Why is it the men who are the kooky ones in comedies these days?


If ever one needed a excuse to flip, the heroine of Love is All You Need would appear to have an embarrassment of riches.

She has had surgery for cancer and just finished a bout of chemo, the long-term efficiency of which she doubts. She returns home from hospital to find her husband of 25 years shagging a colleague on their couch. He leaves her, then the following week shows up with the colleague – to whom he's now engaged – at the wedding of their daughter in Italy. Their son can't come as he's serving as a soldier in a warzone.

And yet she remains, throughout, perfectly peaceful and sanguine. She starts sane and she ends sane – her hopes get mashed and her heart goes through the wringer but her head is forever level.

Pierce Brosnan's character (below), for whom she falls, has no such troubles. He is a wildly successful vegetable magnate, persistently hit on by beautiful women, with a sweet son, swish penthouse in the city, whopping pad in the country. And yet it is he who the drama of Susanne Bier's romcom revolves around; he who has the big arc, who must resolve his issues (he was bereaved 16 years before), who gets the emoting close-ups and the magnificent meltdown.

And it's this that explains why a movie that looks like a big-screen beach read was up against The Master and the new Terrence Malick in competition at the Venice film festival last year. It's similar to the reason Silver Linings Playbook did so well at the Oscars. It is because they are both romcoms in which it is the man who needs to find his marbles.

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All the great romcoms of old featured a woman who was borderline certifiable. Rewatch Bringing Up Baby and you'll see that Katharine Hepburn is not the godmother of today's manic pixie dream girl. Rather she is their dribbling aunt in the attic: off-the-scale crackers, mad, bad and genuinely dangerous to know. Cary Grant's role in that film is simply to manage her, just as it is Jack Lemmon's to nurse Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment, or Roger Livesey's to correct Wendy Hillier's cracked logic in I Know Where I'mGoing. These men may have tics of their own, but they're grace notes on the symphony of insanity being belted out by the women.

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These films reflected a world in which men rescued women, saw past their failings and loved them regardless of their daftness. That's not how it works any more, and while fiction has adapted accordingly – One Day's big twist means it works as a cautionary tale for the commitment-phobic boyfriend – film had looked like it couldn't quite cope with the change. What we got was frat-pack comedy, in which the hapless chap is an aspirational figure, for all his faults. When frat-pack stars started moving into romcoms, they took this baggage with them: Failure to Launch, Crazy Stupid Love, The Five-Year Engagement all feature women who are the calm hearts of the storm, patiently waiting for bumbling blokes to get it together.

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These are primary-colour romcoms, of course; Silver Linings and Love is All You Need succeed because they appear to promise more shade. But what both Bier and David O Russell have actually done is to co-opt the genre, to cut-and-shut it with the one that's taken seriously by foregrounding the leading man's emotional crisis. Dressing the romcom up like a drama makes it respectable. Just three romantic comedies have done well at the Oscars over the last 40 years: Silver Linings, As Good as it Gets (Jack Nicholson rejects his meds) and Annie Hall (Woody Allen out-kooks Diane Keaton). Love is All You Need looks unlikely to follow suit, but it it ties its tie in much the same fashion.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Catherine Shoard, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 18th April 2013 18.52 Europe/London

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