You can’t blame women for liking movies with heroines over 50 who haven’t shut down sexually. Middle-aged men should understand the appeal of that, as well. If pop culture is going to be populist, then middle-age moviegoers should be able to find things that speak to their romantic fantasies. “Nights in Rodanthe,” a terrible movie, offered the pleasure of seeing two stars, Diane Lane and Richard Gere, who still look like themselves at midlife (that is, aged naturally instead of encased in plastic), and the promise of movie-star glamour and romance.
The trouble is that Meyers presides over the betrayal of the romantic comedy, which as a genre has gone from a hardheaded acceptance of life’s contingencies to a place for the privileged whining of a culture infantilized by identity politics and complaint as a way of life.
The film critic Maitland McDonagh has pointed out that the heroines in Meyers’ movie almost completely define their worth by their children or their spouses, or by the decor of their houses. Meyers’ heroines are independent basket cases, affluent and alone and miserable instead of, as the classic romantic comedy heroine usually was, competent and sharp and surprised by love when she stumbled over it.
And sisterhood only goes so far in Meyers’ films. Merkin quotes women over 40 talking about how they see themselves in Meyers’ heroines. She doesn’t get around to younger women, say 35 and under, who Meyers consistently portrays as mindless bimbos, vampiric husband stealers, or, at best, bunny-brained little things too tender to know the mean truth about what men are.
As for the men, until they’re tamed by the heroine, they’re crumbs. The finale of “It’s Complicated” is a classic emasculation fantasy in which it’s not enough at the end of the movie for Alec Baldwin to apologize to his ex Meryl Streep for screwing up her romance with Steve Martin. Streep has to extract a retroactive apology for the whole of their marriage, thus giving her the smug satisfaction of having been right all along.
You look at the great romantic comedies of the past — George Cukor’s “Holiday,” “The Awful Truth,” “The Moon’s Our Home,” the “Thin Man” series, “The Shop Around the Corner,” “The Philadelphia Story,” and probably the greatest of all American movie comedies, “The Lady Eve” — and an awful lot of real life, of the complications of sex and love and marriage, is there under the froth. Romantic comedy was always about taking a chance on love. There were no guarantees at the fade-out. We knew the lovers would never find anyone they liked as much as they liked each other, but we also had seen enough of how rocky things were for them to know that life together was going to be anything but smooth.
Contemporary romantic comedies are either revenge fantasies set-decorated by Pottery Barn, or, in the films starring younger actresses, preliminaries to taking out a subscription to Brides magazine. They are less about taking chances than taking out an insurance policy on the future, pretending that everything will be fine forever after.
And uncomfortable as it is to admit, it has to be said that since women are the audience that makes these movies hits, it’s women who are colluding in reaffirming the stereotypes of women as timid and prudish, awash in princess fantasies. There was a lot of ideological bushwah directed at Katharine Heigl’s decision to go ahead with her pregnancy in “Knocked Up” — a sign of our desire to believe complicated issues can always be resolved in the most progressive terms. But Heigl’s performance honors the confusion and fear and uncertainty of her character, and it’s depressing to watch her reduced to the likes of “27 Dresses” or the unbearable “The Ugly Truth” in which she’s playing the kind of prude that used to be reserved for the women cast as W.C. Fields’ wives.
What hope is there for an actress with the crazed comic spark of Elizabeth Banks when we’re asked to adore Amy Adams’ virgin twinkle in picture after picture? Parker Posey’s melancholy dervish of a performance in Zoe Cassavetes’ “Broken English” (a movie that played like an American version of a Rohmer film) should be recognized as a classic of romantic comedy. And while none of us know the demons the late Brittany Murphy was battling, even before her death you could only be sad that that someone who showed such a great unfettered comic spirit, such uninhibited physical talent could only get the likes of “Just Married.”
Of course, it would be great for women filmmakers to challenge the status quo of the mainstream, but is there an audience of women moviegoers ready to support the ones who do? I have heard it said by more than one woman that Kathryn Bigelow, who may become the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar, for “The Hurt Locker,” directs like a man. What can that mean except that there are approved topics for male and female directors and that you risk your gender identity by straying from them? In other words, a movie about war is nothing a woman should make or be interested in. (It might be revealing to ask the women who say this whether or not women should be allowed to serve in the military.)
I don’t want to deny the sexism women directors face, or that there should be more women filmmakers. But we need better films and better chances for good filmmakers, no matter who they are. And I don’t want to set up a phony duel between the mainstream and indie movies. There should be pictures that everyone can see and enjoy and there should be mainstream movies geared to an adult sensibility. But pretending that the mainstream is the only arena that counts is a way of further marginalizing the films that don’t adhere to formula and spectacle, and it’s a way of marginalizing the women filmmakers and actors who have somehow managed to keep working outside of it. The story of women working in movies is an important one. It’s just taking place on a bigger scale than most journalists have covered.