The romantic comedy is back.
It only took 400 years.
"Much Ado About Nothing," Joss Whedon's larky adaptation of William Shakespeare's play that opens Friday, transposes the action from 17th century Sicily to modern-day Santa Monica, where in Whedon's sprightly re-imagining, the verbally sparring Beatrice and Benedick fall in love in the director's own modern mission-style home, amidst shots of tequila, beeping iPhones and scads of political intrigue.
But Shakespeare's play — with its deceptions, schemes, setbacks and ultimate victory of true love — also serves as a sobering reminder of how romantically impoverished mainstream American cinema has become. "Much Ado," which for decades served as the classic template for bickering couples from Hepburn and Tracy, Day and Hudson and Ryan and Hanks, has gradually devolved into "Nothing." Ask hard-core romantic comedy fans for the best recent example of a big-studio romantic comedy and they're likely to squint and strain before maybe mentioning "The Proposal," a creaking Sandra Bullock-Ryan Reynolds vehicle from 2009.
Summertime used to be a season in which audiences could take a break from their seasonal diet of special-effects spectacles with a shiny, star-driven romantic comedy starring America's Sweetheart du Jour. But lately, that cinematic palate cleanser has been mysteriously off the menu. Last year, the closest thing to a summer rom-com hit was "Ted," about a romance between a man and his . . . teddy bear.
This summer, we have equally male-driven wish-fulfillment fantasies like "The Hangover Part III," "This Is the End" and "The Internship," in which boy-girl stuff — if present at all — is strictly an afterthought. (The sisters, too, are doing it for themselves: In the beguiling comedy "Frances Ha," the title character's most ardent romance is with her female best friend, her third-act triumph arriving when she moves into her own apartment, alone.)
The reasons for the current dearth of frothy, funny, sigh-inducing entertainment are what an economist might call over-determined. For one thing, at a time when issues like gay marriage, women's role as (underpaid) breadwinners and the morning-after pill are in ascendancy, old-fashioned stories that confect ways to keep their heterosexual couples apart until a suitably dewy third act seem hopelessly retrograde. Meg Ryan playfully scandalized audiences when she faked an orgasm in "When Harry Met Sally"; today, production is ramping up for a movie version of the steamily explicit bodice-heaver "Fifty Shades of Grey." As CIA deputy director — and former erotic bookstore owner — Avril Haines once noted in a recently unearthed quote, "Erotica has become more prevalent because people are trying to have sex without having sex."
Sex-free sex might be the ultimate symptom of a millennial generation that is hooking up, de-friending and otherwise avoiding long-term commitment while they ride out a rocky and uncertain economy. It wouldn't be that surprising if, instead of using their discretionary income to watch rich, attractive people engage in courtship rituals they themselves can't afford, young adults might instead seek refuge and reassurance in stories predicated on same-sex friendship: Goodbye, "Annie Hall." Hello, "Bridesmaids."
If the current absence of big-screen romance reflects trends at play in society at large, it also reflects a broader realignment in Hollywood, where in a desperate attempt to minimize risk and maximize profits, studios are throwing everything overboard that isn't based on a bestselling novel or game or comic book. It bears noting that, just before Whedon made the charmingly lo-fi "Much Ado About Nothing," he wrapped production on the mega-budget Marvel Comics extravaganza "The Avengers."
To further hedge their bets, studios in recent years have cravenly sought to make movies that appeal across all four demographic quadrants (young men and young women, older men and older women). Like the "romaction" genre that fuses relationships and car crashes (think "Date Night" and "Knight and Day"), hard-R comedies like "The Hangover," "Bad Teacher" and last year's "Ted" appeal both to young women and their male companions, a "two-quadrant" win that made studio suits swoon.
But even that brand of demographics-as-destiny thinking is being retooled as huge new markets in China and beyond begin to show American movies in their spanking-new multiplexes. With the international box office now accounting for up to 70 percent of a film's revenue, studios are looking for anything that transcends language and cultural mores. In other words, more pow, bang, boom, less kiss-kiss, blah-blah. Mike Tyson and a tiger — or Maya Rudolph relieving herself in the middle of the street — speak volumes in any vernacular.
As the veteran producer and Hollywood explainer Lynda Obst writes in her witty and wise new primer "Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales From the New Abnormal in the Movie Business": "Humor is local. People like their hilarious indigenous customs, built around their own private jokes." The emerging markets that Hollywood most covets might still rely on the United States for big, expensive franchise pictures. But they're increasingly producing their own rom-coms. One of the most successful movies in China this year has been Xue Xiaolu's "Finding Mr. Right," a Ryan and Hanks-worthy tale of star-crossed romance set in — where else? — Seattle.
Historically, big stars like Ryan, Julia Roberts and Bullock have been able to overcome cinematic localism. The question is whether the next generation is up to the task. One unforeseen upshot of Hollywood's Franchise Culture is that it's not minting the kind of actresses who can take up the girl-next-door mantle with convincing ease or instant appeal. Emma Watson and Kristen Stewart both starred in huge franchises ("Harry Potter" and "Twilight," respectively). But neither has the range, approachability or sunny sexiness to successfully pull off the all-American rom-com heroine.
Happily, there are glorious exceptions that prove the rule: Jennifer Lawrence ("The Hunger Games") and Emma Stone ("The Amazing Spider-Man") possess just the right relatability, physical charm and acting chops to have the makings of ideal romantic leads, and both have already acquitted themselves well within the genre, in "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Crazy, Stupid, Love." And, like the adult dramas that Franchise Culture has made virtually obsolete on the big screen, the classic opposites-attract rom-com can still be found on television, whether by way of Lena Dunham in "Girls," Zooey Deschanel in "New Girl" or Emily Mortimer and Jeff Daniels trading screwball barbs in "The Newsroom."
Meanwhile, from the American sweethearts who remain, precious little is being heard, at least this summer. Granted, Bullock does have a new movie coming out next week. It's an opposites-attract comedy, in which her Beatrice is a by-the-book FBI agent who pursues an unlikely relationship with a rough-and-tumble city cop. Sandy's Benedick, it will surprise few to learn, will be played by Melissa McCarthy.