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Posted at 3:25 PM ET, 08/ 4/2010

A rom-com rebuttal to Maureen Dowd's NYT column

By Jen Chaney

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in "(500) Days of Summer." (Fox Searchlight)

The vast majority of contemporary romantic comedies released by Hollywood studios are unrealistic, unimaginative pieces of candlelight-twinkly dreck. Most moviegoers know this. And as a reminder, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times devoted a recent column to that fact, which she explored via an IM exchange with "Fifth Avenue, 5 AM" author Sam Wasson. Both of them bemoaned the blandness of films like "The Bounty Hunter" and "He's Just Not That Into You," and pined for the days that gave us the winking wit of "Pillow Talk" or the rapid-fire whip-smarts of "Bringing Up Baby."

As someone who has been paid to sit through such gems as "Valentine's Day" and "Must Love Dogs," I completely hear what both writers are saying. And I think they're largely right. But I take exception on one important point: the cinematic landscape as we know it is not entirely devoid of great romantic comedies. Every year, we get a few, some of which even come from major Hollywood players. Proportionally, there are not enough of them -- certainly not as many quality money-makers as we need to stop studios from green lighting a few more "Back-Up Plans" -- but enough to send a definitive signal that fine romances didn't completely go out of style a few seconds after "Annie Hall" came out.

Here are four pieces of recent evidence.

"(500) Days of Summer": This low-budget 2009 charmer told its love story out of sequence and charmed quite a few moviegoers in the process. Old-fashioned yet new-school, deeply romantic but unflinchingly honest, the dynamic duo of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel demonstrated that it's still possible to teach an old genre a few fresh tricks.

"The Kids Are All Right": One of this summer's big indie hits, "Kids" isn't your typical rom-com. It's a wry and poignant story about marriage, commitment and the messiness of sexual relationships, gay, straight and in-between. And guess what? Plenty of people are seeing it and loving it.

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona": Clearly the Woody Allen effort that won Penelope Cruz her first Academy Award is no "Annie Hall." But it's still an absorbing and sexy piece of work, one that makes its European landscapes look far more luscious and accessible than lesser, predictable efforts of the "Under the Tuscan Sun" variety.

"Up in the Air": Wasson actually noted in the NYT piece that he liked this Academy Award-nominated Jason Reitman film. But he also said the director's work was overpraised as evidence of "the next Preston Sturges" because there's such an absence of quality romantic fare in the marketplace to which it can be compared. He may have a point. Personally, I thought the movie -- which can be categorized as a romantic comedy, as well as a few other things (workplace comedy, sour-economy drama) -- earned its accolades because it was just that good. And actually, the fact that Paramount released "Up in the Air," complete with its ambiguous, not-so-happy ending, should give us hope that studios still are willing to back smart adult-relationship fare. (Or at least they are as long as George Clooney's attached.)

And that's what bugged me a bit about the underlying tone in the Dowd-and-Wasson exchange. Instead of bemoaning the fact that even today's great movies still can't live up to the ultra-great ones that came years before them, maybe we should celebrate the times when a studio -- and the movie-going public -- embraces a love story that's elegantly told. I don't know much about psychology, but somewhere along the line I remember learning about the power of positive reinforcement. If pointing out the great current romances will show at least a few audience members that there is, in fact, something out there besides the next Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey vehicle, maybe at least a few souls can be saved from eternal rom-com damnation.

By Jen Chaney  | August 4, 2010; 3:25 PM ET
Categories:  Movies, Pop Culture  
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Okay, Jen, time to 'fess up: the real reason you're rebutting Dowd's column is the quote "Every time I see Jennifer Aniston's face or Jennifer Garner's face, I wince. Basically anytime I see anyone named Jennifer."

And yes, you did get paid to watch a comedy about people getting fired. Ha ha.

Posted by: kabuki3 | August 5, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" was good for one reason alone, that you mention: it's a nice travelogue of northeastern Spain for those of us who haven't been yet.

Otherwise, it's absolutely awful and unbelievable. The dialogue was jaw-droppingly horrible - what young women talk like that? Or act like that? Only when old men imagine they do....urgh.

Posted by: undercover_hon | August 5, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

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