Emerson wrote, "The only gift is a portion of thyself," but try that one out on Valentine's Day and you're liable to find thyself sleeping on the sofa. Even those of us who know better have been so beaten down by commercial culture that we feel compelled to spend a certain of amount of cash to prove our love—which makes tonight one of the biggest date nights of the year and February the perfect time to release a romantic comedy. One of my all-time favorites, Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1937), is playing February 18 at the University of Chicago, and you can find it just about anywhere on video; the story of a wildly antagonistic couple who divorce and then discover they can't live without each other, it shows how the tension between a man and a woman can be as thrilling as it is uncomfortable.
Last week the studios gave us a pair of new romantic comedies, Deliver Us From Eva and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. One can't help but be struck by the similarity of their obnoxious premises: in Eva a notorious player (LL Cool J) agrees to romance the beautiful but pugnacious title character (Gabrielle Union) for the fee of $5,000, and in How to Lose a Guy a slick adman (Matthew McConaughey) tries to win a big account by betting his boss that he can make a vivacious blond (Kate Hudson) fall in love with him in ten days. Everyone knows that trust is the bedrock of a good relationship, yet in both movies a pretty young couple lives happily ever after despite the revelation that the entire courtship has been predicated on deceit.
The two movies also share the same sense of humor, trying with limited success to mine laughs from the supposed differences between men and women—as opposed to the differences between a particular man and a particular woman, which are what animate The Awful Truth. The men here are interested in sports, drinking, poker, and getting laid (though not necessarily in that order); the women are interested mostly in each other, because men just don't understand. Of course the men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus routine is as old as Lysistrata, and it's continually reinforced by an industry that divides movies into "chick flicks" (cardboard characters, thin dialogue, personal fulfillment) and "guy movies" (cardboard characters, thin dialogue, fireballs). But it seems to get dumber and more strident as modern life erodes the differences between real men and women.
Obviously in 1937 those differences were more pronounced than they are now, but in The Awful Truth the characters know each other too well to fall back on gender cliches. In fact, they know each other a little too well, period. A pair of rich New York socialites, Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne), have watched the trust between them evaporate, as Jerry returns home from a two-week lark with some bimbo and finds Lucy running around with her voice teacher. They agree to a divorce, and Lucy gets engaged to a gullible oilman (Ralph Bellamy) while Jerry passes the time with a showgirl (Molly Lamont). When Jerry walks in on Lucy and her new beau, the oilman shakes his hand and says he's glad to know him.
"How can you be glad to know me?" asks Jerry. "I know how I'd feel if I were sitting with a girl and her husband walked in." Lucy replies, "I'll bet you do." Later Jerry shows up at her apartment while the oilman and her mother are there, and only Lucy can see his fingers crossed behind his back as he tells them, "Never did I have to ask, 'Lucy, where have you been? What were you doing?' I always knew."
Throughout the film the dialogue sparkles as brightly as the evening gowns, but the biggest laughs come from the couple's knowing glances to one another, a semaphore of smirks and raised eyebrows that escapes everyone else in the room.
In Deliver Us From Eva, by contrast, the sexes seem to be addressing each other through a bullhorn. Near the beginning of the film, three Milquetoast guys have settled in for an afternoon of TV football when they're chased out of the house by their women, three of the four Dandridge sisters, who are hosting a book club meeting. (They're discussing Toni Morrison's Beloved, a detail that did actually make me laugh.) The eldest sister, Eva, is single, and her soliloquy to the men makes it pretty clear why: "This isn't about a book versus a football game, fellas. Oh no—this is about men versus women. Women, who aspire to culture, and men, who aspire to scratch themselves. Women, who bear the burdens of life, and men, who create those burdens. Women, who uplift humanity, and men, who uplift lap dances." The only way to salvage material like this is to underplay it, but Union delivers the lines with all the subtlety of a Gatling gun.
