In her very funny, completely spot-on 2011 New Yorker essay, Mindy Kaling admits to loving romantic comedies — and she admits that admitting as much is not a very popular thing among smart, savvy women. After all, rom-coms these days are pretty dumb. The lead actresses are an interchangeable group of blondes (Katherine Heigl, Kate Hudson, Kate Bosworth) who usually have some high-powered magazine job and fall for some hot guy who is a total ass, while ignoring some cute, sweet guy right in front of her. (Of course, the plot can be reversed, but it never gets much more complicated than that.)
These silly movies are, of course, just begging to be spoofed. And, who better to spoof them than the guys behind the camp classic Wet Hot American Summer? In the recently released They Came Together (oh, that double entendre!), Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler star in a very tongue-in-cheek takedown of romantic comedies. The film certainly has its moments, but overall, it’s not exactly funny enough and far too self-aware to completely work. But, the biggest problem with the movie is how it lambasts the classic films of Nora Ephron, lumping them in with Katherine Heigl crap. You’ve Got Mail might be a bit schmaltzy at times, but it does not belong in the same category as the insufferable 27 Dresses.
You could argue that 27 Dresses would have never been made if Ephron hadn’t basically invented the rom-com genre in the late '80s with the amazing When Harry Met Sally. But, it’s not exactly fair to blame her for the explosion of crummy, cookie-cutter fare. If anything, Ephron would likely be indignant that male Hollywood execs continue to misunderstand the female demographic and refuse to produce quality movies that are smart and funny, and that don’t pander to the audience.
Ephron was the queen of these clever films. Nearly 30 years after the release of When Harry Met Sally, this slick battle of sexes feels as timeless as The Philadelphia Story. Ephron recognizes the fundamental differences between men and women and embraces it, giving Billy Crystal one of the greatest lines in movie history: “…[M]en and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” And, so begins the story of Harry and Sally, one of the funniest, sweetest, most real relationships ever captured on film. Crystal and Meg Ryan have the same on-screen chemistry as Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn — they war, they fume, they fall in love. And, the audience swoons.
Any way you slice it, Ephron is head and shoulders above other rom-com writers and directors. For starters, she was a hell of a writer, cutting her teeth as a journalist, running with the boys at Esquire and New York magazine in the 1970s. And, her films are fairy tales, carefully crafted odes to love, to the differences between men and women, to New York City. Sleepless In Seattle is wonderful in its absurdity. Who falls in love with someone they hear on the radio? It’s outrageous, but Ephron acknowledges that, when Rosie O’Donnell says the classic line, “You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.” And, who doesn’t feel that way sometimes?
She didn’t always get it perfect. In Heartburn, a movie about her messy marriage to famed journalist Carl Bernstein, Jack Nicholson is grossly under-utilized in his role, and the deep subject matter feels like it's given short shrift. Later, in Hanging Up — a script penned by Ephron and her sister Delia — miscast sisters Diane Keaton, Meg Ryan, and Lisa Kudrow deal with the illness of their alcoholic screenwriter father (Walter Matthau). Again, the tough subject (which may hit too close to home: Ephron was the eldest of four girls, daughters of Hollywood screenwriters) is treated too lightly. And, by this time in her career, Meg Ryan had fallen victim to the plastic surgeon — her lips are the only thing memorable about the movie.
At the heart of it, that’s why the films work: because they are so relatable. We’re all a little bit like Sally, finicky about our food, demanding things be just so. We understand why Sam yells at his son in Sleepless In Seattle. We get the frustration. We feel for Annie as she struggles to reconcile her feelings for the man she’s engaged to, who’s lovely but not the one. We’ve all had moments like Kathleen in You’ve Got Mail, where we’ve fumbled for the perfect comeback, only to be left tongue-tied. We’ve been there. And, it’s relief to see it up on the big screen, confirming our feelings and giving them a voice.
Nora Ephron’s characters are vulnerable. They struggle to understand their own motivations, and they struggle to connect with the world around them — like we all do. And, so, while these may be fairy tales (New York has never looked as good as it does in You’ve Got Mail), they’re also incredibly real, incredibly clever, and incredibly fun to watch.
Shortly after Ephron’s death in 2012, Lena Dunham wrote a poignant essay in The New Yorker about the writer. The Girls star and scribe is in many ways a completely different character than Ephron. Her stories are gritty and sometimes ugly and don’t have the same fantasy quality of Ephron’s work. But, Dunham wouldn’t be Dunham if she hadn’t grown up on a steady diet of Ephron’s words. And, it’s safe to say she’s not the only contemporary screenwriter (heck, human being) who was so inspired.
Maybe it’s not surprising that They Came Together pokes fun at You’ve Got Mail and the rest of Ephron’s oeuvre. It wouldn’t be a spoof if they didn’t take down the masters. But, once you finish watching it, cleanse your palette with something from a real comedic genius. Watch a man and woman muddle through life with humor and dignity and smarts, then tell yourself, “I’ll have what they’re having.”