A Little Romance
Or a little about romantic comedies, at least.
Earlier today I posted When Harry Met Sally as being at least partially New Year’s themed. I also noted that it was a bit atypical of the movies I usually post here (old B movies, off the wall sci-fi, and generally weird). Thinking of this movie again, I was inspired to post more in the genre. In my mind, romantic comedies fell on hard times around the turn of the century, and there haven’t been many in the last decade or so that I’ve been interested in enough to see, or which (having seen them) I’ve liked much. However, When Harry Met Sally launched a decade of romantic comedies by Meg Ryan, “America’s sweetheart” at the time. Thus, I had thought to take an extended walk down memory lane by posting her three films with Tom Hanks. Alas, the movies I select to post here are largely determined by what I can find free on YouTube, and I was unable to find these movies there. I will keep trying, and if I find them, I’ll post them. In lieu thereof, I thought I’d briefly discuss them. This won’t be a review, per se, but spoilers are possible, so any who haven’t seen the movies discussed here, be forewarned!
Tom Hanks, who first got major attention on the 80’s TV series Bosom Buddies in which he plays one of two buddies who have to cross-dress to get a room in the only lodgings they can afford–an apartment complex reserved only for women (you had to be there)–began making big-screen movies after leaving the series, scoring success in movies such as Splash and Big. In the 90’s he paired with Meg Ryan in three romantic comedies, in chronological order: Joe vs. the Volcano (1990); Sleepless in Seattle (1993); and You’ve Got Mail (1998). All but the first of these were written by Nora Ephron, who also wrote When Harry Met Sally. One might almost consider the Ephron films a sort of trilogy–despite the very different personalities and acting styles of Billy Crystal and Tom Hanks, the situations and the male leads are written similarly, and one can imagine, without too much trouble, Crystal having played the lead in Sleepless and Mail, and Hanks in When Harry Met Sally. In any case, Hanks and Ryan had undeniable chemistry, and defined romantic comedy for a generation.
I won’t discuss Joe vs. the Volcano here. I have long planned to write an essay about it, but I have to re-watch it first, and alas, the time to do so hasn’t yet arisen. Suffice it to say that it was a box-office flop which in my mind was nevertheless one of the best movies of the decade. In the meantime, a good article discussing the movie is this one.
As noted, the other two, as well as When Harry Met Sally, were written by Nora Ephron. Ephron for me is pretty much all or none. When she writes about upper-class, articulate, often-Jewish New Yorkers navigating their love and work lives–much the same artistic milieu as Woody Allen’s corpus, minus the cynicism and with much less neurosis–she makes some of the best movies in the business. If she strays too far from that subject matter–My Blue Heaven (one of the few Steve Martin vehicles I disliked) and Michael spring to mind–the results are weak and even painful to watch. Steve Martin’s attempt to portray a tough Mafioso in My Blue Heaven failed miserably, and the attempts to write the Andie McDowell character in Michael as a frustrated country/western songwriter–along with an embarrassing example of Ephron’s idea of a country song–are best passed over in silence. For the Meg Ryan romantic comedies we’re discussing here, though, Ephron was in great form.
I have to say that When Harry Met Sally is (slightly) superior to the two Ephron/Ryan/Hanks movies, since it is, in my mind, closest to the classic idea of romantic comedy. In an essay in The New Republic a few years back about Love, Actually, Christopher Orr has this to say:
It’s been much remarked in recent years that a central ingredient of romantic comedy, the obstacle that must be overcome for the lovers to be together, has gotten conspicuously more difficult to come by. The classic impediments–parental disapproval, difference in social class, etc.–have largely fallen away in real life, forcing filmmakers to invent new, sometimes ridiculous hurdles (e.g., one of the lovers lives in Seattle and the other in Baltimore).
This, I think, in a nutshell is the problem with contemporary romantic comedies. There are no plausible obstacles to getting lovers together, so you either get “ridiculous hurdles”, as Orr puts it, or you end up with the type of movie Judd Apatow makes–either mocking people who are seen as romantically defective (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) or having rather blue-humored films dealing with the repercussions of “romance” (Knocked Up).
