Love, laughter and money: wealth in romantic comedies

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I was 12 years old when I watched “The Proposal” for the very first time. Back then, I firmly believed the Sandra Bullock-Ryan Reynolds film was the funniest I’d ever seen, a lighthearted sleepover flick that anyone and everyone could agree on. Oh — and that love story! Even after the publishing executive fake-proposes to her assistant, who happens to be secretly wealthy, and they travel to his family’s Alaskan mansion, they (spoiler alert) somehow still manage to fall in love. Now isn’t that sweet?

I’ve seen “The Proposal” a handful of times since then, and despite its ostentatiousness, I still find it to be an enjoyable experience. It’s formulaic and predictable, and the character’s lifestyles are incredibly inaccessible to a general audience — but it feels right for 2009.

Still, romantic comedies such as “The Proposal,” centered entirely around wealthy people’s relationship endeavors, are beginning to feel dated. Take, for example, the recently released “Home Again” starring Reese Witherspoon. In that film, her character — a single mother looking for romance — conveniently owned a mansion in Los Angeles and was an heiress to a Hollywood dynasty. The film exuded racial and class privilege, and its lack of self-awareness wasn’t charming, but grating.

Among the myriad of claims that the Hollywood romantic comedy is dead, uptown films like “Home Again” feel out of place. With the occasional exception, the romantic comedy genre seems better suited for our televisions (“Insecure,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) than the movie theater.

Hollywood audiences’ sudden aversion to rich-people rom-coms is fascinating, especially because these films captivated audiences for decades. As entertainment industries gradually shift their focus to marginalized narratives — the cross-cultural romance at the heart of 2017’s “The Big Sick,” for example — from privileged ones, it makes sense that our film-viewing preferences would shift as well.

But all this begs the question — why were we obsessing over romantic comedies about wealthy people in the first place?

The wealthy leading lady has long been a staple character in the romantic comedy genre. Early roles such as Katharine Hepburn’s socialite in 1940’s “The Philadelphia Story” or Audrey Hepburn’s princess in 1953’s “Roman Holiday” paved the path for future female leads, with their characters’ wealth in the backdrop of the centralized romantic storyline.

This pattern of background wealth continued into the 1990s-2000s “golden era” of the romantic comedy genre, defined by actresses such as Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts. A new type of Hollywood heroine flourished: the career-woman. In the same vein as “The Proposal,” a career-woman comedy would capitalize on the professional aspiration of its female lead, using it as the primary instigating or prohibiting factor in the romantic storyline. Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) meets Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) on her way to journalism school in 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally…” — a moment that sparks the characters’ lengthy love story. In 1999’s “Notting Hill,” however, actress Anna Scott’s (Julia Roberts) status and stardom are what keep her from committing to bookkeeper Will Thacker (Hugh Grant) for much of the film.

Sally Albright and Anna Scott are thoroughly different characters, but “When Harry Met Sally…” and “Notting Hill” rely on the same narrative omission; even though characters’ professions may be central to the films’ storylines, the question of wealth in relation to these professions is left out altogether. Money is taken for granted, existing in just the right quantities to allow the characters to do as they please. Because financial problems or risks don’t require consideration, romance can be the central conflict in characters’ lives.

An alternative to the career-woman is the rags-to-riches lead, best exemplified in Garry Marshall’s 1990 film “Pretty Woman.” In the film, Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts, again) is a sex worker during the 1980s HIV crisis; the romance between her and Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) is initiated only after Edward pays for her new, glamorous wardrobe, and it continues during their rather pricey dates on private jets and at the opera.

“Pretty Woman,” unlike other rom-coms of the golden era, doesn’t assign automatic privilege to its lead — in fact, it places her at a social disadvantage. Yet, the romantic storyline is still evoked because Vivian is given money; wealth is required, acknowledged and immediately backgrounded to create space for romantic conflict.

In an essay for Matter, Meredith Haggerty acknowledges the background wealth of golden era romantic comedies — in general, money is somehow “everywhere and therefore not particularly notable.” We watch rom-coms about rich people because their quantifiable wealth is invisible; traditional romantic comedies rely on the privilege of their leads. Not only can they do more with their seemingly endless supply of money, but their lack of socioeconomic burdens means that their relationship is more likely to be the central distresser in their lives.

Wealth is what threads Hollywood’s most iconic romantic comedies together, simultaneously reinforcing a sugar-coated idea of love and widening the gap between supposedly “relatable” characters and audiences. It’s what allows Sam and Annie from “Sleepless in Seattle” to fly to New York City on whim to see each other, allows Andie and Ben to meet-cute at a company ball in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and allows Jamie to flee from England to his French cottage when has his heart broken in “Love Actually.”

Ultimately, traditional romantic comedies were supposed to be feel-good films, and feel-good films require a level of escapism to be effective. Golden-era rom-coms provided us with escapist narratives by forcing characters into a mold of social privilege, letting them flourish in their rich lifestyles or ensuring that they took their wealth for granted.

So no, the romantic comedy isn’t dead. But it has transformed over time to reflect an increasingly diverse audience through increasingly diverse storytelling, straying away from the standard characters and narratives of the ‘90s and ‘00s. For every “Home Again” there’s a multitude of new-age romances like “The Big Sick,” which can help us realize that maybe — just maybe — you don’t need money to fall in love. Who knew?

Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at akomaragiri@dailycal.org.

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