Who's the Queen of Romantic Comedy? Pop Culture Live with Alyssa Rosenberg

Mar 02, 2020

Is your favorite book or show over? The discussion here is just starting. Pop culture writer and editor Alyssa Rosenberg will be online every Monday at 1 p.m. Eastern for Pop Culture Live, where she'll talk about the best (and worst) in pop culture. She'll also try to sort out why the stories we love mean so much to us, and what they mean for the rest of the world. Submit your questions comments on pop culture and her latest columns.

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Good afternoon, everyone! How are you all doing? I am dramatically underslept, but also eager to discuss "The Invisible Man" with any of you who have seen it. As long-time readers of the chat know, I have an extraordinarily difficult time with horror, but I thought it was just terrific and I'm eager to talk about it, just as I did with Sonny Bunch and Peter Suderman on the episode of our podcast that came out today.

What are your thoughts on the lackluster box office for Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)? Based off one of your recent newsletters, it sounds like you weren't especially keen on the movie, but I thought it was a blast and found the small scale and more distinctive aesthetics refreshing for a blockbuster. I'm a little baffled that audiences are apparently more interested in Joker or even Venom. What gives?

I think a couple of things combined to give "Birds of Prey" a mediocre outing at the box office.

First, though I know it's hard to imagine so, I do think that Joker has much, much bigger name recognition with moviegoers than Harley Quinn does. That makes sense: the character was the main antagonist in the 1966 "Batman" movie, the 1989 "Batman" movie, "The Dark Knigh" and in "Suicide Squad," and he's appeared in many, many other adaptations. Harley Quinn is just not nearly as prominent a stand-alone character as Joker is, and not as recognizable to casual fans of superhero blockbuster movies.

Second, I think it was probably a mistake to make this an R movie. If you want to sell it as a fun, empowering fantasy that will play to teenage girls, they need to be able to go see it without their parents' permission. If you want to sell it as raunchy girls-night-out fun to older women, you probably don't want to amp up the violence by having Chris Messina peeling people's faces off. The movie, at least to me, played like it was trying to draw in the audience for "Joker" rather than pull in its own viewers on its own strengths. There's nothing in a Harley-Quinn-gets-over-a-breakup-movie that needs to be R-rated.

Third, marketing this first as a "Birds of Prey" movie with Harley Quinn in the subhead compounded the first problem on this list. There's a reason Marvel built up to the idea of the Avengers, introducing each member of the team one at a time. After the movie hit theaters, DC changed the title, but it was just too little too late.

I think Meghan Markle and Donald Trump have something in common. Reading the piece by Vanessa Grigoriadis on Meghan Markle, I think Meghan Markle felt silenced, and maybe imprisoned, by her new royal role. But I think like Donald Trump, she was also upset and frustrated she couldn’t control a press that she had previously done so successfully as a TV star.

The poster is referring to this piece in New York Magazine, which I found interestingly spiky; I have been suspicious of the idea that Harry and Meghan would be able to achieve a clean split from senior royal status in a way that gave them the latitude they obviously crave. But it was very interesting to read about this split in the context of Markle's long-standing ambitions. By that, I don't mean that Grigoriadis sees Markle as a golddigger. Instead, she argues, it's just that the institution of the royal family is so strange and anachronistic that it's basically impossible to understand from the outside, and even if you look at marrying into it as a platform to do an enormous amount of good, it's nigh-impossible to do that on your own terms. Especially for someone as self-created as Markle is, I imagine that's an extraordinarily difficult adjustment to make, especially when combined with the racial and class politics of the family she married into.

The Washington Post (Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, owns the Washington Post) gave "Invisible Man" 1.5 stars while I've read much more complementary reviews on Rotten Tomatoe. (And plan to see it.) In the interest of calibrating reviewers and review sites, how do you rate "Invisible Man", if you've seen it, or do you plan to avoid it based on the poor Washington Post review? Are there any reviewers, besides Ann Hornaday and Hank Stuever, that are your bedrock truth?

I'm going to be writing about this in greater detail tomorrow, but I really, really liked "The Invisible Man," and suspect it will stick with me for a long time. I don't make decisions about what to see based on what other critics, at the Post or otherwise, think; I make my own schedule and try to see things that are either to my taste or seem to intersect with one of my cultural or political instersts despite being not to my taste.

