Before romantic comedy became code for formulaic chick-flick schlock with predictable happy endings, there was Annie Hall, Broadcast News, When Harry Met Sally. These days some creative types in Hollywood are trying to revive that greatness, to take back the romcom, and create interesting projects for audiences and actresses, many of whom are leading the charge in the romcom revolution, from Kristen Wiig to Tina Fey to Lena Dunham.
Rashida Jones, who co-wrote and stars in the indie film Celeste and Jesse Forever, was awarded the Trailblazer Award at B.C.'s Whistler Film Festival, which wrapped on Sunday. She made it to the mountains fresh from her Independent Spirit Award nomination last week for best first screenplay.
"I thought if I'm going to continue to act, I have to give myself an opportunity to be challenged in a way that somebody else wouldn't give me an opportunity, because I probably wouldn't get this part," said Jones at Whistler, wearing a patterned dress reminiscent of quotation marks. "I knew that this was not the kind of part I would get offered. And hopefully it will help people expand their understanding of me as an actress. But even if it doesn't, it was still great."
Jones co-wrote the script with her good friend and ex-boyfriend Will McCormack. They had been talking about writing a romantic comedy with substance for years.
As they wrote, they were hugely inspired by When Harry Met Sally, which appealed to both male and female audiences with that central question: Can a man and woman be friends? They wanted to create something romantic and funny, yes, but also rich and layered, like a Manhattan, Broadcast News, Jerry Maguire or Singles – "films that just really showed the way people interact with each other and the comedy comes from that," says Jones. "And that's the difference to me: the genesis is humanity and then the side effect is comedy."
Jones, 36, grew up as Hollywood royalty. The daughter of legendary music producer Quincy Jones, she graduated from Harvard and became a professional actor at 21, landing a role the next year in Freaks and Geeks. She almost quit acting at 30 – and then landed a role in the U.S. version of The Office. Since then, there have been parts in The SocialNetwork;The Muppets;I Love You, Man and many other films. In 2008, as she was "very available" – on hold for an NBC series that became Parks and Recreation – she and McCormack finally got together to write that script they'd been talking about.
The story – about a couple who try to remain friends after their split – was in large part a reaction, Jones says, to her experience as an actress – and a filmgoer.
"I was seeing movies that I really liked that felt decidedly un-female-centric, and I felt like when I saw romantic comedies that I liked, they were all from the seventies and eighties. And there was this new thing that had emerged where the women who were the centrepieces of romantic comedies had to be really perfect. And even when they were breaking down and broken up with and breaking up, their hair looked great and they were just sniffling in perfect clothes in their perfect apartment, and that didn't ring true to me. It's not how my life is. And it's not like the life of anybody I know. So I think we really wanted to try to explore what it really looked like to go through a breakup and also give … me this opportunity to play a character, a woman that really, really falls apart. The vanity flies out the window and her descent is ugly in a physical and a psychological way."
It is a juicy role: a character who is funny and smart – but also a mess. Whose arc takes her from supreme confidence to the bong-smoking depths, and back up again to, if not quite a happy ending, at least an authentic one.
And when one studio tried to buy the project but with the caveat that they had the option to choose another actress for the lead, Jones said no. She was tired of playing "the friend" and wanted something to sink her teeth into. She also wanted a chance to play a role that was different from what she was seeing elsewhere.
"I feel that it all comes out of that whole virgin/whore paradigm. I think you see women on screen and they're very successful at their jobs and then throughout the course of the movie they soften into, like, a wife," she says. "They stop being so busy and they start being a woman. There's a lot of subtle judgment happening there."
Made for less than $1-million and shot in 22 days, the film, also starring Andy Samberg (Saturday Night Live), premiered at Sundance this year, and opened in August, grossing a modest $3-million (U.S.) according to Box Office Mojo, and drawing mixed reviews.
Jones says her Hollywood connections were no help in getting the film made. "I wish," she says with a laugh. "I wasn't forked out any cash by my parents' friends or anything."
The success of Bridesmaids – which grossed more than $288-million (U.S.) worldwide and was nominated for two Oscar Awards – is great, she says, but does not really pave the way for more smart female-centred projects.
"Because people [in the studio system] go: Bridesmaids – successful. So we just want a really big comedy that's broad that has, like, that diarrhea scene and is somehow centred around a wedding or a baby shower or a female event. They don't really think the reason people connected to that movie is because Kristen Wiig is a great actress and was likeable and vulnerable and there were dark moments. That's why people liked it. Not because there were shitting scenes.
"So studios are really the last people to take a chance on anybody, and I hate to say that, but I'm kind of over that system in a way, just because I went through it and got spit out the other end, which I'm very grateful for."
There is progress to report: Jones says studios and television production companies are hiring more female writers, and a series like Girls, which returns for a highly anticipated second season in January, could also be a trailblazer.
Jones will continue writing – she recently sold the script adaptation of the comic book she wrote, Frenemy of the State, to Universal Pictures, and she would like to direct.
"I want to be a great filmmaker," she says. "I don't want to be a great female filmmaker."
Other Funny Women Who Are Making a Mark
Lena Dunham – Girls
A rare example of a television series living up to its pre-broadcast hype, HBO's Girls premiered this year to wild acclaim. Dunham, just 26, created the series which she also writes, executive produces, stars in and directs (most of the episodes, anyway). If you didn't love her so much, you'd hate her.
Tina Fey – 30 Rock
Fey, who also wrote Mean Girls, took all her Saturday Night Live experience and created 30 Rock. Smart women everywhere responded with Liz Lemon/Tina Fey girl crushes.
Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids
Wiig – who made her name on Saturday Night Live – created and starred in this buddy comedy with frilly dresses, taking female friendship/rivalry and fecal matter – not to mention the box office for a female-centric film – to a whole new level.
Jennifer Westfeldt – Friends with Kids
Westfeldt, who earned indie cred with her straight-girl-goes-lesbian romcom Kissing Jessica Stein, returned this year with an ensemble piece starring, among others, Westfeldt, Wiig, Bridesmaids's Maya Rudolph and Westfeldt's own personal Mad Man, John Hamm.
Zoe Kazan – Ruby Sparks
The actress (and granddaughter of director Elia Kazan) has said she wrote Ruby Sparks – about a novelist with writer's block who imagines a female protagonist who then comes to life – in just a few weeks. Now she's nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best screenplay.