There is an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer—having been granted a genius-level IQ via the removal of a crayon that had been lodged in his brain since childhood—makes the mistake of taking in the new Julia Roberts romantic comedy, Love Is Nice. Where once he would have loved the film's lame banter and tediously predictable plotline, Homer now sits unhappily in the dark, wondering how his fellow filmgoers can enjoy such swill. At one point, another moviegoer notices Homer isn't laughing and points him out to the entire crowd, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style, and when Homer attempts to explain why the film is so awful, he ends up getting whacked upside the head with a two-by-four.
As that wooden plank made contact with Homer's yellow noggin, there were many of us who keenly felt his pain, those of us who have never quite understood the eternal allure of Julia Roberts and her big horsy smile, who would gladly take a two-by-four to any part of our bodies if it meant we never had to see her or Reese Witherspoon in action again.
To be fair, most romantic comedies aren't actually excruciating, even the ones starring Witherspoon; if you got stuck watching one on an airplane, you could probably survive it without ripping off your own arm and beating a flight attendant to death with it. Unlike, say, your average indie picture, when you sit down for a mainstream romantic comedy, you rarely have to worry about encountering iffy dialogue or amateurish acting or any weird new ideas that could shake up your precarious value system; no, odds are that two hours later, you'll emerge from a romantic comedy pretty much exactly who you were going in but with your brain muscles perhaps a little looser from having lain idle for a spell. There's nothing so wrong with that, but then again, there's nothing so right about it, either.
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Normally, romantic comedies show up, make a little money and then vanish into well-deserved obscurity, but lately, something screwy has been happening. It started with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a very modest, tepidly reviewed picture that defied all expectations by grossing enough to buy every single person in the nation a Whopper Jr. and some supersized fries. Since then, we've seen other romantic comedies nobody was that thrilled about trounce the competition at the box office: Jennifer Lopez pretty much killed the entire Star Trek franchise when her Maid In Manhattan clobbered Star Trek: Nemesis late last year. (Admittedly, the Trek picture probably wouldn't have been a blockbuster at the best of times, but its producers could have been forgiven for assuming they were going to be trounced by The Two Towersrather than some instantly disposable romance starring Jenny From the Block.) As you read this, Kate Hudson is becoming an overnight sensation starring in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, the No. 1 picture in America its opening weekend (and No. 2 to Daredevilat press time), despite reviews that would suggest every copy of the film should be left in a lead canister way down at the bottom of the sea.
America has gone romantic-comedy crazy, and it doesn't take having a crayon removed from your brain to see why; we're all depressed and scared out of our wits. With the economy in ruins and the prospect of apocalypse seeming more likely than it has at any time since the original Bush administration, people are starving for escape from the increasingly grim headlines. But while our grandparents flocked to see such charmers as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to get their minds off their own aching bellies during the Great Depression, we're stuck with romantic leads who actually make you long for the good ol' days of Meg Ryan.
A lot has been written about how people are seeking unchallenging, reassuring fare just now, but sometimes I wonder if maybe we've got it all backwards. Maybe we have something to learn from our afflicted brethren in the Germany of the '20s or the America of the late '60s, people who responded to troubled times with reckless hedonism, dressing funny, getting wasted, making fun mistakes and grand statements.
Sure, love is nice, but with Armageddon hanging over our heads, maybe it's time we all loved—and lived—just a little less nicely.