Bangs without Kisses -- Where's the Romance?

Commentary by James Berardinelli
August 7, 1996

The titles of the big summer movies are already ingrained in the minds of every movie-goer: Twister, Mission Impossible, The Rock, Eraser, The Nutty Professor, and Independence Day. None of these money-grabbing films is much of a romance, and all of them except Eddie Murphy's morphing remake of the Jerry Lewis "classic" are pure, unadulterated action-and- adrenaline. To date, this has been a pretty good summer for those who like to sit in a movie theater and get blown away by stunts, explosions, and special effects. Likewise, it has been a bad summer for those searching for kisses and cuddles. With the exceptions of subplots in The Nutty Professor and Phenomenon, and the animated longings of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, love has not been in the air since The Truth about Cats and Dogs debuted in April.

I'm not talking about the hot-and-sweaty lust of Stealing Beauty or the darker, more dramatic emotions of Lone Star. I'm referring to something lighthearted and fun, something that isn't a whole lot more demanding than Twister, but aims for a different audience. Relief of an independent sort is on the way with Emma and She's the One (both opening this month), but they haven't gotten here yet, so those looking for the warm feeling that comes from lightweight romance will have to pay a visit to the video store.

This is, therefore, a good time to look back through the last few years at the best of the summer romances. Every summer seems to have at least one or two standouts, if for no other reason than to serve as effective counterprogramming for the loud, action-oriented fare which fills up seven screens in every eight-plex.

The best, or at least the most memorable, of recent summer romances opened in mid-July of 1989. With its offbeat humor, likable co-stars, and storyline that nearly everyone can relate to, it became one of the year's sleeper hits, and spurred the careers of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan to even greater heights. It was, of course, When Harry Met Sally, one of Rob Reiner's most delightful films. It never answers its central question, "Can men and women be friends without the 'sex' thing getting in the way?", but has a lot of fun trying, and the chemistry between Ryan and Crystal is deliciously bubbly. This movie is definitely worth seeing, or re-seeing, if you're in the mood.

The summer of 1993 saw the release of a pair of popular romantic comedies. The first was Kenneth Branagh's side-splitting intepretation of Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, and proved to be not only one of the summer's highlights, but one of the best films of the year. Incorporating a script culled from the original text of the play and a few visual innovations of Branagh's composition, this film showed surprisingly widespread appeal. At its center are two romantic entanglements -- the "white bread" relationship of Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and the spicier sparring of Beatrice and Benedick (the then-married Emma Thompson and Branagh).

For those who shy away from anything having to do with Shakespeare, there was also Sleepless in Seattle, from director Nora Ephron (who wrote When Harry Met Sally). This sort-of re-teamed Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan from Joe Versus the Volcano. I say "sort of" because the two are only in a handful of scenes together, as the story keeps them apart, on separate coasts, for most of the running length. This is a rare romance where the leads don't even kiss (let alone do anything more athletic) -- the closest moment of intimacy has them holding hands. In addition to being unabashedly romantic, Sleepless boasts a number of hilarious scenes, including one where Hanks and real-life wife Rita Wilson debate the virtues of An Affair to Remember and The Dirty Dozen.

Like 1993, the summer of 1994 had a pair of noteworthy romantic comedies -- one in the independent film arena (Barcelona) and one designed to be mainstream (It Could Happen to You). While the former did acceptable business in its limited run, the latter's box office performance was disappointing. Nevertheless, it's no less romantic or enjoyable than the previously mentioned pictures, so the problem was likely either marketing or a lack of enthusiasm about the leads. There's no obvious reason, however, why a film starring Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda should inspire more viewer apathy than one featuring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Barecelona, from Whit Stillman, is a thinking person's romance. It features the romantic adventures of two Americans in Barcelona, in the process noting how the "right girl" isn't always the one you think she is. The film is less memorable for its heartwarming scenes than for some clever, occasionally riotous snippets of dialogue between the two cousins as they discuss life, love, and politics. This film is for those who want a love story but aren't in the mood to have their heart melted.

It Could Happen to You is much in the tradition of Harry and Sleepless, and those who enjoyed those movies should have little problem falling for this one. It's not daring or demented, and, while the plot contains a few uncomplicated twists and turns, this movie is obviously designed more to elicit smiles than to get the brain working. It's not stupid, but neither is it an example of cinematic brilliance.

The summer of 1995 was a weak season for romance -- perhaps as weak as 1996. Three releases qualified as romantic comedies, but all were considered "offbeat" in one way or another, and none made an exceptional amount of money. 1995's standout romance, While You Were Sleeping, arrived in theaters in the early Spring, and was gone by the time Crimson Tide opened the summer box office. (I could mention The Bridges of Madison County, but, while that film is unabashedly romantic, it's considerably "heavier" than the other titles being tossed around here.)

The most-seen of the summer's romantic trio was Edward Burns' award-winning The Brothers McMullen, which deals with sex, love, and Catholic angst. The film chronicles the love affairs of three Irish American males -- one who's married and contemplating an affair, one who's running scared from a marriage he doesn't want, and one who doesn't believe in true love. Although it appeals more to the emotions than the intellect, Burns' film may still be a little too cerebral for some. For those who appreciate the director's work, his talents (both on and off-screen) will be on display again in late August with She's the One.

Early last summer, Miramax subjected the (pre-scandal) Hugh Grant feature, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, to a wide release. It bombed, proving to be one of the Disney-owned distributor's few absolute marketing failures. The Englishman probably deserved a better fate, and was arguably the summer's best "pure" romantic comedy, weaving the tale of how an English map maker falls for a beautiful Welsh lass while charting the local geography.

The third film, Jeffrey, is a gay romatic comedy, and, for those who aren't offended by homosexuality, this is a refreshingly funny film. It's a little light on the "romantic" side, but several inspired sequences more than compensate for any such deficiencies. Patrick Stewart, known best for his Captain Picard personae, delivers a hilarious, show-stealing performance. If you're not a homophobe, this is a great rental choice.

So that brings us to the present day. Emma (wide release on August 16) is just around the corner, providing our semi-annual exposure to Jane Austen. While this film will find an audience, its appeal will probably not approach the level of the Oscar-nominated Sense and Sensibility. She's the One, which opens a few weeks later, will likely make more money than The Brothers McMullen, but will draw from a similar audience. That leaves the mainstream romantics without a movie to champion. Maybe Tin Cup will fit the bill. Or perhaps Feeling Minnesota (although calling that a "summer" release, with its September opening, is a stretch). Regardless, there's always next year for romance -- provided you confine your hopes to the weeks preceding Valentine's Day. With the likes of Speed 2, Batman and Robin, and Jurassic Park 2 arriving on screens starting next May, it looks like the summer of '97 will have a greater preponderance of explosions and special effects than this one.

© 1996 James Berardinelli

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