Taste: Love, HollywoodStyle It's a lot more traditional even old fashioned than you think The Wall Street Journal, Weekend Journal, W11 5 March 1999 By Richard Miniter Sure, the reviews were less than sensational, but the boxoffice response to "Message in a Bottle" has been adoring. The movie, starring Paul Newman, Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn, tells the story of a note found by a worldweary reporter who decides to go looking for its author and finds true love. Whatever else it might be, "Message in a Bottle" reveals Hollywood's startlingly traditionalist view of courtship, love and marriage. Hollywood has certain conventions or rules of every movie type. The hero of a Western can't be a city slicker, a fasttalker or a man with soft hands. An action hero must at first be reluctant to undertake his dangerous mission. And so on. Certain movie genres such as courtroom dramas ("The Rainmaker," "A Civil Action") and social dramas ("Dave") are constructed to support more liberal themes. Other genres are especially friendly to conservative messages: war movies ("Saving Private Ryan"), Westerns ("Unforgiven"), horror movies ("Scream") and romantic comedies. The more conservative movie genres have formulas that were developed in Hollywood's Golden Age, when the movie moguls loathed FDR's New Deal and loved positive, Norman Rockwelllike portraits of America. Perhaps the formula that has changed the least is the one for romances. Like its many predecessors, "Message in a Bottle" follows the old romantic formula perfectly. This isn't a criticism. Sonnets have formulas and so do many movie genres. What's interesting is that the formula for romance movies, especially the subgenre of romantic comedies, hasn't changed much in 50 years. Consider "You've Got Mail," which is a charming story about two people who can't stand each other in person but fall in love with each other through email. Except for the email angle, Warner Bros. could easily have made "You've Got Mail" 50 years ago. In fact, they did. In Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 film "The Shop Around the Corner," two coworkers unknowingly woo each through snail mail. Despite pressure from critics, who fault these films as "unrealistic," movie makers have stuck to the romantic comedies' conservative message about love, honor and commitment chiefly because it sells. A closer look at the rules for romantic comedies shows just how socially conservative movies like "Message in a Bottle" and "You've Got Mail" really are. Single parents and divorced children find families. Hollywood almost always puts the families back together. This is especially true of widowers or widows, as in "Sleepless in Seattle." As far the writers of romantic comedies are concerned, Dan Quayle was right. Two parents are better than one for rearing children. Thus George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer's children in "One Fine Day" become part of a family, as do the children in the recent Disney remake of "The Parent Trap." The best heart always wins. Nice guys finish first in romantic comedies. The formula requires not just a sympathetic character but one who is intrinsically good. Consider Steve Martin's character in "Roxanne" or Adam Sandler's in "The Wedding Singer." Sometimes the male lead seems like a bad person in the eyes of the female lead, as in "You've Got Mail," but the audience always knows the truth. In romantic comedies, it is what's inside that counts. Where else would a redblooded American male choose Jeneane Garofalo over Uma Thurman except in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs"? Even the obese Eddie Murphy beats out the slick, thin Eddie Murphy in "The Nutty Professor" in the heart of the women he loves. The "best person wins" rule also works when two fairly sympathetic characters are competing for the same man. In "My Best Friend's Wedding," Cameron Diaz keeps her true love from the wiles of exgirlfriend Julia Roberts, a schemer who missed her chance. Honesty is the best policy. Telling the truth is a sure path to redemption. A character can deceive his loved ones or the object of his affection for most of the movie. But if he comes clean, all will be forgiven. Dustin Hoffman posed as a woman while pursuing Jessica Lange in "Tootsie," but after he revealed himself she found it in her heart to give him a chance. Likewise, in "While You Were Sleeping," Sandra Bullock abused a family's trust by posing as the fiancee of their comatose son. Yet by telling the truth, she is able to win the love of the man's brother and regain the love of the entire family. And of course, the healing power of honesty was the theme of "Liar, Liar." When Jim Carrey is forced to tell the truth for a day, he begins to win the love of his exwife. Romantic leads are never promiscuous. When a lead character falls in love, Hollywood won't let him have sex with anyone other than his true love. Even Julia Roberts, who plays a prostitute in "Pretty Woman," forsakes other clients to be with Richard Gere. In "The Wedding Singer," Adam Sandler, despite his loneliness, ignores the overtures of another woman, while Drew Barrymore, who is engaged to another man, avoids sex with her betrothed. It is the moral dimension that makes these movies work. A friend of mine recently pitched a new romantic comedy to an executive at Fox. The executive pointed to the protagonist, who loses her memory and has an affair. When that happened, "I lost all sympathy for her," he said, ordering a complete rewrite. Courtship requires that men overcome obstacles (even outright rejection) to win the women they love. Courtship may be dying in postmodern America, but it thrives on the silver screen. In romantic comedies men refuse to take no for an answer and often go to absurd lengths to win their lover's heart. On the campus, they call these men "stalkers." In Hollywood, they are known as conquering heroes. Ben Stiller in "There's Something About Mary" and Harry Connick Jr. in "Hope Floats" are good examples of the type. There is no equal opportunity in courtship. Women do not pursue men with such vigor, at least in the movies. (When they do, it is called "Fatal Attraction"). Notes author Cynthia Heimel in a recent Premiere magazine article: "You need conflict. You need preorgasmic tension. Nobody cares if a couple falls into each other's arms in Act Three if in Act Two all they do is sip a little coffee and take tedious strolls on the beach. Love must conquer all." Love redeems. In romantic comedies, love, not riches, fame or power, redeems lost souls. In "Scrooged," a heartless television executive who is not unlike many agents, producers and studio chieftains is transformed into a pleasant, generous man. The executive begins to change only after he is reunited with his old sweetheart, whom he had abandoned years ago. Her love transforms him. In general, love brings characters back to traditional values of honesty, patience, thrift and hard work. Hollywood will not become a capital of social conservatism anytime soon but the boxoffice success of romantic comedies gives one hope. Mr. Miniter, who is writing a romantic comedy titled "True Love or Your Money Back," writes for Reader's Digest. Copyright (c) 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc. (c) 2005 Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive, LLC (trading as Factiva). All Rights Reserved.
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