Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson in Richard Curtis' About Time.
Tara Karajica is a member of the second annual Locarno Critics Academy. She takes a look at Richard Curtis' About Time and the challenges facing the once-popular rom-com genre. You can follow her on Twitter at @TheFilmProspect.
Richard Curtis’ new film, About Time, is a story about a charmingly clumsy (in matters of the heart) young man who learns he can travel in time and uses his newly acquired power to change his life for the better and find a girlfriend. This seemingly touching and evocative film did not go down as a straight crowd pleaser at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, where it premiered. Indeed, the first thing I heard after the credits had finished rolling was negative chatter from the audience.
There was a time when Hollywood made good—even great—romantic films, rom-coms included. Great directors of the dream factory such as Ernest Lubitsch or George Cukor made the genre popular. Movies like Pretty Woman, Dirty Dancing, When Harry Met Sally, Notting Hill, The Bridges of Madison Country and Richard Linklater's Before trilogy lured audiences to theaters. So, what went wrong?
When I asked my fellow Critics Academy members about their opinions on romantic films, I got either laughs, a pat on the shoulder, or answers such as "I don’t like them because they are bad films." Nevertheless, they all agreed that Richard Curtis’ previous film, Love Actually, was one of their favorite movies and that choosing a favorite subplot would basically be “the equivalent of a Sophie’s Choice multiplied by six" and that "Love Actually is the Citizen Kane of romantic comedies set at Christmas."
Domhnall Gleeson and Bill Nighy in Richard Curtis' About Time.
The genre spiraled into decline at the turn of the century when it experienced a staggering creativity freeze. Unispired writing led to low-quality productions as the genre was repackaged and streamlined to fit market demands. Rom-coms became predictable with writers, producers and directors mixing and matching different elements, such as ethnic or class differences, in a vain attempt to give a story individuality.
The modern rom-com genre is producing less meaningful and inventive product compared to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s and even up until the early 1960s. Writers, at least in Hollywood, appear to have exhausted their ability to tell new romantic stories. This is not only due to lack of inspiration but also to social changes. In the early days of romantic comedy, plot twists included following a leopard around town in Bringing Up Baby or a journalistic battle of the sexes in His Girl Friday, and in the 1980s there was an "oil/water" romance between best friends in When Harry Met Sally and geographical challenges to true love in Sleepless in Seattle. Back then, society more strictly adhered to social rules on marriage. But today, love is supposed to transcend race, gender, faith, age, and profession. So, new complications must be created and plots grow more unfathomable. A sample may include: she’s in a coma, he’s telepathic; she’s pregnant, he travels in time; she is human, he is a vampire; and so on. And while it may be true that we hardly ever hear the quick-witted and brilliant dialogue that gave life to the films of Lubitsch and Cukor anymore, it's hard to believe we can't encounter some funny writing and clever storytelling now and then.
Richard Curtis' About Time may not represent a rebirth of the “meet cute” genre, but it may be a step in the right direction. It has all the above-mentioned ingredients even though it does deliver a fortune-cookie message about acceptance and seizing the day. Unfortunately, this is likely why the premise of Curtis’ story did not appeal to the discerning Locarno crowd. People have grown tired of the “same old, same old" recycled stories. Now, I believe, conversations on romantic films should allow alternative perspectives. Films like Punch Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Garden State are examples of films that offer innovative plot lines.
Most people want a little romance in their lives—and a little bit of it certainly wouldn’t hurt. I am certain audiences entertain the hope of seeing better romance films on the big screen. So, fellow writers, it’s on you now to revitalize the genre and deliver high quality guilty pleasures!