Five Problems With Chick Flicks

Katherine Heigl’s new romp, The Ugly Truth, is the latest in a string of brainless romantic comedies. Marisa Meltzer on five things the genre can do to make us fall in love with it again.

In The Ugly Truth, which comes out today, Katherine Heigl plays Abby, a beautiful, single, thirtysomething producer on a ratings-challenged Sacramento morning show. Her standards in men are so high that potential dates can be dismissed just minutes into dinner based on the wrong choice of tap versus bottled water. When her boss decides to hire Mike (Gerard Butler), the Howard Stern of local public-access cable, to spice up the show, there’s no question of whether opposites will attract.

The lack of suspense shouldn’t be an impediment to the box office gross; no one buys tickets to romantic comedies because they want to be surprised by the ending. At their best— Annie Hall, His Girl Friday, When Harry Met Sally, the John Hughes oeuvre, to name just a few—they can be intelligent, hilarious, and genuinely romantic. But the last few years have produced a series of Stepford romcoms, like The Ugly Truth, that feel like they were written by committee and cater to the lowest common denominator.

In honor of the genre’s staying power, The Daily Beast picked five ways romantic comedies can change for the better.

1) Clumsiness doesn’t count as a character trait.

Heigl’s character Abby is supposed to be uptight in The Ugly Truth, but her control-freak character is supposed to show a more vulnerable side in a scene where she climbs a tree half-naked after her runaway cat. After enjoying the view of a new, hot neighbor emerging from the shower, she falls and ends up hanging from a branch, upside-down in her underwear. In case that’s not enough humiliation for one movie, there’s a scene involving Abby wearing remote-controlled vibrating panties during a business dinner.

The cute girl who makes a fool of herself isn’t Heigl’s territory alone—Sandra Bullock is also guilty of playing the hot klutz in Two Weeks' Notice and the Miss Congeniality movies. Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones was prone to both verbal and physical clumsiness. Jessica Alba’s Cam in Good Luck Chuck takes it to new heights, bumping into waiters who spill glasses of water down her (whoops!) cleavage; falling into a pond for penguins; enduring all manner of mishaps in a dental office; walking into a pole; and getting her skirt caught in a car door. We get it! Being accident-prone is a way to humanize a hot actress, but do their characters have to be so poorly conceived that their one defining trait is their ability to fall—into the arms of the right guy?

2) They promote industries that aren’t exactly booming.

It’s true—girls in romantic comedies don’t have to be ditzy klutzes. But if they’re capable, they’re probably iron-lady shrews who need to be tamed by the right guy. Case in point: Bullock’s The Proposal, in which she plays a successful-but-scary book editor. While we’re on the topic, why must so many romantic comedies feature characters who work in media jobs? Besides The Proposal, there’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, Bridget Jones’s Diary, 13 Going on 30, and The Devil Wears Prada. Making the female lead work in a recession-friendly job like a registered nurse or a bankruptcy lawyer or a pharmacist might shake up the genre and give young fans some ideas for future career paths. Don’t actuaries need love, too?

3) In real life, grand romantic gestures are creepy.

We understand that romantic comedies have strict narrative confines: Love is out there, and love is really all you need. But must love be expressed in such grandiose ways? Taken out of their heightened romantic-comedy context, grand gestures tend to come across as overwrought and insufferable. Case in point: If John Cusack stood outside your bedroom, as he famously did in Say Anything, and blasted a Peter Gabriel song that is supposed to represent his feelings to you, would that be even remotely enjoyable?

What about if you and your estranged husband decided that, instead of mutually agreeing upon whether or not you would get back together, you would pick a time and a place to meet on the Brooklyn Bridge and if you were both there, it was back on, like Steve and Miranda did in the Sex and the City movie? Would that seem like a healthy relationship? Let’s say a girl who had posed as one of your students for a newspaper exposé tried to get you to come and kiss her in front of an entire baseball stadium, like in Never Been Kissed? Would that be an auspicious beginning to a relationship? Smaller gestures of romance and reliability might be less cinematic, but come across as a little more believable.

And this is not just cynicism talking. A study that came out in late 2008 from Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University claimed that romantic comedies do indeed promote unhealthy expectations in their fans. The relationships had “both highly idealistic and undesirable qualities,” the researchers found. Problems are solved easily with a sweeping gesture, since they “have no real negative long-term impact on relationship functioning.” Teenage fans were especially susceptible to buying the romcom myth and having unrealistic expectations for their own relationships.

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4) Relationships are a lot more than that first declaration of love.

Most romantic comedies are elaborate “how we met” stories, but as any devout “Vows” column reader will tell you, the most fraught and interesting part of long-term relationships come long after the first kiss, which is, unfortunately, usually when the credits start to roll in romantic comedies. In Pretty Woman, did Julia Roberts get sick of boring, damaged Richard Gere after he climbed the fire escape for her and decide that his wealth wasn’t worth it? After a few weeks, did Ben Affleck return to his anti-marriage ways after becoming engaged to whiny, personality-free Jennifer Aniston in He’s Just Not That Into You? We never get the whole story.

5) Judy Greer deserves better.

Plucky, sassy best friends are the lifeblood of romantic comedies—they’re usually the characters that get the best lines and biggest laughs. But must Judy Greer play more or less the same role in all of them? She’s in The Wedding Planner, 13 Going on 30, 27 Dresses, and even turns up in the upcoming Jennifer Aniston-Aaron Eckhart vehicle Love Happens. We all have to pay the bills, but Greer (and the Ugly Truth’s Bree Turner, Cheryl Hines, John Michael Higgins, and countless other character actors) deserves a better fate. Someone needs to cast her as a lead!

Marisa Meltzer is coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life. Her next book, Girl Power , will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February.