The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
The release of Captain America: Civil War in 2016 marked a historic moment in recent movie history, and no it was not the debut of Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nope, it was the long-awaited reunion between Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr, twenty-two years after they shared the screen in Norman Jewison’s Only You.
Released in 1994, Only You is a none more 90s slab of Hollywood romantic comedy, but one manifested through Jewison’s clear ability to mine romance and comedy from a story like this, and one that also, like the previous year’s Sleepless in Seattle, featured nods and winks to other hall of fame entries of the genre. Back in 1953, the screen came to life when Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck fell in love wandering the streets of Rome in Roman Holiday, and it’s an acknowledgement of that film as Tomei and Downey Jr do the same here that makes Only You a wonderful part of the romantic comedy landscape.
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It’s become something of a neglected film, and looking at the poster you might be forgiven for thinking that it was one of the many more forgettable films within the genre that were a dime a dozen during the decade, that were trying to grab audiences that were eager for more romantic comedies after the massive successes of Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle and Four Weddings and a Funeral. There is a similarly high concept hook here that belies many of its elements that can look problematic on further exploration, but the jaunty tone and sheer romantic attitude of the film mean that resistance is futile.
That Bonnie Hunt is also amongst the cast means that you know that we’re in the presence of a great film. Hunt was one of those actresses that appeared in everything during the decade, whose name you probably didn’t know but whose face you remembered from appearances in films such as Beethoven, Jerry Maguire, and her directorial debut, the underrated and lovely Return to Me, getting namechecked here because it’s a great romantic comedy, but also one that combines the charms and chemistry of David Duchovny and Minnie Driver. Given that she starred in both this and Jerry Maguire, it’s easy to see how she could direct a wonderful rom-com. There is a lovely flight of fancy feeling to Only You that anyone craving some stone-cold realism to their films will reject outright, although if they’re watching this movie then they are barking up the wrong film genre tree.
Best of all, it’s a lovely reminder of a time when Tomei was something of a major Hollywood star, headlining films and still a while away from being best known for playing Aunt May, and when Downey Jr was similarly better known for being a romantic comedy lead as opposed to Iron Man. That they have become best known for Marvel films says a lot about how the commercial film making landscape has changed over the last few decades, or at the very least the type of films that can garner a major theatrical release.
Downey Jr is now, of course, one of the most successful actors in the history of Hollywood, with copious credits in many Marvel films and Guy Ritchie’s blockbuster take on Sherlock Holmes, but back in the 90s he straddled the line between prestige projects such as Chaplin and high concept romantic films such as this, Chances Are and Hearts and Souls, the latter being a brilliant slice of 90s fantasy comedy that sadly bombed at the US box office and went straight to video in the UK but which remains a nostalgic favourite of mine.
Of course, the 90s and early 2000s was a tumultuous time for the actor, with very well documented problems in his private life that are thankfully now in his past, but it gives his light-hearted performances and charm in a film like this or his brilliant one-season stint in Ally McBeal a charge that is poignant and sad, not least because his life behind the camera was the reason for his losing the Ally McBeal gig.
As for Tomei, she had come off the back of a semi-mythic Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actress for her scene-stealing role in My Cousin Vinny, the mythic status of her win coming from the unfounded urban legend that Jack Palance read out the wrong name on the stage. Together both herself and Downey Jr make for a classy and genuinely romantic presence for its tale of mistaken identity, fate and destiny, playing as a less quirky but just as heightened companion piece to Jewison’s Moonstruck.
The idea of fate plays a large hand here as it does with Moonstruck, but where Jewison’s previous film was one that gave New York a fairy-tale sheen, here his direction and Diane Drake’s screenplay goes for the travelogue approach to glorious effect, where Italy becomes the setting for the pursuit of love and Tomei and Downey Jr’s lovely chemistry.
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Yes, Tomei’s character abandoning her fiance to pursue a man with a name that she has never met and Downey Jr’s character lying to her about being that person and then falling in love and deciding to be together at the very end of the film would, in reality, be the basis for what might constitute a toxic relationship, but like so many films of the genre, it asks the audience to go for the fantasy and the fairy-tale aspect of the movie.
Like the best films of the genre, realism goes out the window, and while we might poke and prod at the film for what is happening, the actions of the characters, and what might happen beyond the happy ending, when it’s this much fun and charming, it’s hard to want or expect too much realism.