|WHERE TO LOOK
The Internet doesn’t exactly offer a wealth of romantic comedy research, unless you think outside the box a little. “Beside my blog,” says Walsh, “I would really look in the news because it’s all there, from celebrity relationships to just weird and crazy relationships. There’s so much in our regular, cultural news that’s too good to even think up. There are lots of good stories if you just dig deep at CNN.com and NYTimes.com and all the Popeater stuff.”
But more importantly, Walsh suggests you step away from the keyboard if you’re really serious about research. “Look in your heart,” she explains. “Your most damaged core, your most tender spot is the place of your writing genius. So if you can look deep into yourself and find what hurts the most, flip it around, look at it from across the street and turn it into comedy. Your biggest heartbreak is probably something that will be a great romantic comedy.”
Written by Denis Faye
If you’ve ever looked to your television for relationship advice, odds are you’ve picked up a few tips from Dr. Wendy Walsh. She’s appeared as a guest expert on everything from The View to Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher to Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus. She’s also authored two books, The Boyfriend Test and The Girlfriend Test, and is currently working on a third, Hooking up for Life, whose title alone suggests how un-romantic modern romance has become.
“I was at a party and I heard two women in their 20s comment about another guy in the room,” Walsh explains. “They said, ‘That girl he’s with, is that a hook up or is that a date? And I’m thinking to myself, What’s the difference? But clearly, all it was was pause for a little social clarification, meaning this could have very well been a stand alone physical relationship with no emotional attachments.”
It seems that contemporary dating scenes like this are hardly the stuff of a Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers script, so what’s to become of the classic Hollywood romantic comedy? With this in mind, Walsh spoke to Technically Speaking about the state of rom-coms and why boy needs to do so much more than just meet girl, lose girl and get her back again if he wants to entertain modern audiences.
What do romantic comedies typically get right about relationships?
Across the human lifespan, human beings want to connect with other human beings. Human beings are in love with hope, and they hope that they will be seen and cared for in a romantic love relationship. That will never go out of style. Everyone wants to be loved. Their definition and their version of love has all kind of variations, but they all want to feel loved.
What do they get wrong?
They get one big thing wrong, and I don’t know how they’re going to change this. Maybe some really creative writer is going to figure it out. It’s the idea that love is about finding “the one,” that it’s all about that chance meeting that happens through that hook up in just the right way and if you could just find the right person, that love would just happen. That is so wrong in real life.
We know that love is everywhere. It’s a mouse click away. The first romantic comedy writer who figures out how to tell the story of learning to love with conflict and then coming back into love through repair will be the one who strikes the nerve with America right now.
So the notion of the lightning bolt of love is a bit silly?
It’s fantasy. It’s a wonderful fantasy, but what it really is in real life, when it happens in real life, is just sexual attraction. You and I know that. You meet someone and you’re physically attracted to them. Sexual attraction and love are two different things. Love is an intellectual decision, a choice. It’s two people who have chosen to be there for each other. It involves sexual attraction, it involves companionship, it involves all kinds of things, but finding “the one” is not going to be the recipe for a successful love relationship. That’s just the start.
But don’t people want to see that Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan love at first sight thing in movies?
In our culture right now, it doesn’t really happen. It’s now been completely downgraded to a hook up.
In the movies, the lightning bolt thing happens, but if all comedy is tragedy viewed from across the street, the real tragedy in today’s relationships is the lack of relationship tools that most people have. So they fail early. So the screenplay that needs to get written – and I know some intelligent writer is going to find a way to find comedy amidst tragedy – is about love lost, and love lost again and love lost again with the same person – and the funny road back. That will hit a chord with so many people. Marriage is becoming extinct and people are just shopping with so many partners hoping that they’ll find “the one.”
So in the same way people say violent movies are bad for kids, romantic comedies are doing adults a disservice?
We go to movies to be entertained, but if we’re also going to movies and believing the fantasy? Come on. Are we going to movies and saying, “I believe The Bridge to Terabithia is going to be right there in my backyard today,” or “I’m going to open a wardrobe and be in the land of Narnia”?
