Get Reel: Today's romantic comedies look more like tragedies

Bob Tremblay

Been to a romantic comedy recently? My condolences.

In case you haven't noticed, romcoms have been stinking up the joint lately, delivering one steaming pile of dung after another. The latest romantic tragedy to sully the multiplex is "The Back-Up Plan," a film so thoroughly wretched that it almost makes one long for the romantic stylings of "Gigli." I did type "almost."

The two films even have something in common: the star, Jennifer Lopez. Now, I happen to like Lopez. From a sexist point of view, she's not exactly painful to look at. In the entertainment field, she's had a successful singing career. As an actress, she was excellent in "Out of Sight" and "Selena." She also made tasty snake bait in "Anaconda."

But JLo may want to rethink the comedy thing. Or at least not trust her starring performance to a first-time director, a first-time screenwriter and a lead actor with all the pizzazz of a dust bunny. Surrounding yourself with people with limited skill sets is normally not a good idea for career advancement.

In addition to lacking talent, the film plays like a shameless ripoff of "Knocked Up" as both movies feature women who get pregnant and have to deal with issues of motherhood and men who try to cope with the prospects of fatherhood.

"The Back-Up Plan" may also set the record for the most pee-pee, poo-poo jokes in a romantic comedy. In one scene, a character jokes upon wetting herself. In another scene, senior citizens wonder if they've wet themselves. In another scene, a young boy plays with a turd as if it were Play-Doh. And in my favorite scene, a woman defecates into a kiddie pool while giving birth. Hysterical stuff, if you're comically challenged.

This dud follows in the manure-encrusted footsteps of such other migraine-inducers as "She's Out of My League," "Valentine's Day" "When In Rome," "The Bounty Hunter" and "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" While these films stink for a variety of reasons, a rancid screenplay is the main culprit they really deserve bargain-bin status for showing no interest whatsoever in originality. They follow the romcom formula like a puppy dog and refuse to stray from it.

Ready for the conventions? The main characters meet "cute." In "The Back-Up Plan," the soon-to-be lovers fight over a taxi cab when there happen to be taxi cabs everywhere. Moving along, the main characters don't like each other at first. Or they used to like each other but now they don't. Or they used to be a lot more romantic but not they're stuck in a rut. Or he likes her but she doesn't know he exists, or vice versa. Or he's rich and she's poor, or vice versa. Opposites attract, blah, blah, blah.

But no matter how much they don't like each or how many obstacles get thrown in their path, the main characters fall in love, break up and then fall in love just in time for the closing credits. It's not just the predictability that gets tiresome, it's the woeful execution. Where is the romance? Where is the comedy? More importantly, where is the intelligence? Are these films being made for adults? Or children? Or adults with the mentality of children?

Now some great romantic comedies contain a few stereotypical traits, but they succeed by altering the formula or simply relying on such novel concepts as quality writing, directing and acting.

"The Philadelphia Story," one of the great romcoms of all time, begins with C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) breaking up. That scene alone is priceless as Tracy lays waste to C.K.'s golf clubs and C.K. considers punching Tracy in the face. Instead, he pushes her in the face.

Tracy soon becomes engaged to a stuffed shirt whom we know she'll never marry. But instead of immediately bringing C.K. back into the picture as the romantic interest, the film throws the audience a curve by having a reporter played by Jimmy Stewart fall in love with Tracy.

In addition to the brilliant stars, a master director in George Cukor and a witty script by Donald Ogden Stewart (based on Phillip Barry's play), the film showcases a strong supporting cast who don't just crack wise but contribute to the story.

Bad romcoms also suffer from a severe shortage of chemistry. While Ralph Fiennes is a marvelous actor, he looks like he'd rather be shoveling snow in Siberia than playing JLo's love interest in "Maid in Manhattan."

Sometimes actors and actresses manage to rise above the material. Or at least give it a shot. Case in point, Steve Carell and Tina Fey, two very funny people, try their darnedest to milk humor out of the lame script in "Date Night." Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin fare better in "It's Complicated." And in case you think it's all about the stars, check out Sandra Bullock in "The Proposal," a decent romcom, and "All About Steve," a dreadful romcom.

