A scene from Your Sister's Sister
The death of that immensely talented screenwriter Nora Ephron this week led to me thinking long and hard about the state of romantic comedy in today’s cinema. Ephron, who was also no slouch as a director, didn’t confine herself to romcoms, but it was the genre that gave her the most success. When Harry Met Sally is a classic – warm, sharply witty, engaging and wise. Sleepless in Seattle was an example of Ephron playing a clever trick with the clichés of the form, audaciously keeping her hero and heroine literally thousands of miles apart for most of the film. I wasn’t a huge fan of You’ve Got Mail, largely because I found Meg Ryan’s kittenish performance so irritating; but compared with what passes for romantic comedy these days, the film is undeniably a superior example of the type.
You wonder what happened to romantic comedy, once a wildly popular film genre. Think of Cary Grant starring with Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, with Ingrid Bergman in Indiscreet and with Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. Consider the ingenious, funny, sharp-tongued films of Preston Sturges, and the sublime pairing of Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike, Adam’s Rib and Desk Set.
Modern romantic comedies classics (and by ‘modern’, I mean ever since Tracy and Hepburn called it a day) are few and far between. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan certainly qualify. More than mere patriotism insists that Richard Curtis’s Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral should join the list. But apart from these titles and Ephron’s sterling body of work, the pickings are slim. Now, more than 50 years after the heyday of romcoms, we must be grateful for small pleasures.
This, in fact, was my precise reaction to The Five-Year Engagement, see trailer right, a new romantic comedy that makes a decent stab at keeping the genre alive. It offers amusing moments, a reasonably plausible plot and two engaging leads. Its humour is not too gross, a welcome relief these days.
The increasingly impressive British actress Emily Blunt plays a San Francisco academic ready to marry a talented chef (Jason Segel). But when she lands a research post in distant Michigan, they postpone their plans. And for one reason and another, their plans keep being postponed; the clue is in the film’s title.
Blunt and Segel create some decent screen chemistry between them, and she conveys real charm. But while the basic premise of the plot is sound enough, it lacks the intrigue necessary to sustain it. Frankly, its jokes aren’t funny enough; Ephron would have added plenty of zingy one-liners to spice things up. And like many films of today, it’s half an hour too long; a romcom from the Golden Age would have had this story done and dusted in 90 minutes flat.
Emily Blunt also stars in My Sister’s Sister, a love triangle of sorts, playing Iris, the best friend of a guy called Jack (Mark Duplass), whose late brother she once dated. He’s tense to the point of breakdown, so she dispatches him to her family’s vacation home to be alone and relax. But her sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is already there, recovering from a broken relationship, and wouldn’t you know it, she and Jack sleep together – before Iris arrives too.
My Sister’s Sister is well-acted, and perceptive on the subject of sibling rivalry. But it’s also self-important, and less profound than writer-director Lynn Shelton probably thinks it is. Predictably, its ending is anti-climactic. Does it even qualify as romantic comedy? One imagines Nora Ephron might have had some sharp words to say on that score.
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