ROMANTIC COMEDIES A SIGN OF THE TIMES

When Minnie Driver inadvertently slaps David Duchovny, it’s endearing.

Not that Duchovny is making any untoward advances in the Bonnie Hunt comedy “Return to Me.” In the film, he’s a grieving widower and Driver is the woman who, unbeknownst to both of them, is the recipient of his wife’s heart.

Driver is trying to hide the scar as Duchovny is arranging a coat on her shoulders. Pow! He gets one across the face. The slap is actually a refreshing one; it harkens back to the good ol’ days of romantic comedy, when men were bumbling but well-meaning and women were clever and quick with snappy comebacks — and their hands. True passion funneled into pure romance and delicious wit.

Romantic comedies are on an upswing. “Return to Me” joins a warm-weather flood of romantic comedies that follow in the wake of alien love (“What Planet Are You From?”), teen romance (“Whatever It Takes”) and sex-crossed lovers (“The Next Best Thing”).

The love triangle gets religion in Edward Norton’s “Keeping the Faith.” Norton plays a priest, Ben Stiller a rabbi and Jenna Elfman is their childhood gal pal all grown up. Headed this way from Australia is “Me Myself I,” about a woman sulking about singlehood when she meets up with her married self — who disappears, leaving her with a husband and three kids. This summer, Amy Heckerling goes from bringing love to “Clueless” high schoolers to “Loser” college students. The movie stars Jason Biggs (“American Pie”) and Mena Suvari (“American Beauty”).

The interesting thing about today’s romantic comedies is that their romances have become more old-fashioned, more chaste, than ever.

“I would say romantic comedy is what Hollywood does very well right now,” says Henry Jenkins, director of Film & Media Studies at MIT. The genre triumphed during silent movies, the Depression era and the ’50s. Now, “we’re in the fourth golden age for romantic comedy.”

Romance has always been part of the movies — “The Classical Hollywood Cinema” calculates it was the main plot for 85 percent of all Hollywood films before 1960. Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, author of “The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter,” points out, “the form is remarkably resilient, and it just doesn’t go away. It’s been around . . . since before the Greek drama.”

But one reason for the success of romantic comedies is engaging female performers, says Jenkins, who co-edited the anthology “Classical Hollywood Comedy.” Today’s powerhouses are Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts, who have a “balance of playfulness and seductiveness, intelligence and glamor, professional competency and emotional vulnerability, charm and grace.”

All are qualities that come into play to shake up the genre’s boy-meets-girl formula. There’s girl meets boy (“Sleepless in Seattle”), boy meets boy (“Jeffrey”), girl meets boy’s brother (“While You Were Sleeping”), gay boy meets girl (“Object of My Affection”), boy meets girl but then meets a boy he likes better (“In & Out”).

Despite the sexy variations, modern romances often avoid sex. Screenwriter/director Nora Ephron has become a master at keeping the sexes apart: Ryan fell in love with the radio plea of Tom Hanks in “Sleepless in Seattle,” and the two cyberbonded in “You’ve Got Mail.” When Billy Crystal and Ryan finally gave in to sex in “When Harry Met Sally ” (the movie that revived the genre), it nearly ruined not only their chance at love but a decade-old friendship.

“Contemporary romantic comedy has indeed become more conservative, seeking the forms and delicate libidinal glow of ’30s comedies,” says Bruce Babington, a University of Newcastle (Australia) researcher and contributor to “Terms of Endearment: Hollywood Romantic Comedies of the 1980s and 1990s.” Babington sees Tinseltown’s view of love as “ultimately realistic. I don’t think that Hollywood’s ‘keeping apart’ contrivances are conservative, except in the sense of conserving romantic love.”

Gay characters have had a lot of success in this most traditional genre. “Since the late ’80s, there have been films that have tried to sort of look at homosexual couples and fit them in the same sort of patterns of romantic comedies for heterosexual couples,” says Thomas Wartenberg, who wrote “Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism.” “Laughter humanizes gay people, it works against prejudice.”

In the way romantic comedy used to challenge class differences, it has somewhat done the same with gay relations. “In the classical period, social class was always the external social obstacle,” Karlyn says. “Today, it’s interesting how romantic comedy is trying to use the structure to bridge other differences.”

In the old film days, a relationship’s consummation was the marriage sceneMore often than not, today’s romantic comedies end with the couple agreeing only to give their love a chance.

“There is a problem about the endings of these films,” says Virginia Wexman, author of “Creating the Couple: Love, Marriage and the Hollywood Performance.” “Hollywood is beginning to look at new avenues for romantic fulfillment, and there is a real uncertainty to what should happen to these new avenues.”

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