Directors Jennifer Westfeldt and Lynn Shelton give the romcom a witty new focus in a week that saw the death of pioneering comedy writer Nora Ephron
As if in salute to Nora Ephron, who died last week, two refreshingly smart romantic comedies directed by women arrive on our screens.
Both are in the best Hollywood tradition, as practised so skilfully by Ephron in her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally and in her direction of Sleepless in Seattle and Julie & Julia, but both new flicks also represent a significant step forward for a much-maligned genre.
To paraphrase the apocryphal vaudevillian on his deathbed: dying is easy, romantic comedy is hard.
When done well, the romcom can deliver the most enjoyable and durable of flicks (It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, The Apartment, Annie Hall, Four Weddings and a Funeral, even); done badly, it can make a person want to chew off their own foot (27 Dresses, The Holiday, Serendipity, anything with Kate Hudson).
As Ephron herself told me in an interview three years ago, all romcoms could be traced back to The Taming of the Shrew or Pride and Prejudice, until Woody Allen changed the game with Annie Hall.
Her own work absorbed the influences of all three, and this week's two new comedies shine because they too show a healthy awareness of their filmic ancestry.
Jennifer Westfeldt's Friends with Kids, in particular, is bound up in Hollywood lore, being executive-produced by Mike Nichols, with whom Ephron worked closely as screenwriter of Silkwood and Heartburn and whom she credits as her great mentor.
Nichols has clearly lent an ear and eye to Friends with Kids, which boasts all the staples of romcoms set in Manhattan: Christmas at the Rockefeller centre, walks in Central Park, a glittering Chrysler building.
Yet it shifts action over to Brooklyn too (something Ephron did in Julie & Julia), a sort of marker of more indie roots, cinematically speaking, and for real-life Manhattanites, a significant marker of suburban surrender.
In Westfeldt's flick a group of friends have to deal with the arrival of children in their relationships.
Indeed, children have become the new plot point in American comedy.
Where previously romantic comedy was all about the beginning of a new love affair, the flick usually ending on a first kiss, Friends with Kids and Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister see babies as dramatic developments.
Friends with Kids starts with a swanky dinner (in New York's Soho House, if I'm not mistaken) where a couple played by Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd reveal: "We're pregnant." Cut to four years later and there's another gathering, this time at a Brooklyn brownstone filled with plastic toys and frazzled parents shouting at each other.
Best friends Jason and Julie (played by Adam Scott and director Westfeldt) stagger away and decide to buck the system – to have a child together but not be together, leaving each free to pursue their romantic ideals elsewhere.
Scott has a comic delivery such that, if you close your eyes, you can hear Alan Alda, and, indeed, as in Alda's own 1981 relationship comedy The Four Seasons, the friends all go on a snowy break to a lodge, introducing new partners to the mix.
This is a concept romcom, rather than a "meet cute" (stammering bookstore owner spills orange juice down flick star's white top, for instance) and it plays out with a bantering wit, piquantly observing the Manhattan dating scene ("She over-French pronounces French words") and recapturing the freshness the sitcom Friends once had.
Jason and Julie even live in the same apartment building, in separate flats, and while Westfeldt so clearly owes a debt to Diane Keaton's Annie Hall (don't they all?), I couldn't help but think how their living arrangements have more of a Woody and Mia ring to them.
Scott and Westfeldt take centre stage here, leaving Kristen Wiig, star of last summer's hit Bridesmaids (this flick reunites four of that film's cast) sadly underused.
But Friends with Kids is funny and likable and while the dialogue is often bawdy and sexually frank, its elements are completely fairytale, including a climax involving a cross-town dash.
Following her excellent 2009 "bromantic" comedy Humpday, Seattle-based director Lynn Shelton again probes modern relationships in Your Sister's Sister, but with a more mumbly comedy squarely in the current US indie style.
The set-up, though, is every bit as high-concept as one from a studio script meeting.
Emily Blunt (the British star who also starred in last week's pleasant-enough romcom The Five-Year Engagement) features here as Iris, lending her father's log cabin to aid the recovery of her best friend Jack (Mark Duplass, from Humpday) who has been drinking too much since the death of his brother, Iris's ex-boyfriend.
Adding to the equation, when Jack arrives at the cabin in the woods, he finds Iris's gay half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) already there and wearing no underwear.
A night of tequila and conversation leads to terrible but amusing sex, while the rude awakening is provided the next morning by the unexpected arrival of Iris.
A three-hander ensues, each character guarding, then sharing secrets.
The naturalism of the performances provides the film's charm – a giggle from Blunt, tears from the excellent DeWitt – and with the improvisations evident in Your Sister's Sister, the modern romcom has gone from emetic to mimetic.
Shelton's method is to reproduce reality as closely as possible.
That traditional obstacle-to-love vital to all romcoms (in Ron Howard's Splash, she's a fish) has been removed in this story of Hannah and her sister, leaving only the characters' neuroses, fears and inadequacies as their impediments.
Although she would probably have liked a little more plot and polish, Nora Ephron would, I think, have approved.
ComedyNora EphronTelevisionJason Solomonsguardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.
All rights reserved.
| Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds... See Complete Article @ Guardian