By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - From "Some Like It Hot" to "Pretty Woman," "Sleepless in Seattle" to "The Wedding Planner," romantic comedies have long been Hollywood's box office darlings, but this fall raunchy R-rated comedies are getting top billing.
Kicking off a season of coarse comedy is actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut "Don Jon," out in U.S. theaters this weekend, about a young, attractive man who struggles to connect with women due to his porn addiction.
When Jon falls for the beautiful Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson, he finds his relationship expectations challenged, while Barbara has her own ideas for the kind of boyfriend Jon should be.
"I wanted to play with rom-com conventions and poke fun at them a bit," said Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and starred in the lead role.
"(Barbara) expects her relationship with Jon to be like the romantic movies that she watches, and she tries to make him into that kind of man. They're both stuck in their expectations instead of accepting each other for who they are," he added.
"Don Jon," rated R for its graphic sexual content and strong language, leads a wave of comedies taking the place of conventional romantic-comedies drawing audiences looking for warm feel-good films as the weather gets colder.
Movies such as 2001's "Bridget Jones's Diary" starring Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant that made $281 million worldwide, and 2006's "The Holiday" with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet, which made $205 million at the global box office, demonstrated the power of romantic-comedies to bring in audiences.
But in 2013, few traditional romantic comedies follow the traditional formula of boy meets girl in unlikely circumstances, falls in love and eventually lives happily ever after, a model that made films such as 1990's "Pretty Woman" or 2001's "The Wedding Planner" into romantic-comedy staples.
"Rom-coms are not disappearing altogether, but there is a need for a novel approach ... where the story-telling structure is different and doesn't end with a woman and man just being happy," said Lucas Shaw, film writer at TheWrap.com.
COURTING MALE AUDIENCES
Instead of romance, the fall season will see comedies such as "Bad Grandpa", starring "Jackass" comedian Johnny Knoxville about an 86-year-old man traveling across America with his 8-year-old grandson, and "Last Vegas," where four aging friends head to Sin City for a weekend of debauchery. The latter echoes the premise of the "Hangover" franchise spawned from four friends on a wild weekend in Las Vegas, with three films making more than $1 billion at the global box office.
One romantic comedy vying for audiences this fall is British film "About Time," about a man who can time travel, written and directed by Richard Curtis, the man behind hit romantic comedies including "Love Actually" and "Notting Hill."
The film starring Rachel McAdams has a 65 percent approval rating on review aggregator RottenTomatoes.com, but will go up against Marvel's superhero sequel "Thor: The Dark World" and drama "The Wolf of Wall Street," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and is likely to have low expectations at the box office.
"Studios don't seem to be courting female viewers as much as they should be. Too many of the movies this year are aimed at a younger male audience like (December's) 'Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues'," Shaw said.
What's more, even female-led comedies such as 2011's "Bridesmaids" and this summer's "The Heat" starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, have shied away from cinematic romance traditions and instead shown women behaving badly, a popular theme at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Shaw said it is reflective of women wanting to tell stories where they're not always a damsel in distress or the sweet girl next door.
But one director, fearing the demise of romantic comedies, was eager to bring it back.
"I wanted to do the rom-com, I think it's the dying genre, and then add more comedy," Jerusha Hess, director of indie comedy "Austenland," told Reuters.
Like in "Don Jon," unrealistic expectations form the crux of "Austenland." Jane Hayes, a shy woman in her thirties obsessed with the works of 19th century British novelist Jane Austen, embarks on a "pilgrimage" to Austenland, a manor where all residents and visitors must abide by 19th century British manners, and finds herself with two suitors.
The film came out in the U.S. in August and in U.K. theaters on Friday.
"She's just had this arrested development ... we wanted her to feel really trapped in this high school fantasy that she has about being swept away," said Keri Russell, who plays Jane.
(Editing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Ken Wills)