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.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge