Knocked Up - the final resting place of the romantic comedy

This New Yorker essay has some interesting thoughts about where romantic comedies are going.

His beard is haphazard and unintentional, and he dresses in sweats, or in shorts and a T-shirt, or with his shirt hanging out like the tongue of a Labrador retriever. He’s about thirty, though he may be younger, and he spends a lot of time with friends who are like him, only more so—sweet-natured young men of foul mouth, odd hair, and wanker-mag reading habits. When he’s with them, punched beer cans and bongs of various sizes lie around like spent shells; alone, and walrus-heavy on his couch, he watches football, basketball, or baseball on television, or spends time memorializing his youth—archiving old movies, games, and jokes. Like his ancestors in the sixties, he’s anti-corporate, but he’s not bohemian (his culture is pop). He’s more like a sullen back-of-the-classroom guy, who breaks into brilliant tirades only when he feels like it. He may run a used-record store, or conduct sightseeing tours with a non-stop line of patter, or feed animals who then high-five him with their flippers, or teach in a school where he can be friends with all the kids, or design an Internet site that no one needs. Whatever he does, he hardly breaks a sweat, and sometimes he does nothing at all. He may not have a girlfriend, but he certainly likes girls—he’s even, in some cases, a hetero blade, scoring with tourists or love-hungry single mothers. But if he does have a girlfriend she works hard. Usually, she’s the same age as he is but seems older, as if the disparity between boys and girls in ninth grade had been recapitulated fifteen years later. She dresses in Donna Karan or Ralph Lauren or the like; she’s a corporate executive, or a lawyer, or works in TV, public relations, or an art gallery. She’s good-tempered, honest, great-looking, and serious. She wants to “get to the next stage of life”—settle down, marry, maybe have children. Apart from getting on with it, however, she doesn’t have an idea in her head, and she’s not the one who makes the jokes.

When she breaks up with him, he talks his situation over with his hopeless pals, who give him bits of misogynist advice. Suddenly, it’s the end of youth for him. It’s a crisis for her, too, and they can get back together only if both undertake some drastic alteration: he must act responsibly (get a job, take care of a kid), and she has to do something crazy (run across a baseball field during a game, tell a joke). He has to shape up, and she has to loosen up.

There they are, the young man and young woman of the dominant romantic-comedy trend of the past several years—the slovenly hipster and the female straight arrow. The movies form a genre of sorts: the slacker-striver romance. Stephen Frears’s “High Fidelity” (2000), which transferred Nick Hornby’s novel from London to Chicago, may not have been the first, but it set the tone and established the self-dramatizing underachiever as hero. Hornby’s guy-centered material also inspired “About a Boy” and “Fever Pitch.” Others in this group include “Old School,” “Big Daddy,” “50 First Dates,” “Shallow Hal,” “School of Rock,” “Failure to Launch,” “You, Me and Dupree,” “Wedding Crashers,” “The Break-Up,” and—this summer’s hit—“Knocked Up.” In these movies, the men are played by Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Adam Sandler, John Cusack, Jimmy Fallon, Matthew McConaughey, Jack Black, Hugh Grant, and Seth Rogen; the women by Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Katherine Heigl. For almost a decade, Hollywood has pulled jokes and romance out of the struggle between male infantilism and female ambition.

The best directors of romantic comedy in the nineteen-thirties and forties—Frank Capra, Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey, Howard Hawks, Mitchell Leisen, and Preston Sturges—knew that the story would be not only funnier but much more romantic if the fight was waged between equals. The man and woman may not enjoy parity of social standing or money, but they are equals in spirit, will, and body. As everyone agrees, this kind of romantic comedy—and particularly the variant called “screwball comedy”—lifted off in February, 1934, with Frank Capra’s charming “It Happened One Night,” in which a hard-drinking reporter out of a job (Clark Gable) and an heiress who has jumped off her father’s yacht (Claudette Colbert) meet on the road somewhere between Florida and New York. Tough and self-sufficient, Gable contemptuously looks after the spoiled rich girl. He’s rude and overbearing, and she’s miffed, but it helps their acquaintance a little that they are both supremely attractive—Gable quick-moving but large and, in his famous undressing scene, meaty, and Colbert tiny, with a slightly pointed chin, round eyes, and round breasts beneath the fitted striped jacket she buys on the road. When she develops pride, they become equals.

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.”

I guess how the genre ended up this way is a separate question. Don’t know there.

They don’t make 'em like Bringing Up Baby anymore, that’s for sure.

They make romantic comedies like this now because the guys who are writing them in Hollywood at the moment are basically all Seth Rogans, Seth Greens, Seth MacFarlanes and Judd Apatows, with the occasional Steve Carrel thrown in.

These are their stories. Which is nice for me, because they’re very familiar. I, too, am one of these guys. Only I don’t write screenplays…

You should read Rejuvenile.

Awesome article. As someone who absolutely loathed – yes, loathed – Knocked Up, I find Denby’s comments spot on. Here’s the crux of the matter for me:

It’s a whole different kind of objectification. Women reduced not to whores, but to mothers.


School of Rock was a romantic comedy?

If you’re looking for a romantic comedy, then I suppose the insights, and spotting of trends, in the quoted article offer some merit. But really, who the hell cares about the romance aspect of these flicks? It’s all about bringing on the jokes, and Knocked Up managed to deliver the funny quite well. The nature of the relationship, hot babe & schlub, was completely from the realm of nerd fantasy.

I read that as “They just don’t write 'em like that anymore,” which triggered off the Greg Kihn Band “Break Up Song” flashback that is now punishing me. Thanks. ;)

As the article mentions, the joke-telling format now has nothing to do with how it was done back then. Now you’ve got momdroids.

So where’s the romantic comedy where two losers get together and live happily ever after while retaining their loserdom?

Wait, is that Jay and Silent Bob, the hetero life mates? Other than them…

For pedophiles, yes.


There they are, the young man and young woman of the dominant romantic-comedy trend of the past several years—the slovenly hipster and the female straight arrow.

Sounds suspiciously like my life, actually, except I’m more slovenly than hip. I wonder if this is some kind of new demographic trend?

BTW, nice to see “It Happened One Night” getting some love - that’s my favorite romance and/or comedy of all time. But I’ve been a sucker for that theme ever since I saw the yummy Daphne Zuniga in “The Sure Thing” (which, oddly enough, foreshadows the ‘slovenly hipster and female straight arrow’ genre way back in the 80s).

I just saw part of Anger Management on a plane, which also qualifies as one of these movies. (What a surprise – another Adam Sandler film).

Yeah, these movies annoy the hell out of me and I just don’t watch them now. I’m glad someone finally called this trend out.

One very annoying aspect of these movies is: the “growing up” that the guy has to do, and is commended for at the end of the film, basically involves being conquered by the woman. That is to say, what constitutes “maturity” in these movies is a stereotypical view of what women want men to be, rather than what actual adult men want to be, or what men want women to be.

The women in these movies are largely useless and just somehow get automatic credit as targets of ultimate desire, just because they are female and kind of attractive. Which I guess might make sense if you’re 14.

The Eagle Vs. Shark plot synopsis matches that description. Other than that, I don’t know…Benny and Joon?

The Fisher King probably counts, too.

For pedophiles, yes.[/QUOTE]
. . .

Wow, I didn’t think it would be possible to ruin that movie for me, but you guys did it.


Yeah, that could work I guess. It’s been too long since I’ve seen it.

I vaguely recall that film.

Could Fight Club be an example of a slacker-striver romantic comedy with a strong female counterpart? Certainly the narrator objectifies Marla, both as mother/whore, but the film doesn’t seem too.

Romantic comedy is an awful genre. It always has been. That’s largely because it’s founded on degrading stereotypes of both men and women, filled with cliches and plot twists that would not survive a first draft in a Mexican soap opera. OK, maybe they would, but there would be an argument in the writer’s room. Anyway.

Saying women back in the day were “equal in spirit” is about the most ludicrous and condescending phrase I could imagine, especially when brought into a mention of Frank Capra and It Happened One Night. I’m sure a good spanking is what women are looking for when they demand respect as equals, right?

Romantic comedy, however, is an excellent guilty pleasure when done properly. Attempting to rate its quality relative to how much it respects women is about as absurd as doing that with porn; what you like usually has very little do with what you want in the real world, and that’s why you enjoy it so much. The closer it hits home, the more it has to respect the conventions of real drama for you to enjoy it, and that’s when things become problematic. Most romantic comedies can’t and shouldn’t try to meet that standard, or they’d fail in their primary mission: getting teenagers a piece of ass, and reminding adults of when that was all they had to worry about.

Hey Tom, since Sandler has been mentioned a couple of times in this thread I’ll ask this: Where does Punch-Drunk Love fit into all of this?

Amanda Plummer’s character was far from idealized, though - that’s what I liked about her. And Robin Williams wasn’t a slacker so much as one messed-up dude.

Or are you talking about the Jeff Bridges-Mercedes Ruehl relationship? But again, Jeff isn’t a slacker, just a guy who’s bottomed out after a tragedy; and while she was great, Mercedes was hardly the perfect career woman either.

EDIT: or were you responding to Luke’s post? In which case, nevermind. :-/

Anyone recall the movie from years back that had the rich woman fall off her yacht, get amnesia, and then be rescued by Patrick Duffy who decides to teach her a lesson, but in the end they all learn a lesson and fall in love? I think it was called Overboard or something.

It’s close to the mold described above, but to some sense the woman in this case becomes more of an ideal wife/mother while the man grows up from her influence. At least everyone changes.