script doctoring job comes along. And since so few movies actually get produced vs. what’s in production, an actual credit–even on a bad film–is better than no credit at all.

    It’s also not fair to compare current films to those made back before writers gave up copyright and when the writers were more respected in the film side of the industry. In the TV side, the shows are *run* by writer/producers. Writers move up the ladder–sometimes from lowly intern, to writer’s assistant, and so on, training in the rooms with other writers, and pitching their own projects once they have a little success. And while the studios can still screw up a show with studio mandates, the writers have much more clout there than they do in the film side.

    Dowd has no excuse for not doing her homework, and the so-called former film-studen just proved why he’s not in film–he clearly didn’t learn much about the business.

    Any sort of analytical discussion of why romantic comedies don’t work as well today (and yes, I agree, it would help if they actually named real romantic comedies), would have to discuss how films are made and how the globalization of the marketplace is changing decisions about story. Subtle humor has a more difficult time in translation world-wide. Slapstick translates faster, better, easier. The US box office only comprises about a total of 30% of total box office now (percentage recently announced on Deadline Hollywood, a great industry blog). With only 30% of the box office, US cultural sensibilities about story nuances aren’t as important to the studios who are financing these films.

    Actresses are a part of the problem, however. (Or, more specifically, their agent, who has packaged the deal.) Actresses who have $20 million on the line do not want to see a script from unknown Joe Schmoe, no matter how good it is. If you had to stake your next $20 million career move, wouldn’t you want a name brand writer? Someone who’d been on a hit already? So goes the mentality, and the desire for the studios to make the actresses (and their agents–who almost won’t even *look* at an unknown’s script unless there is a pay-or-play offer attached) happy. Actresses are consulted and frequently give notes.

    And none of this touches the fact that directors were later given–again, by the idiot WGAw–the right to have “a film by” credit at the beginning of the film. Which gave the director’s much more power over the film, and the ability to futz with the script.

    It’s not a simple blame problem. It’s not about story, anymore, in Hollywood. It’s about making widgets to fit an international desire to gobble widgets.

    *I can’t remember the exact number of maximum writers who get credit, but I believe that is correct.

  2. The bit at the end nearly did make make my head explode and i quote:

    ” With so many women running studios, you’d think they’d focus on making better rom-coms.” WTF?????

  3. I have read maybe three or four op-eds from the NYT in my life, and all of them contained more verbosity and pomp than they did valid points or logic. If Ms. Dowd and her sycophantic friend are going to “bless” us with their criticisms of a romantic comedy, they should at least have the decency to make sure they give the correct title – The Bounty Hunter. I guess a stick came with HER Pulitzer.

  4. Toni, I know you’re right and I put your points in the rant (with credit, of course), but the writer problem doesn’t excuse how bad many modern comedies are. It’s the reason for it, but it doesn’t excuse it. So I’m okay if they say, “A lot of todays romcoms are bad” because they’re right, but they have to do more than that, depending on what their thesis is. If they want to talk about the reason so many romcoms are so poorly done, they can talk about the studio system killing creativity as you’ve suggested, but that’s a critique of the system not the movies. If they want to critique the movies, they’re going to have to analyze story and say, “Okay, here’s where these romcoms run off track, regardless of the system, here’s why this story is bad, here’s why the romance is bad, here’s why it’s not funny.” They’re two different theses, both valuable.
    And of course, they didn’t do either one, they just sneered and felt superior.

  5. Well, at least she left the Navy Seals and Men in Kilts alone. Seriously, Ms. Dowd; I’ve read War and Peace, I understood it, I learned from it. And now I want to be entertained by women who just maybe think a little bit like me and can provide me with some perspective on life and relationships.

    Whatever. She’s just jealous because romance is out selling whatever it is she writes.

  6. I want to be able to rant like Jenny. She is all grown up about it whereas I just scream “asshat!” toward the offending article. Excellent critique. Dowd could learn something from it. You don’t just state your opinion and sneer.

  7. Oh yes, bad rom-com is the fault of all the Jennifers in the world. Well said, oh wise and pithy Sam Wasson. Pity you couldn’t blame your lack of relationship savvy and your inability to conduct your personal life in a non-combative manner on the lack of good rom-coms. Oh wait…

  8. I hate the supposed superiority of people like this. Guess what? I can enjoy the classics AND modern “chick lit”. I can enjoy old movies AND modern rom coms. Why do I have to choose? Why can’t smart women read books and watch movies that appeal to them?

  9. OK — I’m really even more irritated by the novel column. Notice, however, in both columns, the really, really irritating things are said by the males?

