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The arts column: revitalising the romcom
(Filed: 29/10/2003)

The movies are falling for romance all over again, writes Sarah Crompton

As a cinema-goer, you wait years for a good romantic comedy to come along - and then suddenly, like buses, three arrive at once.

Love Actually
A new era: Andrew Lincoln in Love Actually

Intolerable Cruelty, just out, Love Actually, released next month, and Lost in Translation, screened at the London Film Festival and on general release in January, are all very different in tone and basic tenet. But, since all have love and humour at their centre, they can fairly be judged as romcoms. Taken together, they seem to me to revitalise the genre.

The critical consensus on the Coen brothers' Intolerable Cruelty is that it is a lame addition to their oeuvre, but it made me laugh out loud. The plot revolves around a self-centred divorce attorney Miles Massey (played with irrepressible grace by George Clooney), a man who cannot pass a mirror without examining the whiteness of his teeth and the line of his cuffs.

When he falls for a gold-digging femme fatale, Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a sophisticated and stylish game of one-upmanship starts to unfold. You never truly doubt that the guy will get his gal, but there is an enormous amount of fun and brittle wit to be had along the way.

Richard Curtis's directorial debut - of his own script - Love Actually, is a more soft-centred version of romance. Curtis is to film what Dido is to pop: a superbly tuned practioner of exactly the kind of slush that makes critics reach for the sick-bag and the audience for superlatives.

I am cynic enough to know I am being manipulated by a vision of England where the Prime Minister's nephew and his tea-lady's brother go to the same school, and where every home has lighted Christmas decorations on its doorstep. But that doesn't stop me thinking that Love Actually is, actually, very funny, marshalling its portmanteau of love stories with consummate skill - and, in one, creating a comedy of mis-translation that made me cry with laughter.

A sense of emotion adrift in an alien culture is the bedrock of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. She shows us the friendship that develops between disenchanted movie star Bob Harris (the magnificent Bill Murray) and an uncertain young wife (Scarlett Johansson) when they find themselves prowling the corridors of a forbidding Tokyo hotel, beset by insomnia and loneliness.

As they break out from their surroundings, discovering both the city around them and the turmoil within, their relationship grows and develops in unexpected ways. A film of enormous poise, Lost in Translation is not just a great romantic comedy, but a great and truthful movie as well. Scenes in it are almost unbearably funny and emotional - at the same time.

What this trio of films shares is two-fold. They all rely on charismatic acting to carry them through. Zeta-Jones may be wooden at times, but she exudes real Hollywood sheen. She shines like a star. And Clooney imbues his performance not only with naturalistic detail - watch him wear a kilt - but with the perfect timing of a Cary Grant.

Love Actually features too many confident performances to list, but Laura Linney and Emma Thompson, crying by a bed when she recognises the failure of her marriage, ground the film in a reality that it would lack without them. It is that sense of loss that makes all the happy endings which surround them, more palatable.

In Lost in Translation, both Murray and Johansson are note-perfect. He is finally allowed to be sexy and sensitive on screen, and she can convey more in a look than most young actresses get over in an entire movie.

Secondly, all these movies have a strong sense of themselves. Intolerable Cruelty may be Coen brothers lite, but their gimlet eyes bring to it both great gags (including an unsurpassable one about an assassin called Wheezy Joe) and a sure feel for unfolding chaos.

Curtis's film represents the zenith of his vision of the world as a place where good, love and virtue can triumph. His British-ness gives the film its distinct tang.

Coppola holds both humour and emotion in her hands and transforms them into a remarkable meditation on love and friendship, without ever losing the balance between them. The film is of today and deeply nostalgic at the same moment.

In this, all three films hark back to the golden age of Hollywood romantic comedy - a world that was both idealised and real. Down With Love, another recent romcom, starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger, was an explicit tribute to this genre. It was ghastly because, though it had all the trimmings of an old-fashioned great, it didn't understand what to do with them - or what it was for.

But these three movies know exactly what they are up to. Without trying too hard, they recall the best of Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch and even Stanley Donen, while reinventing and re-interpreting them for modern times.

24 October 2003: Love between predators [review of Intolerable Cruelty]
17 October 2003: Cream of the screen [London Film Festival highlights, including Lost in Translation]
9 September 2003: Actually, it's great fun [David Gritten on Love Actually]

External links 
Intolerable Cruelty
Love Actually
Lost in Translation