From Bride Wars to The Ugly Truth and He’s Just Not That Into You, 2009 was the year romcoms became truly outlandish. Was this the turn that ruined the genre forever, or did it inspire future filmmakers to do better? 10 years since this inauspicious year, we investigate.
It was the vibrating underwear that did it.
The Ugly Truth, the 2009 romantic comedy starring Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler – the ‘00s Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, as it were – was never going to be When Harry Met Sally, no matter how much it billed itself as that film’s successor.
But you can see why they thought they were updating Nora Ephron’s masterpiece for a modern audience, can’t you? The Ugly Truth is about television producer Abby (Heigl) and star Mike (Butler), one a perennially-single, mega-romantic, mild control freak, the other a cynical, The Game-reading alpha male who thinks he knows what women want. I think you can guess where the pair end up from here. Throw in a Cyrano-plotline – Mike wants to help Abby land her dream man using his crass dating techniques – and some workplace machinations (something something Mike and Abby competing for television show ratings) and you have the whole ugly truth of The Ugly Truth.
The vibrating underwear is The Ugly Truth’s attempt at replicating the Katz’s Diner fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. Mike has given Abby a pair of, sigh, vibrating underwear, which he believes will help her seal the deal with her neighbour. (A doctor! All women dream of marrying a doctor.) Abby wears them to an important business dinner with Mike and loses the remote, which ends up in the hands of a trigger-happy kid. Cue Abby, bent over double in a chic Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress in some swanky Sacramento restaurant not merely faking an orgasm but having one for real.
“This ceviche, it’s so good,” Abby breathes. It’s not quite “I’ll have what she’s having,” is it?
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This scene is a microcosm of exactly what went wrong with the romantic comedy 10 years ago in 2009. For the previous two decades, ever since Ryan expertly moaned her way through that fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally in 1989, romcoms had reigned supreme.
At the core of the genre is the power of emotional truth-telling – that it is always a pleasure to watch two people fall in love. These were movies about nothing more or less imperative than human connection, about finding someone to know the very bones of you for the rest of your life, about having a kiss so good that you could forget that it was raining. Here was a genre that reliably told the stories of female protagonists and all their hopes and dreams, albeit largely white, middle-to-upper class female protagonists, but female protagonists nonetheless.
And they were successful, too, both critically and financially, garnering Oscar nominations and boasting box office success. As a genre, romantic comedy made stars of actors like Ryan, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock, Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz. It was also the genre that most frequently employed the services of female writers and directors, women like writer-directors Ephron and Nancy Meyers, whose romantic comedy What Women Want was, at the time, the highest-grossing movie directed by a woman for more than a decade.
Where did it all go wrong?
But by 2013 romantic comedies had all but disappeared from the multiplex: not a single romcom appeared in the top 100 highest-grossing movies of that year. Instead of seeing two people fall in love, people spent their cinema Sundays watching men, usually in capes. That year in The Hollywood Reporter, Sleepless In Seattle’s producer Lynda Obst declared that the romantic comedy was over. “ I don’t see any appetite for romcoms from the studios,” she said. “The meet-cute is dead,” Joy Gorman, another producer added.
The romantic comedy might have died in 2013, but the canary in the coal mine was first spotted back in 2009. There were successful romcoms that year – The Ugly Truth actually made almost $205 million while The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, was the year’s highest-grossing romantic comedy with $317 million to its name.
But they didn’t make enough money to justify their existence. 2009 highest grossing film, a movie called Avatar, made $2.7 billion. (Hell, even Ice Age: Dawn of Dinosaurs took home almost $900 million.) The age of the romantic comedy – small in scope, a genre that told the stories of all the extraordinary things that happen to ordinary people when they dare to fall in love – was over.
It wasn’t just that romcoms didn’t make crazy Avatar money, though. 2009 was the year that romantic comedies became increasingly outlandish. There was The Ugly Truth, of course, which was a showcase for how all the charm of an opposites-attract film could be undone by stereotypical characters and a script full of jokes that hated women. That movie made Heigl’s character, who was a successful woman in a high-stakes career, look pathetic and desperate the second that romance came into the picture.
Think of it as the subtle, but significant, difference between Sally faking the orgasm in the diner and Abby actually having one, courtesy of – sigh – the vibrating underwear. Sally faked the orgasm in order to showcase her upper hand over Harry. Abby had the orgasm when she finally relinquished control, quite literally, to Mike.