    “Penis lit versus Venus lit,” said my friend Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, who was with me. “An unacceptable choice.”

    Well, we can clearly see what preoccupies Leon.

  10. The one about the chick lit actually made me madder than the one about the movies. The thing about movies, a lot of people get confused and blame the actress for bad writing, bad directing, bad costuming, whatever. Because when you go to see a movie starring Jennifer Anniston, she’s the name you associate with the movie, and thus it’s HER movie, not just a movie she starred in. It’s silly and wrong, but there it is. the only time the writing should be blamed on the actress is if the actress wrote the screenplay. (I’ll take Toni’s point about actresses making notes on scripts, because I’m sure that’s true — but the fact is, the actress isn’t a writer, so even if she makes a stupid note, it’s not her fault if the writer incorporates it and it kills the movie. The writer should know better, and have the balls to explain why it won’t work. I say this as one who’s never had to tell Jennifer Anniston that her idea is stupid, of course. Nor have I ever had to decide whether to keep my story as is and walk away from a major motion picture, or change it and sell out.)

    But the one about the chick lit drives me even more nuts that the one about the movies. I get the feeling that Dowd treats chick lit the way toddlers treat vegetables — she refuses to consider reading it because of the color of the cover, insisting she doesn’t like pink books. And then when she does get talked into it, she hates it on principle because “I told you pink books were bad.”

    I get so mad when people get cranky about the fact that there are no more Jane Austens, because of COURSE there aren’t. Times have changed. We text now instead of sending love notes. We don’t have to pretend that we aren’t sexually attracted to someone just so society won’t think we’re depraved. If Jane Austen was writing now, you bet your ass she’d be writing books like Jenny and Lani/Lucy write. If there was email back in her day, do you think she’d have all those servants delivering notes all over town? No, she’d have the hero send the heroine an email and say, “Hey, I had fun at the party last night, wanna catch the new Jennifer Aniston movie?”

    Sorry for the rant. That Dowd woman burns me up.

  11. Jenny, I completely agree with you on the issues of what they failed to do in their snarky excuse for a column. (I started to add a second comment last night and then thought, whoa, shut up Causey, you’re writing a freaking thesis here.)

  12. Erin put into words exactly how I felt — when I stopped being too irritated enough to post an actualy coherent and well explained point. Instead I went for the phallic dig. Thank you.

    And, thank you Toni, becuase I thought your first post was informational as well. Go ahead and write another. Thesis-shmesis. 😀

  13. Mollie suggested that, since the world is full of people who are not educated Poppers and who might read the rant, I should recast it as an Argh post and I did. You all don’t have to read it because you’ve already heard everything I wrote, but the rest of the world is not you, Smart People, so I ‘splained in more detail there.

  14. A couple of years ago, I foamed at the mouth like a rabid dog at Ms. Dowd’s assertion that she had actually read the rom-com/chick lit novels she was trashing. Now this latest column is proof that she never got beyond scanning Sophie KInsella’s titles.

    Now, people who know my love of screwball keep asking me if I’ve read this piece. Excuse me while I wipe the rabid slobber from my lips.

  15. There is no explaining an elitist. Obviously, she can’t or won’t grasp that women can like multiple genres. I read The Great Gatsby. Yes, I got the symbolism, etc. I enjoyed it, but I enjoy other books as well. She was grasping at straws in that piece. Perhaps, I should give up reading op-ed pieces….there’s a genre that’s definitely over played.

  16. Personally, I’m annoyed that Dowd broke it down to (as her friend put it) “penis lit vs. Venus lit.” That is such a phony distinction. What about all the canonical female authors making frequent cameos on my college syllabi?

    Yes, she makes a nod to Jane Austen… but she never mentions Edith Wharton, George Eliot, or the Bronte sisters. And these are just the big names I can think of off the top of my head!

  17. And I agree with Alexis… very elitist.

    Romance novels are particularly apropos “when we’re at war and the country’s under threat.” In a romance, the hero and/or the heroine find a positive solution to their problems. They learn and grow. They are, in short, heroic… and very often honorable, too.

    When the real-world situation looks grim, those are the kind of book people with whom I’d like to spend my time.

  18. Well, she’s certainly no Dave Barry. Now, THERE was an ignorant writer who really knew how to turn a phrase, and make up facts to suit his thesis.

    But, she seems to be a great example of the melancholy theme running through both of her pieces: in these degenerate times, you just aren’t going to find genius like Dave Barry. (v. innocent face here.) Or Jane Austen or Thackeray or even the fine folks with a one-sided eye irritation who brought us Pillow Talk . . . .

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