One of the best romantic comedies of recent vintage is last year's "(500) Days of Summer." This film takes the romcom formula and turns it inside out. The film begins by warning you that the main characters aren't going to end up together. We just don't believe it.

The movie then cleverly depicts Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) at various stages in their relationship but does so out of sequence. So on Day 6, for example, Tom may be ecstatic, but on Day 20, he may be depressed. Yet on Day 15, he's happy again. Complicating matters is that Summer doesn't believe in true love while Tom does. Typically, it's the guy who has commitment phobia. Here, it's the gal. The film also isn't afraid to get a little crazy by adding a musical number. Love is a crazy thing, isn't it? At least, it should be. It's sure better than a boring, by-the-numbers exercise.

Another annoying recent romcom trait is the designer beard stubble most of the lead actors are displaying. Is beard stubble supposed to be cool? Attractive? Sexy? What it really is is just another example of the cookie-cutter approach to today's romcoms. Just cast actors who look good and make them look all the same.

Interestingly, two of the greatest romcoms in the biz star actors whom you would seldom classify as hunks - Billy Crystal in "When Harry Met Sally" and Woody Allen in "Annie Hall." Once again, convention gets turned on its head, especially in the latter film, which not coincidentally won Academy Awards for best picture, best director (Allen), best actress (Diane Keaton) and best original screenplay (Allen and Marshall Brickman). This is a courtship by way of the Twilight Zone. Good luck predicting where this movie is going.

As most moviegoers know, "When Harry Met Sally" contains the famous fake orgasm scene with Meg Ryan and the follow-up quip from the mother of director Rob Reiner. Note that "The Back-Up Plan" rips off that scene, too.

"Harry" takes the on-again, off-again bit to extremes - why can't we just be friends? - boosted by a clever script by Nora Ephron, who would later write and direct "You've Got Mail" and "Sleepless in Seattle," both starring Ryan and Tom Hanks. It's incredible how talent keeps showing up in good movies.

While the romcom genre does come saddled with the expectation of a happy ending, that doesn't mean filmmakers have to be slaves to formula. They do so either because they're lazy or they don't have the chops to be creative. They certainly don't have much motivation to change as some people keep going to these cinematic testaments to mediocrity.

Based on the recent offerings, the romcom looks in danger of succumbing to rigor mortis of the brain. Is there any salvation in sight? "Sex in the City 2," perhaps. I will make this bold prediction: Sarah Jessica Parker will be funnier in "Sex" than in "Morgans." That said, I don't envision any comparisons to "It Happened One Night" either.

That's entertainment.

It's now time for TRIVIA.

Last month's tester: What 1990s movie was written by the son of a 1950s pop star? Clue: The film's director was an Oscar winner and one of its actresses was an Oscar winner. Name the movie, the screenwriter, the pop star, the director and the actress.

Answer: The movie was "Albino Alligator." The screenwriter was Christian Forte, the son of Fabian. The director was Kevin Spacey and the actress was Faye Dunaway.

L.H. of Milford was the first reader to answer the question correctly. Congratulations! Karen Walz of Waltham also responded correctly.

This month's tester: What recent film featured a Florida-born performer who has entertained thousands over his long career? He plays himself in the movie. Clue: One of the film's actors is an Oscar winner and one of the actresses is a Golden Globe nominee. Name the film, the performer, the actor and the actress.

The first reader to answer the trivia question correctly will receive Winter Berries Foaming Hand Soap from Fruits & Passion. For more information about the company, go to www.fruits-passion.com.

Trivia enthusiasts can call me at 508-626-4409 or e-mail me at robt@cnc.com.

Make sure you leave your name, address and number on my message machine or e-mail so I can contact you if you answered the question correctly. The address is needed so winners can be mailed their prize. Callers should spell out their names slowly and clearly so their names will be spelled correctly in the column. Only one guess per household, please.

Answers will be accepted until 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 11. Good luck!