Laughing at love

Apr 4, 2001 at 12:00 am

Why have romantic comedies suddenly become so ubiquitous? As the producer of the romantic comedy Someone Like You and author of Hello, He Lied & Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches, Lynda Obst has a particularly keen perspective.

“They’re wish-fulfillment,” she states simply, “because we have a need to believe that true love belongs to all of us. It isn’t something just for the lucky. Part of the role of a romantic comedy is to show, no matter what the obstacles, no matter how unlikely the person to find their dream come true, it happens.

“Part of American movies in general are wish-fulfillment movies,” Obst continues, “and the romantic comedy exists to keep the dream of love alive at a time of extreme cynicism, extreme gender confusion. So it serves a particular function now that may be slightly different than as it functioned in the 1940s, but it’s the same genre.”

Someone Like You, based on Laura Zigman’s mordantly funny novel, Animal Husbandry, arrives in theaters two weeks before the highly anticipated screen adaptation of Helen Fielding’s comic touchstone, Bridget Jones’s Diary (opening April 13). Both novels carry the strong voice of their protagonists, single white women living out the cosmopolitan dream (in Manhattan and London, respectively) whose love lives have somehow gone awry. In the adaptation process, these books have been transformed into romantic comedies which place their exasperated central characters into unconventional love triangles with men prone to contradiction.

Directing his second female-centered film, Tony Goldwyn found himself in the role of bringing in a stronger “man’s point of view” to Someone Like You, the tale of a woman so devastated when a relationship inexplicably implodes that she concocts a bold thesis: that heterosexual male behavior can be explained by careful observation of the animal kingdom.

“There used to be a line in the script,” Goldwyn explains, “that if theories like that really do exist, they’re there for us to see who’s man enough to break them. That’s to me the whole point: We grasp desperately trying to make sense of our emotions and control the chaos of our hearts, and the more we do that, the more we run amok.”

“When you go to the intellectual to cover the emotional,” concurs Obst, “you’re halfway through a journey, but it’s not until you break away the ideology and break away the cerebral, and get back to your heart that you’ve made any real change.”

Both films show that old-fashioned romanticism lives, even among women who embrace feminism. Fielding, whose emblematic “singleton,” Bridget Jones, continually stumbles while running the gamut of her great expectations, doesn’t see that as a conflict.

“One of the things Bridget is about,” Fielding says of her best seller, “is that there are all these different things you’re supposed to be as a woman now: successful, independent, spiritual, thin. Bridget has her own income, her own home, her own life, her own friends. But if it wasn’t true that even the most independent modern women think about men quite a lot, then I probably wouldn’t have sold quite as many copies. It’s part of human nature to want to love and be loved, and think about sex a bit. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing the other stuff, too.”

In creating the diary of the fictitious Bridget Jones, Fielding freely adapted Pride and Prejudice, thinking “it had been very well market-researched over a number of centuries, and Jane Austen wouldn’t mind.” (She was particularly taken with the popular British television miniseries, where Colin Firth played the haughty Mr. Darcy. Fielding named her hero Mark Darcy and, in a postmodern twist, Firth portrays him in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary.) Austen’s novels have repeatedly been adapted, and Fielding cites several reasons.

“One is that she knew about plotting,” she explains, “but also Jane Austen was writing about the tiny details of women’s lives and from that you actually understood an awful lot about the society at that time and women’s position in it. So I was, in a fawning sort of way, trying to imitate what she does by writing about why it takes three hours between getting up in the morning and leaving the house. Just little silly things, but you learn a lot from the detail, I think. The big things and the little things always coexist in life, same as the serious and the comic.”

The makers of Someone Like You see The Philadelphia Story or Adam’s Rib as their template, but Bridget Jones’s Diary director Sharon Maguire has a more contemporary model, one which embraces a peculiarly modern form of romantic angst.

“The best romantic comedy ever is Annie Hall,” she asserts, “because it reflects our worries and anxieties about relationships back at us and it still makes us laugh. When they reflect your life back at you, with all its flaws and all the humor that goes with it, then that’s good.”

What surprised Maguire, a documentary filmmaker making her feature debut, was just how much could be conveyed simply by focusing the camera on the hesitant gestures of two would-be lovers.

“Little things fill the screen, you realize,” she says with amazement, “little moments of emotion.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]