Eva, a persnickety health inspector for the city of Los Angeles, has been raising her younger sisters since their parents were killed, and she's such a formidable presence in their lives that she winds up policing their romantic relationships. The men, hoping that some good lovin' will distract this bitch on wheels, recruit the supersmooth Ray Adams (LL Cool J) to seduce her, promising him five grand if he succeeds. It's never clear how long this arrangement is supposed to last or what the men really expect to get out of it, but Ray knows women well enough to present himself as the perfect man—ambitious, responsible, respectful, sensitive—and before long Eva is eating out of his hand. (Union is much funnier as her character's icy composure begins to melt away, exposing a seriously horny young woman.) When Eva is offered a job in Chicago, she resolves to turn it down so she can stay with Ray; the brothers, seeing a chance to get rid of her for good, order him to terminate the relationship, but by then the con man has fallen head over heels for his feisty mark.
Personally, I've never met anyone who was offered several thousand dollars in cash to romance a woman, and I'll bet you haven't either. Stuff like that happens only in sitcoms and bad movies, but over the years, through sheer repetition, it's become familiar enough to seem plausible. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days takes advantage of our tolerance by pairing up two such hustlers and letting them torture each other. Pitchman Ben Barry (McConaughey) shows up uninvited at a bar where his boss (Robert Klein) is conferring with two female colleagues (Michael Michele and Shalom Harlow) about a new campaign for a diamond company. Though his specialty is selling beer and sports equipment, Ben argues that he's the man to create the diamond campaign because he's so good with the ladies; Michele, hoping to teach him a lesson, suggests a bet in which he'll get the account if he can make a random woman fall in love with him. But the woman his coworkers choose, Andie Anderson, is anything but random: as Michele has learned through a business contact, she's a columnist for a women's magazine, and she's on assignment to hook a guy and then drive him away in ten days.
Andie is a male screenwriter's idea of a perfect woman: not only does she look like Kate Hudson, but she's smart and sassy and seems to have an endless supply of Knicks tickets. After Ben picks her up in the bar, though, she deliberately goes psycho on him, calling him obsessively, bursting into tears at the slightest provocation, decorating his apartment with teddy bears, fantasizing about their future children, and materializing at his weekly poker game to embarrass him in front of his friends. Hudson is such a talented comedienne and McConaughey such a charming straight man that they manage to wring quite a few laughs out of the setup, but the fun dissipates after Andie accompanies Ben to Staten Island to meet his family, jes' plain folks whose warmth and acceptance provokes in her the sort of shame any decent person would have felt about ten minutes into the charade.
A couple celebrating Valentine's Day with a romantic comedy is entitled to a little comedy and a little romance. But both movies buckle under the pressure of drawing their nasty stories to some sort of heartwarming conclusion. (I'm about to give away the endings here, though I prefer to think of it as issuing an Orange Alert.) In Deliver Us From Eva, after Ray refuses to give Eva her walking papers, the men kidnap him, chain him up in a deserted warehouse, and tell Eva he's died in a car accident. (Eva collapses when she hears the news, a touching scene that this brain-dead movie can't possibly assimilate.) Ray escapes, shows up at his own funeral, and comes clean before a stunned congregation in the sort of public shaming that's required in movies like these to bring the couple back together. But as a leading man LL Cool J has all the sincerity of a street-corner watch salesman; when Ray approaches Eva a few scenes later and tells her he loves her, the woman sitting behind me blurted out, "Bullshit!"
The climax of How to Lose a Guy is slightly more bearable because both lovers are duplicitous creeps—in a perverse way they're made for each other. Their covers are blown, quite predictably, when Ben takes Andie to a black-tie party his agency is throwing for the diamond company, where her editor at the magazine is also a guest. To save time they get their public shamings over with simultaneously, shouting drunken accusations at each other in an impromptu vocal duet set to Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." Andie pursues a job in another city, and Ben has to chase after her cab on his motorcycle, fulfilling the final requirement of the formula: the man has to act on his feelings, preferably doing something dumb. But he's trumped by Ray, who proves his love to Eva by following her to Chicago and showing up at her workplace astride an honest-to-God white horse.
By contrast, The Awful Truth has no trouble credibly reuniting Jerry and Lucy or persuading us that they've come to love—and even trust—one another again. Despite their constant baiting and sniping, they seem to light up in each other's presence; the chemistry between them is so palpable, so enriched by intimate knowledge of each other, that they'd be crazy to waste their time with anyone else. In that context Emerson's old saw about the gift of oneself seems less a gooey sentiment than a remarkably practical piece of advice.