By Amy Ryan
Updated July 24, 2007 at 11:50 PM EDT

The New Yorker film critic David Denby is usually such a doom-sayer about the state of contemporary cinema that, on those rare occasions when he hints that the entire art form may not be going to hell in a hand basket, I sit up and take notice. So it is with his essay this week on the state of the romantic comedy genre, something he thinks is looking up because of Knocked Up (pictured), which he believes has put the genre on a new path, towards greater psychological insight, humorous sexual candor, and appeal to male viewers. Of course, he still has grumbling reservations about the movie: to him, it represents the latest in a recent trend of romantic comedies in which schlubby, slacker-y guys get the girl, and in which the girl doesn’t really get any funny lines. Both situations are unfair to women, Denby argues, leading to the inevitable moan about how far the genre has fallen since the sparkling “screwball” romantic comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, when women were stronger and wittier and the men were worthy of them.

Denby’s essay has spawned a lot of vehement reaction in the blogosphere (here and here, for instance), suggesting that, for all his praise of Knocked Up, he doesn’t really get the movie or why it works. To me, it seems Denby has to ignore a lot of cinema history to make his argument, both recent (particularly, Knocked Up director Judd Apatow’s last film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and vintage. There’s a long venerable tradition of the slacker guy (lazy or unambitious) and the schlubby guy (not nearly as attractive or charismatic as his costar) getting the girl, in movies like Holiday and The Philadelphia Story (both of which have slacker Cary Grant landing Katharine Hepburn) or Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (where the male romantic leads are a geeky Henry Fonda and a nerdy Eddie Bracken, respectively). Not to mention every romantic comedy Woody Allen ever made. Recently, we’ve started to see movies where schlubby girls land hot guys; think My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the Bridget Jones movies. So there’s some of the parity Denby is looking for, though I think he hoped movies would achieve balance by raising the bar for the guys, not by lowering it for the gals.

addCredit(“Knocked Up/Suzanne Hanover”)

I agree with Denby that the women don’t get to be as funny as themen anymore, unlike in the days of Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, or (inthe ’70s) Diane Keaton and Barbra Streisand. Part of the issue, whichDenby hints at, is that today’s romantic comedies are really about (asthey called it on Scrubs) guy love. Wedding Crashers isthe best example; it’s really about how Owen Wilson breaks up withVince Vaughn, mopes around, then gets back together with him — but ina totally not-gay way, dude. In Meet the Parents, Ben Stiller’s already got the girl; now he has to woo and win over her dad. Virgin and Knocked Up (along with Old School, Anchorman,and other movies involving Apatow and the Frat Pack) are about men whomust choose between remaining in arrested adolescence with their malebuddies or growing up in order to win the love of a mature woman. Inall these scenarios, the woman is the straight man, and there’s notmuch opportunity for her to wisecrack with the guys, whom she’ssupposed to outclass. (Exception: Catherine Keener in Virgin, who gets a couple chances to show she can dish it out as well as Steve Carell’s male pals can.)

To be fair, though, where is the actress who can hold her ownagainst the dazzling verbal ranting ability of a Vince Vaughn? Theromantic comediennes of the last decade or so — Julia Roberts, SandraBullock, Meg Ryan — all have their comic gifts, but none of them cando repartee like the actresses of the screwball era — Hepburn,Russell, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, et al. Who knows, maybe a KateWinslet, a Scarlett Johansson, even a Lindsay Lohan could handle thebanter; someone should try to write some for them and see.

Meanwhile, there are whole laboratories for the next advance inromantic comedy that Denby all but ignores. There’s TV (where, for manyyears, Sex and the City brought back all the strong heroines,witty repartee, and champagne fizz of classic screwball films), andthere’s overseas cinema (look at how Richard Curtis has beenexperimenting with structure in movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually). Finally, there’s gay romantic comedies — okay, there have hardly been any of those (Chasing Amy, perhaps? Kissing Jessica Stein? The Broken Hearts Club?),but imagine how that would open up the possibilities. After all,romantic comedy thrives on obstacles and taboos, something to keep thelovers apart until the end of the movie, but most of the traditionalones (money, class, religion, chastity) aren’t so insurmountableanymore. If we need funnier parts for actresses, and nimbler actressesfor those parts, we also need new challenges for them to overcome onthe road to true love.