As for critics I like, I want to draw a distinction between critics who I love to read and trust to provoke me, and between critics whose tastes exactly match my own. I love reading Ann and Hank, but our tastes don't always exactly coincide, and I can't think of a single critic who I'd feel comfortable just outsourcing my opinions to. Our experiences and perspectives are just all too different for that! Among other critics I love and trust are the Undefeated's Soraya McDonald, Slate's Willa Paskin, the New Yorker's Doreen St. Felix and Emily Nussbaum, the New York Times' James Poniewozik, Vox's Emily VanDerWerff, the wide-ranging critic Sarah Weinman, the Hollywood Reporter's Dan Feinberg and Rolling Stone's Alan Sepinwall and the New York Times' Manhola Dargis. He has me blocked on Twitter, but I always enjoy dipping into Armond White's brain because of the weird places our brains overlap and the much vaster territory where they diverge. My friends and podcast partners Peter Suderman and Sonny Bunch have radically different tastes than I do, in a lot of ways, but engaging with them makes me a better critic and person.

Another Queen of the Rom-Com... Reese Witherspoon?

An extremely valid nomination! Now I just really want Ali Wong to make enough other romantic comedies that I can put her name in contention. "Always Be My Maybe" is one of the sweetest times I've had watching a movie in the last year.

He Following up on the newsletter, is there a Kate Hudson that you (or really anybody) would want to remade with Chris Pratt (or another male movie star Kate Hudson analogue) in the lead? (Also didn't realize Chris Pratt was also in "Bride Wars")

Given all the great movies about complicated female rockstars we're getting these days, what about a gender-flipped "Almost Famous"?

Is it Zoe Kravitz or Zoë Kravitz?

The latter.

Also a note for Sandra Bullock.

Indeed! You could write a great history of America in romantic comedy queens. Actually, now that I think of it...

So, how will people staying home from large gatherings change pop culture?

Snagging this for the newsletter this week, since I intended to write a column about this last week and got diverted into (other) breaking news!

I'm watching the new HIGH FIDELITY series on Hulu and loving it. I've also read the book, watched the John Cusack movie and even seen one of the 18 Broadway performances of the musical. Are there some properties which seem more amenable to infinite adaptations than others. Can you think of some other recent properties that have done so well in so many mediums?

I don't know that this counts as recent, but "Parfumerie," the play that became first "The Shop Around the Corner," "In the Good Old Summertime," a Broadway musical and ultimately "You've Got Mail" definitely qualifies; it's flexible and adaptable enough to fit a lot of circumstances without losing its charm. You could, and maybe should, do it for the app era!

Like you I'm not a fan of horror. I think the only film in that category that I have liked even a little is "The Cabin in the Woods," which is so aggressive in its deconstruction of tropes that I was never really scared. So I'm curious to know what makes you enjoy a film in spite of its genre? What does a genre picture have to do to attract people who don't like the genre? I'm thinking also of Jordan Peele's horror movies, which I have been a little tempted to see, but it's so hard for me to get over my dislike of the genre. (Feel free to tell me to listen to the podcast if you addressed it there...)

For me, it's that the scares need to be in service of an idea. I find gory violence profoundly distasteful, and because I have exceptionally vivid nightmares, I don't enjoy being scared just for the thrill of it. But if a filmmaker is using violence and scares to magnify and illuminate a genuinely scary phenomenon, I can usually get something out of it. Peele does that very well with race and class, Leigh Whannell, who directed both "Upgrade," which we discussed on the podcast last week, and "The Invisible Man" uses horror to dramatize what technology and misogyny are doing to us. But there is no world in which I'm going to see, say, one of the torture porn franchises out there. As I've discussed (and written) here and elsewhere, it's okay to know that things aren't for you, as long as you don't mistake your own preferences and limitations for absolute moral judgments. I try to stretch mine, but I also feel fine recognizing when too far is too far. You should, too. I very much liked "The Invisible Man," but that doesn't mean I feel like you should force yourself beyond all reasonable tolerance to see it.

I really liked Harriet, and I honestly went to Cats just to see the train wreck (it was, but I rather liked the group numbers with the non-celebrity dancers). I saw the recent Star Wars and could tell you the resolution at the end, but not how the story got there. That is pretty much all I've seen that I can recall. I used to go to at least a few. 1917 would have normally been on my list. I didn't bother. I might have gone to see Call of the Wild if they did it with a real dog, even if that meant cutting back on the story, but with a CGI dog? No thanks. I've signed up for a bunch of documentaries with the environmental film festival, but the best part of most of those is the Q&A afterwards with the film maker, or just the chance to go to an embassy. I know ticket sales are up, but I honestly can't figure out why. I know my tastes are very different than typical - I'd rather go to a play than a movie any day of the week - but how is this group of movies setting records? Just a lot of things that appeal to narrow groups of which I am, apparently, not a member?

