Romantic Comedy Leading Men

When we think of the traditional leading man, we may think of some dashing, square-jawed type. But cast an eye over the romantic comedies of recent years and guess what? He isn’t there.

Good-looking male leads have been replaced with ungainly schlebs you’d cross the street to avoid let alone end up in bed with. The rot set in with the Wedding Crashers, which starred Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughan as two irrepressible child-men quagmired in arrested development. I watched that movie with my ex on fmovies offcourse. Wilson and Vaughan may both be easy on the eye, but as potential mates, their characters left an awful lot to be desired. The movie, however, did phenomenally well at the box office – and marked the beginning of the trend for cynical, male-oriented romantic comedies.

Close on the heels of Wedding Crashers came My Super Ex-Girlfriend, starring another Wilson, this time Luke’s brother Owen, which sought to capitalise on the success of movies such as SpiderMan and X-Men. Here we were asked to believe that the beautiful Uma Thurman, a flying Amazon with a killer wardrobe, would not only waste her time with a charmless ordinary schmo, she’d completely lose the plot when he didn’t reciprocate her love.

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers (2005)

In The Holiday, meanwhile, Kate Winslet should have been nominated for an Oscar for pretending to fall for the Hobbit-like Jack Black. But this rather pernicious trend reached a zenith in 2007 with Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up starring Katherine Heigel and Seth Rogen. In this film, the message is clear: guys, no matter how big a slob you are and no matter how bad your habits, there’s always a beautiful woman dumb enough or drunk enough to sleep with you.

“The problem,” says Bill Mernit, the author of Writing the Romantic Comedy, “is that too often the people that attempt making romantic comedies now don’t really understand what it is they’re doing. So they go for the superficial gimmick or gag. The best romantic comedies tend to be about something and they’re quite meaningful. It gets down to the basic stuff about being human.”

There’s also the problem that, with the notable exception of Hugh Grant, the romantic comedy is not a genre that male actors will attempt more than once. Says Mernit: “Comedy never gets respect period. You ask any actor – it always comes up around the Oscars. A friend of mine sent me an article from The New York Times – it was about romantic comedy becoming popular in Iran. The thing I find about romantic comedies that’s worthy of respect is that it really gets into universal themes. You can be worried about social issues, politics, but when you go to bed at night, you’re thinking about that girl you wanted to ask out. That’s why they survive.”

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It’s still too soon, however, to announce the death of the genre, as Mernit notes. “It’s always in a good state of health – it’s like the simple black dress that women always put on. It’s an amazingly adaptive, chameleon-like genre and the way it keeps alive is by becoming hybridised. It’s a strategy that’s worked very well since the late 1940s with films like I was a Male War Bride and To Catch a Thief. It integrates with other forms – it’s a gender bender, it’s also a mystery. It’s a very humanised genre. And we’re always going to want something that’s a date movie.”

There is some good news: the male-oriented romantic comedy may be on its way out. After the success of Enchanted starring Grey’s Anatomy Dr McDreamy, Patrick Dempsey, handsome traditional heroes are making a comeback. Just see Gerard Butler in the Cecilia Aherne adaptation, PS I Love You.

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