That romantic comedies had begun to hate women was clear. Movies like He’s Just Not That Into You skewered the hopes of its female characters, played by Ginnifer Goodwin, Busy Philips and Jennifer Aniston, for laughs. That bit when Goodwin’s character goes to the bar in the hope of striking a ‘chance’ meeting with Entourage’s Kevin Connolly, of all people? That’s a three act horror movie in a single scene. And yet instead of commiserating with Goodwin, we’re supposed to laugh at her.
In 2009 romantic comedies even the meet-cutes, or those magical little moments when two characters finally crossed paths, lost their shine. In He’s Just Not That Into You Anna (Scarlett Johansson) meets Ben (Bradley Cooper) after she wins a miniature esky in a supermarket competition.
Or, as became more popular in the romcoms of 2009, the star-crossed lovers didn’t meet onscreen at all. Take Bride Wars, for example, a movie that focuses on examining a relationship after it had already begun. Instead of seeing the moment when Liv (Kate Hudson) or Emma (Anne Hathaway) meet the men of their dreams, that movie posits that it’s more interesting to watch a lifelong friendship come undone when both women want to have their wedding on the same date at The Plaza in New York.
Which misses the point of the romantic comedy entirely: the joy is in those sparkly, fizzy early days of getting to know someone and figuring out whether or not they fit. What’s the fun of watching a romcom about a couple planning their wedding?
Bride Wars also made the mistake of thinking that because romantic comedy is a genre predicated on fantasy that these films should be entirely aspirational. In 2009 the love story in a romcom became less about a new partner and more about wedding porn (Bride Wars) or fashion porn (Confessions of a Shopaholic).
By 2009 the flaws of romantic comedies were laid bare. They were concerned only with the lives of the very wealthy, they were almost offensively heteronormative and they were very, very white. In He’s Just Not That Into You, a 2009 movie that features no less than 10 main characters, not a single one of them is a person of colour or queer. Same goes for Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a pre-McConnaissance Matthew McConaughey vehicle that starred Emma Stone, Michael Douglas and Jennifer Garner.
When things were good, they were very, very good
There were highs, though. The Proposal, which was 2009’s highest-grossing romantic comedy and It’s Complicated are two of the year’s better romcom offerings. That’s not to say they’re not silly in their own special ways – both films skate by on paper-thin premises and are driven by the sheer charisma of their stars alone. The Proposal sees Margaret (Bullock) force her downtrodden assistant Andrew (Reynolds) to marry her in order to save her from deportation. It’s Complicated is about how divorce is, well, complicated, courtesy of once-married couple Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin).
It is no coincidence that these two movies are both directed by women. There is an understanding about the genre baked into them, a reminder in each scene of why we watch romantic comedies, even and especially when we know that they are flawed objects.
At their core romantic comedies understand the depth of relationships. They are supposed to provide a stage for all the micro and the macro – the ‘for better and for worse’ – of being with another person.
Take the moment in It’s Complicated when Jake stands Jane up and she folds into herself with practiced efficiency, blowing out each of the candles that she has lit. Here, this scene says, is a woman who has spent many evenings waiting for her ex-husband. And doesn’t your heart break for her? There’s plenty of truth in It’s Complicated, it’s just that these moments of emotional clarity are buttressed by some of the most absurd romantic comedy-isms ever put to screen. Let this be your reminder that It’s Complicated features a scene in which Alec Baldwin cups Meryl Streep’s vagina and says the words “honey, I’m home”.
10 years later, has the romantic comedy recovered from its annus horribilis?
No wonder, then, that the most recent wave of romantic comedies have done away with those ‘isms’ all together. You won’t see too much affluence-porn, or mindless makeover montages, or the near-blinding lack of diversity in recent hits like Always Be My Maybe, Someone Great or The Long Shot.
Those movies, many of them on Netflix, have learned the important lessons from the 2009 class of romantic comedies and discarded all of the bad ones. They know that it’s important to give their characters room to grow, that good writing is more valuable than gimmicky jokes and they understand that the only thing that matters is that we believe in the connection depicted onscreen.
“When you’re already in love,” Ephron’s sister and writing partner Delia told Vanity Fair, “the only place you ever fall in love again is in the movies.”
This is the role of romantic comedies – a place for audiences to fall in love again, and again, and again. In 2009 romantic comedies forgot that purpose. It was hard to fall in love with the unlikeable, inscrutable characters of that year’s surreal romcom offering. It took the genre a decade, but judging by the romantic comedies released this year it looks like they’ve finally remembered.
Images: Rex Features, Relativity, 20th Century Fox
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.