Judging from the movies, romance is hard to come by, difficult to keep, and just as important as it ever was. Despite changing sexual mores and consequent romantic burnout, the hope for lasting love remains entrenched - and we've got the romantic comedies to prove it.
Witness recent popular hits like "Jerry Maguire" (which has been nominated for five Oscars); "Michael"; "One Fine Day"; 1995's sweet solution to loneliness, "While You Were Sleeping"; and "Fools Rush In," which opens today. All these funny films refigure the genre slightly, reaffirming the importance of relationship, especially in marriage.
Romantic comedy has always resolved the pain and chaos of the world through love - love conquers all. Its long history dates back to ancient Rome, and bits of inspired foolishness from those venerable writers filtered right down through time, influenced the comedies even of Shakespeare and Molire, and landed lightly in the movies.
Hollywood produced some fabulously clever twists on the old formulas with pictures like "My Man Godfrey," "His Girl Friday," "It Happened One Night," "Bringing Up Baby," and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," among others (all terrific Valentine's viewing, by the way, available on video).
In these romantic comedies, marriage matters - it is the prize at stake. It was taken for granted that marriage was a more or less permanent condition, that strong women were not a threat to the institution but an asset, and that marriage was the only appropriate place for a sexual relationship. And even when characters got divorced ("Philadelphia Story," "His Girl Friday"), the whole point of the movie was getting husband and wife back together where they obviously belonged.
But it's different now, and given the pessimism about relationships in the '90s, filmmakers have had to search for new ways to keep the stakes high, to make marriage matter.
In the quirky, charming "Michael," writer/director Nora Ephron has the archangel (played with otherworldly finesse by John Travolta) descending to earth for a final visit. Under his influence, a cynical reporter (William Hurt) and a jaded animal trainer (Andie MacDowell) learn how to love again, each giving up a measure of selfishness. Love is so important it is seen as a small miracle - and a good marriage is a singularly heavenly prize.
Making marriage matter in the movies these days sometimes requires a whole family effort. In "While You Were Sleeping," an orphaned young transit worker (Sandra Bullock) saves the life of a handsome man she has admired from afar. As he lies in a temporary coma, his family mistakes her for his fiance. Drawn into the warmth of his eccentric, kind family, she not only falls in love with the sleeping man's brother, she falls in love with his family as well. The patient awakes, confusion ensues, and it is the family that comes through for her. In this film, as in a wonderful comedy from 10 years back, "Moonstruck" (1987), the larger family unit helps create the marriage.
"Moonstruck" concerned Italian-Americans, and the delightful script leaned heavily on ethnic humor and cultural detail. So, too, does the pleasantly amusing "Fools Rush In," which concerns a Mexican-American woman and an Anglo man who marry when the woman finds out she is carrying his child. Neither as cleverly written nor as inspired as "Moonstruck," "Fools" nevertheless celebrates the extended family, the delights of cultural diversity, and of course, marriage. The woman's large, close family provides ballast for her marriage, though they at first oppose it. The baby provides the initial reason to establish a new marriage, but love is its sufficient cause.
Kids are key
Children are the key players in many of the best romantic comedies these days. Families come in a variety of configurations, but one thing remains constant - children's need for love and stability.
Children raise the marriage stakes. In "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993), a little boy helps his father find the right wife (for dad and for himself), though she lives at the other end of the country. In "One Fine Day," a charming and underrated genre film, two single parents meet over child-care responsibilities - both under extreme pressure in their respective workplaces. Though at first they resent and despise each other, the care each shows for the other's child is grounds enough for lasting affection. The kids make it possible and necessary for these two disillusioned people to rediscover love.
In the best of the new crop, "Jerry Maguire," the protagonist loves being a father before he learns to love his stepson's mother - and that love is no less real for having been deliberately cultivated.
More than a romantic comedy, "Jerry Maguire" is really about the necessary conditions for a decent life as well as a good marriage.
Early in the film, sports agent Jerry (played by Oscar nominee Tom Cruise) grows a conscience overnight - a dangerous thing to do in so competitive a business. He writes an idealistic mission statement that gets him fired from his company, and as he leaves, a young bookkeeper whom he has inspired with his vision leaves the company with him to become his assistant. Later the single mother tells Jerry, "Of course I care about the job. But what I really want is to be inspired." So do the rest of us.
Inspiration underlies every major change in the film - Jerry inspires his one client to play football for the passion instead of the paycheck. The athlete inspires Jerry to grapple with his own failure to love the woman he has married. Dorothy inspires confidence in Jerry to start his new business as well as his new life. Like all the best romantic comedy heroines, she is a strong woman, strong enough to demand that her marriage be based on authentic love rather than convenience. It takes a child to bring the couple together, a strong woman to establish the only appropriate conditions for marriage, and a strong man to generously rise to the occasion of love.
Love is active, never passive, in these films. In them, good marriage may be full-time work, requiring inspiration and wisdom to keep it going and sustain family. But it is still the safest harbor for romantic love, the most fertile valley, and the highest pinnacle of its fulfillment.