October 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

I'll Have What She's Having: Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies by Daniel M. Kimmel

“I always wanted to see Siberia, but damn me -- I never thought it would smell like this.” -- a drunken Clark Gable, on the prospect of making another movie at Columbia Pictures

It’s easy to obsess about celebrity personal lives, yet at the same time forget that they’re people -- people who smell things, have cravings, stub their toes, get cancer and watch their thighs spread across the toilet seat when they sit down to pee. We usually don’t hunger for details of their foibles and romances because we love them or find them interesting, but for other, sadder reasons -- we’re jealous of all the attention they get, or maybe we’re too stupid to think original thoughts, so when publicists and advertisers tell us to jump, we ask, “How high?”

Daniel M. Kimmel’s I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies takes on a rich topic -- the fact that the characters in romantic comedies are played by celebrities, and that those celebrities are real human beings. I was hoping it would be packed to the gills with trashy dirt, like a more contemporary Hollywood Babylon. Instead, film critic Kimmel sets out to provide a gentler insider’s view of cinema’s most enduring genre. The book is a labor of love, ten years in the making. It’s dedicated to his grandparents (“who lived two of the greatest love stories I know”), and it treads lightly over the grossest, most shaming details of the stars’ and directors’ lives. He gets a little bit personal, but his focus is more on the ways that creative teams came together to make movies that audiences adored, and the challenges they faced along the way. It’s a wholesome endeavor that will probably appeal to romance-loving movie junkies, but it has a late-eighties feel to it. In 2008, I expect, if not a luridly Angeresque orgy of sex and drug gossip, at least a biting critique of today’s shamefully bureaucratic, product-placement-filled studio system. On the other hand, maybe it’s fitting to the genre that this book is so resolutely PG-rated.

Kimmel’s fifteen romantic comedies span most of the twentieth century and spill into the twenty-first. “Critics unfamiliar with the history of romantic comedy are likely to fall into the trap of criticizing There’s Something About Mary, or more recent examples like The Forty-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up, and claim that contemporary filmmakers have fallen short of the giants of the past,” he writes. “Once we had sophisticated romantic comedies, now we rely on vulgarity. What they forget is that genre films become gems only in retrospect.” I find the idea that shitty Farrelly Brothers movies will be adored classics in the future a huge bummer, but Kimmel is an equal-opportunity genre buff, with the same regard for There’s Something About Mary and Pretty Woman as The Philadelphia Story. “In the end,” he says, “romantic comedies -- like any film genre -- are a lens through which we can see how we have changed over time.”

One of the saddest and most interesting things about I’ll Have What She’s Having is how it points out the movies that were never made -- meaning, the ways that the studio system mainstreamed writer’s visions. For example, Woody Allen brought a movie to United Artists called Anhedonia (a medical term for the inability to experience pleasure from normally pleasurable life events like eating, sex, exercise and social interaction.) The title made them nervous, and the film was “not only not a romantic comedy, it was narratively incoherent and thus unreleasable.” The movie was transformed from a free-form exploration of Alvy Singer’s neuroses into a conventionally narrative romcom called Annie Hall, which is a great film, but maybe Anhedonia would’ve been even better.

There are two kinds of romantic comedies, according to Nora Ephron -- Jewish ones and Christian ones. In the Christian ones, the lovers have to overcome a problem. In the Jewish ones, they have to overcome the neuroses of the male character. I wonder whether there are romcoms that could be classified as atheist, agnostic, Wiccan or Buddhist.

This genre will never die, according to Kimmel, because “all of us fall in love, hope to fall in love, or have fallen in love. The story of human coupling -- why they got together, not what they do in private, which is the subject of another kind of movie entirely -- captures everyone’s interest. From the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to Shaw, the foibles and foolishness of people in love has been a prime topic for storytelling.”

But what, in particular, makes us crave a comic approach to human love? What happens when irony and satire are replaced by pratfalls and cheap shots? What truly possesses people to make romantic comedies? Why are there people making them to subliminally get the peanut-crunching crowd to use AOL (You’ve Got Mail) or buy Nikes (What Women Want)? Why is the public dumb enough to settle for marketing, instead of comedy as art (like in Aristophanes or Menander or Shakespeare or Shaw)? What’s really going on behind the scenes of those romantic comedies, and, by extension, how are we changing? These questions would be the subject of another kind of book entirely.

I'll Have What She's Having: Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies by Daniel M. Kimmel
Ivan R. Dee
ISBN: 1566637376
304 Pages