And yet, we go to romantic comedies and we’re thinking, “Ah, I could just meet him in that Starbucks, tomorrow.”
I read a quote from Nancy Meyers. I can’t quite remember it, but it goes something like, “The problem with writing romantic comedies for this young generation is that there are no taboos to break anymore.” There are no boundaries to break. No one’s going to write a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner [Written by William Rose]. There are no offbeat, quirky relationships with people we shouldn’t be having relationships with so that the comedy comes from our culture frowning on interracial, intergenerational, interblah, blah, blah.
There are no groundbreaking relationships to portray. What romantic comedies keep doing now is changing the set. They go to Ireland or, this summer, in The Proposal [Written by Pete Chiarelli], Sandra Bullock has to go to Alaska. We’re just taking romantic comedies out of L.A. or New York as a way to call them different. But they’re not any different. They’re all just boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again formula.
What are some of your favorites?
The Holiday [Written by Nancy Meyers], which also takes it out of L.A. or New York, where Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz do a home exchange. I thought that was really well done. Also, there’s Love Actually [Written by Richard Curtis]. I love the synchronicity of it. There are all these different stories, but when they come together at the end, there’s that “aha” moment for the viewer.
My favorite romantic comedy of all time is Woman of the Year [Written by Ring Lardner Jr. & Michael Kanin] with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. It’s so timely today. It’s pre-feminism. She’s a high-powered international journalist, a Christiane Amanpour. He’s a tough guy sportswriter. They work for the same newspaper. She’s the big star of the paper, but it’s about how he eventually turns her into a woman.
What, specifically, do you look for in a romantic comedy?
As a woman, I love the “all is lost moment.” A romantic comedy doesn’t work for me unless I also cry at some point, when they do a really deep all is lost moment and then bring me back up.
I really do believe that when we go see movies, a chemical reaction happens in our brain. We go for our drug. I don’t need the drug of action-adventure, violent movies, but with my physiology, I do need the drug of a few little tears and a few laughs and that feeling of romance and connection and caring. Things happen, nerve transmitters fire away when we’re in a movie theater, and we’re getting a dose of our drug. I’m sure you know that the romantic comedy genre is largely driven by middle-aged women.
I wanted to make a comment about what’s going on in romantic comedies ala Judd Apatow. He got smart and said, “I’m going to try to make these date movies more interesting for the guys,” so he started writing romantic comedies for men. He’s made them a little gross. He has bodily function humor. I don’t know that the statistics are, but I don’t think women enjoy that and I think it takes away from the romantic comedy experience. I saw Knocked Up [Written by Judd Apatow] and 40 Year Old Virgin [Written by Judd Apatow & Steve Carell] – those were the only two I could get through. It’s giving guys a sexual charge, but it’s not really about love. The love part is the subplot, the b-theme. I don’t know if it’s going to last, if it’s the new thing for romantic comedies, but I don’t think it’s so appealing to women. I would like to see the statistics on it. Maybe it’s going to say that young girls in their 20s are totally into it.
Maybe these are the boundaries you were talking about earlier.
You’re right. Maybe these are the new taboos.
What would you like to see in a romantic comedy just once?
I’d like to see a romantic comedy that’s not just about falling in love. I’d like to see one about the real work of love. Unfortunately, whenever Hollywood tries to portray the real work of love, it becomes a tragedy like War of the Roses [Screenplay by Michael Leeson] or even American Beauty [Written by Alan Ball] or it’s a thriller like Fatal Attraction [Screenplay by James Dearden].
But I think it can be done. Remember, all comedy is tragedy seen from across the street, so if someone can just skew a look at a relationship with its ups and downs or a relationship that gets through an affair. Actually, in Love Actually, they do that because Emma Thompson, her husband Alan Rickman has an affair with the young office chick, and she chooses to stay in the relationship, and they walk away holding hands, and you know they’re going to find a way to get through this.