Your diagnosis is a bit off, I think; in the case of "Star Wars,"that's not a niche movie, it's a pre-sold franchise that is aimed as broadly as possible. That's what a lot of these big movies are these days: they're a riff on a well-established formula, and with ticket prices as expensive as they are, moviegoers flock to these franchises because they feel like at least they know what they're paying for. "The Call of the Wild," which was better than I expected, is making big bucks because there simply aren't that many family movies in theaters these days. You may, in fact, be the niche audience, but I don't think you're wrong to be there! You might try "1917" if you were tempted; I really liked it, just didn't get a chance to write about it. "Parasite" is hugely original and astonishingly well-acted. I don't know if you're a "Little Women" person, but even if you're not, you might be surprised and gratified by how acerbic it is. I promise you: there are good movies out there. Tell me a bit more about what you like, whether here or by email (alyssa.rosenberg@washpost.com) and I'll try to tailor some recommendations for you.

Maybe not "The Queen," what about the Jennifers? Aniston and Lopez?

I honestly think Aniston's film career is too uneven, and in some cases, too interesting, for her to really be a contender. And for all I like Lopez, she has been in a lot of romantic clunkers.

A friend of mine recently cited her three favorite rom-coms, and their stars were, in alphabetical order, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck. I mean, I like Reese Witherspoon and all, but would you pick her over ANY of those three?

Barbara Stanwyck forever. "The Lady Eve" is pretty much my perfect movie.

Old school-wise, gotta put Diane Keaton in there. Sorry, not sorry. And I second your Ali Wong nomination, but only if Randall Park gets more rom-com work and a nomination as King. Man, I loved that movie.

Totally. Let's reteam them as much as possible. Hey Netflix, get your algorithm working!

Meg Ryan.

My contemporary nominee!

Do you think men & women will interpret the film differently?

Quite possibly! Sonny, Peter and I had a lively discussion about it, with all of us coming down in three slightly different places.

Mentioning Reese Witherspoon, one that fits that bill is "American Psycho"?

A movie I badly want to see, but I really struggle with a specific act of violence I know is in the movie that I don't think I can handle.

An article today discussed a study showing that millennials are more sexist than their older citizens. Any idea why that would be?

I'd need to see the link so I could see whether the methodology is reliable enough to take seriously. That said, I would not be remotely shocked to see a rise in misogyny in an era of rising income inequality. When people's expectations are confounded, they look for people to blame and systems to explain why those expectations have been confounded. 

Looking a the winners of Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role and although it's not all of them, a lot of them are people on that "Queen of Rom-Com" list. Is there a major Hollywood leading lady who doesn't at least a few rom-coms to her name?

In the past, there wasn't. But the genre's been rather neglected by the movie industry lately, to my infinite regret. It's nice--and smart--to see streaming outfits like Netflix picking up the slack.

Sunset Boulevard, Little Shop of Horrors, The Producers, All About Eve/Applause, many of the Disney fairy tale stories...

Indeed. Although I wouldn't so much call them Disney fairy tales; they're just fairy tales.

Have to put in a vote for my beloved Julia Roberts. Admittedly, her body of work includes quite a bit besides romcoms, but hi, "Pretty Woman" is at the top of the list (ok, my list, but still).

You're not alone. It's a movie where the leads are so charming and their chemistry is so palpable that they kind of vault over the icky premise, even to this day.

I'm sure she has some leads (i.e. "Rumor Has It"), but I think of Jennifer Aniston as more of the love interest in comedies (i.e. "Office Space," "Bruce Almighty," "Along Came Polly," etc...)

To be in contention for this particular crown, I think you have to be the lead in these projects.

Seeing all this romcom queen talk here makes me think of how for a while, the rom com seemed to be doing better on television than in the movies. As most of the titles I associated with that flourish have wrapped up, I was wondering if you’d still say that’s the case, or does it appear to be moving back to the big screen?

I think it's actually moving back to Netflix, which has invested in romantic comedies aimed at teenagers and adults in a big way, including turning some of them into franchises. It's a very smart move for them: it's a comfort-food genre that can be produced relatively cheaply and that if one catches on, people will watch again and again.

As I sort through the important question of who is the queen of the rom-coms, I'm asking myself, If you put Candidate A into Candidate B's movie, is it better, worse, or same? And I'm not sure that either "When Harry Met Sally" or "French Kiss" is a better movie if you put Stanwyck or Hepburn into it. Which tells me that Ryan is a strong contender.

Oh, that's a great test. Obviously Stanwyck and Ryan have radically different energy, and there are different kinds of romantic comedies. Ryan is an everywoman in a way that Stanwyck was very much not; I don't know that I'd even describe her as an aspirational figure. But whatever the best way to describe her is, she was a delight.

Do you ever wonder how what people mean when they describe something as a “fairytale” would be different if it weren’t for Disney?


She's out

We're going to have a rather busy week, aren't we! 

Lovely chatters: I have to go to my 2pm meeting, and I'll be on a much-needed vacation next week. But we'll reconvene on March 16. Until then, we clearly need to all work on our RomCom Queens rankings so we can produce a definitive list.

In This Chat
Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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