I fear for the fate of the romantic comedy. For starters, there’s this horrible trend of calling it a “rom-com,” which should really only be used ironically. Today’s modern comedies have turned so formulaic and hollow that they’re a joke. I won’t even get on my soapbox of saying how far they’ve fallen since the days of Audrey Hepburn, whose films were mostly romantic comedies (although you should all see Roman Holiday, Sabrina, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Maybe the most referenced romantic comedy of all time is the 1989 hit When Harry Met Sally, and it is a good measuring stick to use when in doubt of “rom-com” quality, but in the interest of keeping my point in the ballpark of current culture, let’s compare the ’90s with the 2000s. Or, more specifically, the romantic comedy queens of each decade: Julia Roberts and Katherine Heigl.
Everyone knows her from her 1990 smash hit Pretty Woman, but Julia Roberts had her breakout before that in Steel Magnolias, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She started her career out strong with that nomination at only 22, and stole the screen and the heart of Hollywood the next year in Pretty Woman, which is still her most financially successful film. In that career, she would go on to star in success after success of romantic comedies, including My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, and Runaway Bride. In each, her character was dramatically different, and in each, she won more hearts of men and women alike.
But what truly makes Roberts such a great romantic comedy actress is what she does in between romantic comedies–she makes other, non “rom-com” movies.
After Pretty Woman, she chose roles in a thriller and a children’s movie–Steven Spielberg’s Hook. She guest starred in TV shows and a Woody Allen movie. She wasn’t afraid to take chances, and she paid for them by sometimes suffering a critical or commercial flop. Still, by the late 90s, she had several successes on her hand in time for her 2001 title role in Erin Brockovich, which won her an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Roberts’ romantic comedies had depth and meaning because she expanded her range as an actress and really respected the film industry. She chose scripts carefully and had a down-to-earth beauty. That laugh helped her out too.
As shocked as you may be, Katherine Heigl did not start out that differently than Roberts. Her breakthrough was also a critically acclaimed role, although it was on television. After being cast as Dr. Izzie Stevens in Grey’s Anatomy in 2005, Heigl was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in 2006. The start of her comedic tear was the following year when she starred in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up. From 2008 to 2010, she starred in four more back to back romantic comedies with no other roles besides (begrudgingly) continuing her role on Grey’s Anatomy.
Somewhere in the middle of that conveyor belt, someone dubbed her “the next Julia Roberts,” and the idea stuck. In 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth, Killers, and Life as We Know It, Heigl found the same role in the same formula–every time, we know how it’s going to end up. It’s not just that she’s predictable–Pretty Woman kind of is too–it’s that her range is absolutely nonexistent and her desire to be a real actress apparently is too.
After the release of Knocked Up, Heigl went on record saying that the movie was “sexist,” portraying women as uptight shrews. If she has such a problem with that, I have to ask why every role she chooses is that very character–she does not stray from it once. Her characters are uptight and neurotic, and from what we hear of her on set, it seems like she is too.
How can Heigl be our new romantic comedy go-to? It’s no wonder the genre is falling to pieces before our very eyes. We really have to expect more from the romances coming into our theaters. Jennifer Anniston’s new one Just Go With It (with Adam Sandler, ugh) is coming out in a few weeks, and I’m already wincing.
Greatness really isn’t that far behind us, is it? Here’s the trailer for Roberts’ 1997 movie, My Best Friend’s Wedding.
Now see Katherine Heigl scoff and whine in her second highest grossing film, The Ugly Truth.
Does it take you more than a second to figure out which one will have real characters and a compelling, original story? Didn’t think so.
The next Julia Roberts will make herself known eventually, and trying to predict her is pointless. Hopefully she will know to follow in Roberts’ footsteps in all her acting choices, not just her romantic comedies.