In her essay “Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?” Amy Nicholson writes:
The corpse lay crumpled on the conference table . . . Once, she’d been worth a fortune — at least $100 million . . . Every woman had wanted to be her: Julia, Meg, Sandra, Reese. Not anymore. The romantic comedy is dead. In 1997, there were two romantic comedies among the top 20 box office performers. In 1998 and 1999, there were three. Each cracked $100 million in sales. Even as recently as 2005, five romantic comedies topped $100 million at the box office. Contrast that with 2013: There’s not one romantic comedy in the top 50 films. Not even in the top 100.
Let’s hope she’s merely in a coma. Nicholson goes on say, “A massive romantic-comedy smash was once a surefire way for a starlet to become America’s sweetheart. Yet today’s young ingenues have avoided the genre, choosing instead to play the girlfriend to an inexhaustible supply of men in tights.” Or, to star in their own sci-fi vehicles as Scarlett Johansson and Shailene Woodley have. Johansson may have been in a romantic comedy or two during her 20 year career, but they’ve been the exception. She’s excelled at every other genre, including a thriller, a dark comedy and a melodrama with Woody Allen [Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)]. More recently, she joined The Avengers franchise as Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow. She’s about the only reason to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). The Spike Jonze fantasy Her (2013) would not have worked without Johansson’s unseen presence as Samantha, the voice of a computer. This leads us to the recent Under the Skin (2013), a science fiction film that’s as far from a traditional “summer movie” as one can get. I saw it without having read the book or the advance press. I knew about the disfigured actor but didn’t know how he fit into the plot. For the most part, I found the film tedious. Bear in mind I felt the same about 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Directed by Jonathan Glazer, there are visually fascinating moments by cinematographer Daniel Landin. The physical transformation special effects are also well done. The cinema verité sequences where Johansson’s character drives around Scotland looking for prey tend to run on as if filmed by an unmanned security camera. But I guess that’s the point. The sequence when she picks up Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis, is quite moving. One can hear the sincerity in her voice as she speaks to him even as her character does something terrible. Pearson is extraordinary in the part crafted for him. Early on, after capturing and killing an innocent human female to take control of her body, the alien packs her/itself into a pair of tight jeans and begins walking. The camera then tracks Johansson from behind as if her backside had a gravitational pull of its own. The last time I saw such shameless cinematic “scopophilia” (Laura Mulvey‘s term) was, coincidentally, when the camera lingered on Johansson’s sheer peach-colored panties in the opening credits of Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003).
I last wrote about Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now (2013), one of my favorite movies from last year. In Divergent (2014), she’s the post-Buffy heroine, Beatrice “Tris” Prior, a teenager from a pacifist family who trains as a warrior. In a dystopian future, to diverge is punishable by death. Woodley and Miles Teller reunite, sort of. This time he’s one of her antagonists and shows a nasty streak, providing another nail for the romantic comedy’s coffin.
Director Neil Burger told The Los Angeles Times’ Noelene Clark that in bringing Tris to the screen, he looked to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). “He just doesn’t feel at home. So he goes looking for something more.” Clark went on to quote producer Lucy Fisher on Woodley: “She really is very, very self-sufficient and is her own kind of warrior in terms of she wanted to do her stunts herself. She has a huge amount of inner strength. … She’s very mature beyond her age, as is Tris.”
To carry Nicholson’s argument a step further, why emulate a pretty but passive female star of yesteryear when you can become the hero? In Woodley’s case, the James Dean comparison is apt. Like him, she’s played moody, alienated teenagers on television and in a few movies, notably The Descendants (2011) with George Clooney. However, the physicality of Tris sets Divergent apart. Theo James is her love interest, the fight trainer named Four. He complements Woodley nicely but the focus is on Tris, throughout. Writes Clark: “It was a demanding role, and in casting, filmmakers sought someone who could hold her own in the company of more experienced cast members, including Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd, and embody the brave and at times reckless warrior as well as the ordinary, vulnerable girl. They found their heroine in Woodley.”