Movies: Who Killed the Love Story?

On the lost art of making a great romantic movie

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Melissa Moseley / Sony

Evan (Michael Cera, left) could get the chance to hook up with Becca (Martha MacIsaac, right) as he has the night of his life in Superbad.

Correction Appended Aug. 10, 2007

Somewhere in the outer reaches of outback Australia, a place where there are few paved roads and, since it's winter, the temperature gets to only 98°F (37°C), Nicole Kidman is trying to fall in love. This is an incredibly risky thing to do. Not because it's difficult: the object of her affection is Hugh Jackman, a broad-shouldered swoony hunk of the old school. And not because a lot of her needs--Chanel, lip gloss, salad--aren't available in nearby Kununurra, and the nearest substantial town is about 350 miles (560 km) away. It's because Kidman & Co. are making a big, $130 million--plus historical romantic drama. The kind of movie hardly anyone makes anymore. The kind of movie people seem to stay away from in droves. The kind of movie studios take a huge, bitterly cold bath in.

The most successful movie of all time by almost any standard, Titanic, will be 10 years old this year. It made roughly $600 million in the U.S. and won 11 Academy Awards. That same year, As Good as It Gets, My Best Friend's Wedding and Good Will Hunting, all of them romantic to the core, were among the top 10 box-office draws. Since then, however, not one romantic drama has cracked that list. The only love story this century to be among the five highest-grossing movies of its year was My Big Fat Greek Wedding. So the Kidman-Jackman epic, known by the least lovey-dovey name anyone could come up with, Australia, is, if not swimming against the tide, at least staring into a gritty desert wind.

Is it finally over between us and amour? After decades as one of cinema's favorite subjects and centuries as the engine of novels and songs, romance faces a cold shoulder as a subject worthy of our attention. The recent movie calendar is pockmarked with the craters of little romantic bombs (Catch and Release, In the Land of Women and The Ex).

Why the harsh reception? Is it that several decades of sexual liberation and feminism and a decade of Internet dating have fundamentally altered the potency or chemistry of the traditional love story? Or is it more that romance has had its power drained by an industry that is increasingly geared toward films that gush rather than trickle money? Who killed the great American love story?

Talk to a romance fan, and you'll find she is one unfulfilled woman. "I'm as opposed to sap as the next guy, but intelligent romantic movies, either dramatic or humorous, are few and far between," says Lisa Salazar, 45, a divorced Houston attorney who likes movies enough to have seen 92 last year and maintains a little blog sharing her opinions. She's not the only one. "I asked my friend Alyssa for some advice on romance, and she said that she sticks to the classics," says Genna Gallegos, of Golden, Colo. "She's a huge fan of Audrey Hepburn films." Alyssa and Genna are 17 years old. When teenagers, the sweetest fruit on capitalism's vine, have to use a half-century-old product because they can't find a more recent model that works for them, there is something seriously wrong with an industry.

But everyone in that industry, apparently, is dying to make a romantic movie. "I've always really wanted to make a successful love story. I think a lot of us in this business do," says John Davis, who has produced more than 80 movies, most recently Norbit. "It's hard. It's hard to find really great unique stories. And it's very, very hard to get the studios to want to finance them."

Nu-uh, say the studios. Not us. "I think actors and filmmakers are a little more wary of it than studios are," says New Line's head of production, Toby Emmerich. "I get the sense that actors, stars you really want to be in business with, are interested in things that are a little edgier, that are a little more subversive."

New Line is distributing the filmed version of Gabriel García Márquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera, and since Latin female stars have higher wattage than ever, it would seem felicitous timing. But you won't find one of them in this movie. And not just because of the budget. It used to be that playing a romantic lead was a rite of passage for any actor who wanted be on the A list. But in a world saturated with details of what sweatpants and cereals celebrities choose, it's hard for actors to get people to pin their romantic dreams on them. And there have been so many romantic duds, it's a risk they will take only for a great script. Kidman and Jackman were lured into Australia because it's co-written and directed by Baz Luhrmann, who's reputedly one of Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch's favorite filmmakers. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were persuaded to do The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by its story of a man who ages backward and the woman he loves.

Ah, the story. Love stories are old. They're universal. Nearly everyone has one. Which makes them nearly impossible to write well. This summer has brought us License to Wed, in which a couple is nearly driven apart by their wacky priest's marriage-prep course; I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, in which Adam Sandler pretends to marry his firefighter buddy for health-insurance reasons; No Reservations, in which two competitive chefs fall in love; and Becoming Jane, in which Jane Austen has to choose between love and proper behavior. Coming in September is Good Luck Chuck, in which every girl Chuck sleeps with goes on to marry the next guy she meets. All of them, except the Austen, are what's known in the romance-novel business as HEAs (happily-ever-afters), and none of them are remotely stirring, although Good Luck Chuck is spectacularly off-putting. "Romantic comedies are backbreaking to write because they have to be fresh," says Mike Newell, director of Four Weddings and a Funeral and the upcoming Love in the Time of Cholera. "I've yet to find another one which was surprising enough to do."

But it's not just familiarity that breeds contempt for love stories. It may be actually getting harder to get people to believe in them, acknowledges Richard Curtis, writer of such indelible romances as Four Weddings and Notting Hill, because our expectations have changed. "If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it's called searingly realistic, even though it's never happened in the history of mankind," he notes. "Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you're accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental."

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