This is what makes When Harry Met Sally a stronger film than the other two. For this movie, the premise was the nature of man/woman relationships as such. Can men and women be friends and not lovers, or must sex get in the way? For the egalitarian late-baby-boom and early Generation X crowd that were the main audiences for this film, this was a truly perplexing and relevant question. Men and women had grown up never not knowing women as doctors, lawyers, classmates, and so on, and treating each other as not-necessarily romantic friends. Now as young adults, they were navigating the perplexities of negotiating the fine–and blurry–line between friendship and romance. Interestingly in this regard, When Harry Met Sally effectively answered the question “can men and women be friends” as “no”, since Harry and Sally ultimately marry. Most of us didn’t go quite so far–most of us have managed to have platonic friends of the opposite sex of varying degrees of closeness–but no matter what our personal answers, we all found food for thought–as well as a great script and outstanding performances–in When Harry Met Sally.
As Orr points out, the plot device for Sleepless in Seattle is a bit strained. Even in the immediately pre-Internet period in which this film is set, the difficulties of a bi-coastal relationship, given the social class of the individuals involved, are probably less than presented. Still, the cute and sentimental idea that a widower (the Hanks character) has a young son who tries to fix him up with a wife by calling a radio talk show, and takes a liking to one of the respondents (Ryan’s character) actually works. Hanks and Ryan are good enough actors and the Ephron a good enough writer that they manage to avoid the worst pitfalls of faux-heartwarming plot devices and don’t sink too far into maudlin sentimentality. Even the postponement of the leads’ actual meeting until the end of the movie (in essence, the movie has two parallel but intertwined plotlines with the Hanks and Ryan characters) still manages to work out.
You’ve Got Mail is one of the first major movies to deal with the Internet. By 1998 the tipping point had been reached, and enough people were online, reading email, and doing online chat that it was possible for this to be a major plot device in the movie. The romantic barrier here is double, and doubly unusual. First, the Hanks character is essentially the villain–or would be, in a more traditional movie. He is an executive for massive chain bookstore which is slowly driving the Ryan character’s small, privately-owned bookstore out of business. The gimmick is that Hanks has begun an online chat relationship via AOL chat with the Ryan character. He later meets her in real life–and of course she initially dislikes him, for obvious reasons. Over the course of the movie, he sees her periodically in real life, trying to build a relationship with her, while simultaneously maintaining the chat relationship (he has figured out who she is, but she doesn’t know that he is the same as the one at the other end of the chat line).
The plot gets a bit convoluted, but eventually, though the Ryan character’s shop actually does go under, she eventually decides the Hanks character isn’t a villain after all (!), and he finally reveals his online identity. She had suspected and hoped the two were one and the same, and they become a couple, happy ending, etc.
I definitely have to say that You’ve Got Mail is the weakest of the the movies we’ve talked about here. The Hanks character is a borderline cyber-stalker, for one thing. There wasn’t as much widespread public awareness of such things at that time, so I suppose Ephron gets a partial pass; but even then, I thought there was more than a little creepiness to the scenario. It is also a bit of a stretch to have the romantic hero as the very one who destroys the heroine’s business–and she still comes to like him anyway. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point, and all that, and romantic couples are often enough opposites; and admittedly Hanks and Ryan are charming enough actors with a good enough chemistry to pull it off. Still, one is left rather perplexed and unsatisfied at the seemingly masochistic subtext of the girl who falls for the one who in most such movies would be the bad guy.
Anyway, regardless of any flaws of the individual films, I would recommend all three of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan collaborations. The best, in my mind, is far and away Joe vs. the Volcano–very different from the others, somewhat whimsical, but well worthwhile. I would say that it, along with When Harry Met Sally, is my favorite of the four films I’ve discussed here, as different as those two films are. Of the other two, Sleepless in Seattle is the better, with a sentimental storyline and a really good supporting cast (something it shares with When Harry Met Sally; both of these have much stronger and more significant supporting casts than the other two). Finally, despite its peculiarities, and the very dated aspects of it regarding the Internet, You’ve Got Mail is still pleasant enough, and its two stars manage to make it worth seeing.
If I can ever get hold of the three Hanks/Ryan movies in postable form, I’ll get them up here. Meanwhile, go check them out for a trip down memory lane; or if you’ve never seen them, treat yourself to some old-school romantic comedy!