Don't give up on romantic comedies

They're taking new shapes.

 

I’m in Los Angeles killing time before a movie when I pick up a copy of the Atlantic and happen upon this headline: "Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?" The piece, by Christopher Orr, makes me a little irritated, not least because it gazes back wistfully on Pretty Woman, which Orr describes as full of “ascending optimism.” Well, it’s certainly full of something. Tempting though it is to engage yet again with the problems of Pretty Woman 23 years after its release, and to explain what’s wrong with an aspirational fable that pushes the idea that prostitution is a neat way of making some pocket money until Mr Right whooshes up to the kerb in his limo, I’m going to hold back.

Orr insists that the rom-com has not died so much as adapted, taking on new shapes, but then it has always done this; riffs such as the recent bromance trend, or the Yuppie screwball comedies of the 1980s, are merely period variations on a theme. To take but one example, I Love You, Man is a perfectly sprightly movie where both rom and com emanate from the same source (one man’s panic over not having any male friends). You can read the article online here, where you also get the benefit of some savvy reader comments pointing out the myriad exceptions which defy the thrust of the feature’s headline.

And then Identity Thief, a wonderfully smart comedy, provides its own spin on the rom-com. Actually, it’s an amalgam of several genres and elements. It is partly an odd-couple/ buddy /road movie, with Jason Bateman as the hapless suit pursuing a fraudster (Melissa McCarthy) who has stolen his identity, maxed out his credit cards, landed him in trouble with the law and lost him his job. That she has also stolen his name (it’s a running joke that he is called Sandy, which everyone believes mistakenly to be an exclusively female name) makes the film’s subtext explicit. This alternative Sandy is the other side of him, the version stripped of all his advantages: female, overweight, no apparent taste or refinement, no friends or family, no money or possessions other than what she has stolen. While male Sandy frets over a new job with a $200K raise, female Sandy spends thousands of dollars of other people’s money buying rounds for strangers in bars to win herself some chums. Pretty serious stuff. All the best comedies are.

Where the rom-com element comes into it is in McCarthy’s brazenly sexual persona, which challenges her co-star Bateman not to find her attractive. (There is at least one scene, following her makeover, where he crumbles—and so do any doubters in the audience.) Popular culture rarely accommodates the idea of the democratic libido; in mainstream movies, TV and music, it is only young, gym-toned hardbodies who can love or lust. But in Bridesmaids and now Identity Thief, McCarthy plays ravenous and plays it straight. This doesn’t preclude the audience from laughing, but there is no sense that we are laughing at the absurdity of her desire—if anything, it is the embarrassment it causes others, and McCarthy’s lack of concern at this, which allows the comedy to flourish.

Near the end of the movie, female Sandy gets to meet male Sandy’s petite, elegant wife (Amanda Peet), and corners her in a woman-to-woman chat in which she reassures her that nothing happened between Sandy and her. “He did not lay a finger on or in me,” she says. The joke might once have come from the far-fetched idea that a slim and successful man could ever fall for a woman like McCarthy. But one of the points of Identity Thief is that there is less dividing us from our fellow citizens than we might think; in fact, the old comforts and snobberies are withering away in the long economic winter. The rom-com playing field is more level than ever.

"Identity Thief" opens in the UK on 22 March

Melissa McCarthy at the Oscars (Credit: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle