The Year of Nora & Nancy: Love and Other Lessons

            Both Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers are better known for their rom-coms, and they do have a slew of titles to choose from. However, I have a schedule and a whole year to spread out across so I tried to pick only the most romantic and appropriate films for this month. I’d seen two of them before and the other two were relative unknowns. So, what did they have to teach me about love? About relationships? About how Hollywood views both of those things? Quite a bit as I’d discover.

            The first movie I watched was Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998). By the title alone, you can probably tell it is more than a bit dated, but charming nonetheless. From the initial dial-up internet, we’re shown the anonymous connection between Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) through their emails. At the same time, the two characters, unknown to each other, have become business rivals as Fox Books (the equivalent of Barnes & Noble) has come to put Kathleen’s bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner, out of business. Through a series of miscommunications, misunderstandings, and mistruths, they will eventually discover if business can be pleasure.

             At one point, I declared this was my favorite romantic comedy. Maybe because it’s the third time Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks worked together for the sake of love (Joe Versus the Volcano and Sleepless in Seattle being the others). Maybe because so much of the plot revolves around books and secret enemies-to-lovers. Maybe because I wanted to be Kathleen Kelly, just a bit. However, revisiting it now does leave a different taste in my mouth. The charm and chemistry are still there, but more than a few of the plot points didn’t sit as well as they used to. The first half of the film works well because Kathleen and Joe’s online communications are friendly but not romantic—they’re both in not-quite-satisfactory relationships—while their business relationship begins to deteriorate. Its success hinges on the audience’s knowledge that they’re messaging each other while they don’t know it. However, once one of them finds out the truth and begins to manipulate conversations and their established relationship, I found I wasn’t comfortable anymore. Additionally, while the ending still plays off as this sweeping romance, I couldn’t forget the cost it came at. Now that I’m older I’m not sure if it’s worth it; I wouldn’t be able to forgive and forget. The quote repeated most often throughout the film is “It’s not personal; it’s business” (playing off The Godfather) but if your business is personal then all will not be fair in love and war. Nora Ephron’s fingers are all over this. For all its unbelievable scenarios, the realism of the characters and their dialogue is brought to life by Ryan and Hanks’ performances. The production, especially The Shop Around the Corner set, feels lived in and real. Ephron has a way of making this dramatic plot feel possible because it’s enmeshed in a world so like our own—big business and small shops alike.

            Next I watched Nancy Meyers’s Something’s Gotta Give (2003). I’m of the age and disposition where I have a hard time imagining Jack Nicholson as the main love interest in a rom-com. He’s more of the axe-swinging and Gotham-mayhem vibes for me. What I love most about Nancy Meyers’ oeuvre, though, is her repeated care and attention to love (and sex) stories that get less attention in Hollywood—which includes couples who are over 50. This is complicated by the then-timely analysis on why older men often date younger women when the same isn’t necessarily true vice versa. Harry (Nicholson), who habitually dates women under 30, is off for a romantic weekend with his latest fling when, through plot hijinks, he’s left stranded in the Hamptons with her mother, Erica (Diane Keaton), while he recovers from a heart attack. While these two characters are the true definition of opposites, we all know what that inevitably leads to.

            On one hand, I admire so much of what this film is critiquing, even as it goes in odd directions to do so. It outright admits that if a man can be celebrated for remaining single into his 60s and only dating young women he’s a catch, but a woman who has worked on herself after a divorce is too “intimidating” for men her own age and can barely get a date. So we see Harry and his relatively non-monogamous relationship with Marin (Amanda Peet) juxtaposed against Erica who later becomes involved with Dr. Mercer (Keanu Reeves) who appreciates all of her accomplishments. So Meyers plays with audience perceptions with two older characters in relationships with younger characters, just opposite gender dynamics—which feels more natural? And why is that? Hollywood loves to give us love stories with tragic teens, hot twenty-somethings, flirty and thriving thirty-year olds, etc. At a certain age, we see less of the women and a different side of the men, as they’re paired with younger co-stars. So, for Meyers to have a love story with two older characters who are not only allowed to acknowledge their age (countless reading glasses jokes) but also enjoy intimacy and sex in ways they’re still young enough to discover is wonderful. And, as with all Meyers’ films, the production design is gorgeous. This may be one of my favorites and I’d love to live in that beach house, or just its kitchen. That said, Meyers’ use of the somewhat clichéd trope of a writer cathartically writing out their problems in their art and then the structure of the film itself following that could be better. It doesn’t take up much of the film, comparatively, but it bugs me. Although it is worth it for Keaton’s performance where she laugh-cry-writes her play in montage. I did like this film more than I thought I would so there’s that.

            I decided to go for I Love Trouble (1994) next. Another collaboration between then-couple Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers, the summary doesn’t say much about this film whereas the reputation precedes. This film combines the romantic comedy and crime genres as two reporters (Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts) investigate the mysterious derailment of a train and discover a vast conspiracy that threatens their lives and, yet, pushes them together. Okay, I get what Shyer and Meyers were going for here; a lot of the beats of the film feel like a classic 1940s noir or romance where the couple would have the same kind of back and forth. But then we have to add 1990s explosions. Additionally, it doesn’t help the film that Nolte and Roberts famously did not get along during production—and it shows. For so many of the scenes where Peter and Sabrina are supposed to be in the same room or close, the chemistry isn’t quite there. The camera distances them or there’s little warmth to the acting or it’s missing so many of those little “tells” that make up a budding romance. Earlier, in You’ve Got Mail, the two characters are also rivals, but we see more than a few scenes where they’re still comfortable enough to be in each other’s physical space, or get physically intimate without sex or a kiss. In I Love Trouble, those small intimacies are lacking so when the bigger moments come they don’t feel as genuine. I don’t necessarily think it’s the fault of Shyer and Meyers’ script (even though this is a bonkers plot) but a lot of it may be casting and then working around it. I can admire a film that tries to jam two different genres together, but it doesn’t feel like a happy marriage here—too little body and so much crime.

            Finally, we end February with the film that makes the most sense around Valentine’s Day—Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993). While I haven’t seen this Ryan-Hanks movie nearly as many times as the other two, it’s still a constant in my rotation and, perhaps, has grown on me now that I’m older (and wiser). We follow the pair in their largely separate narratives as Sam (Hanks) and his son, Jonah (Ross Malinger), move to Seattle following the death of his wife; later, Annie (Ryan) hears Sam on the radio and feels a sense of connection with him. This sets a series of coincidences, predestinations, and possibilities in motion that leads to romance.

            Okay, I just complained about the sense of distance between the lovers in I Love Trouble, but in Sleepless in Seattle that’s literally all we have. They are a country apart (illustrated repeatedly with a map) and yet…Somehow that magic Hanks and Ryan chemistry makes Annie and Sam feel closer than they actually are. You can feel a sense of yearning in how Ephron lingers on shots of Sam looking out over the water, or in Annie peeling an apple while listening to the radio. Additionally, a good chunk of the run-time is dedicated to life after loss and the relationship between Sam and Jonah, rather than this grand romance. Despite this, the film repeatedly points out how, unbelievably, these are two people who are meant to be together. Conversations are had about signs and fate and possibilities.  And it does it so well that you begin to believe it too. Even though, again, we have other plot points or behaviors that should prevent that. We cannot totally give Annie grief for stalking the anonymous radio man because that’s what WE ALL DO with our dates nowadays (maybe not to that extent). Rather, the script questions the women who would respond to an anonymous radio call and why that may be. It makes Annie seem unique, as if she and Sam were meant to be, but how many other possibilities were there? In the end, that’s what stood out for me, especially as I’ve grown and experienced life; certain events have to happen in a certain order to lead to a specific conclusion—both good and bad. We can call this coincidence or fate or predetermined, but, in the end, it may just be magic. How does one person happen to listen to a radio broadcast at the precise moment someone calls in, and then later find them? This film, then, isn’t really a romance in the typical sense, but rather a very long set-up for the meet-cute.

            So, four romantic comedies with two female filmmakers behind the camera: where are the connections? what are the lessons? Weirdly enough, the women in all four films had careers in paper: a bookstore owner, a playwright, and two journalists. Is this a symptom of the classic “write what you know” school of composition? Or just a coincidence? The men all had office jobs: businessman, media mogul, journalist, and architect. All of the jobs are fairly middle class, interesting enough, but not blue collar. Does this say something about our taste in career representation—what we find attractive in job prospects? Additionally, I noticed that—with the exception of I Love Trouble—the films all used other love interests as cruxes or conflicts against the main romance. This is moderately common, especially in the 90s, but I’m still baffled by how easily we can write off emotionally cheating on someone because the film makes that person annoying or less enticing than Tom Hanks. There’s usually nothing wrong with the person who is inevitably dumped, left behind, or moves on; they’re just not the right one for our characters (as made obvious by the script).

            That brings me to my lessons. At its most basic, a romantic comedy is going to entertain—not teach—but every time I walk away with new concepts or different ideas about love than I had the few times I watched the film before. You can see the movie differently every time, especially as our society and its ideals about love, romance, and sex change. You’ve Got Mail used to thrill me with the anonymous messages and a romance built off books, but this time I found in it the idea of knowing what you want to do with your life. I’ve always felt like I knew what I was going to do, but, more recently, I feel as lost as Kathleen. But, as her friend points out, isn’t that just a chance to try something new, and isn’t that exciting? Something’s Gotta Give gave me my lesson in the handy form of a quote: “You can’t hide from love for the rest of your life because maybe it won’t work out…maybe you’ll become unglued? It’s just not a way to live.” Plus the idea that you’re never too old for love, heartbreak, or second chances. I Love Trouble, for all its faults, shows how two people can understand each other perfectly when they initially believed the other person was against them—competition can be sexy and good. Lastly, Sleepless in Seattle, perhaps the one I needed most recently, taught me that the universe may give you lots of signs, a coincidence may not just be one, and that—no matter the distance—love will find you.

            Generally, every month will have at least two films (but often more), so keep an eye on the blog for these updates. If you’re interested in what films I’ll be looking at you can find the whole list for The Year of Nora & Nancy on my Letterboxd. In March, we’ll be celebrating how these female filmmakers frame women-driven narratives. Till next time!

January: When Harry Met Sally (1989) & Father of the Bride (1991)