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That Somewhat Splendored Thing.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark and Coury Turczyn

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  Romantic comedies are among the most formulaic of genre films, mostly because we all know how they're going to end. The guy's gonna get the girl, the girl's gonna get the guy, happy ever after. What's more, we know there's just got to be some obstacles on the way there, usually in the form of misunderstandings or missed connections that can be rectified within the allotted time frame (100 minutes or less—there aren't many epic romantic comedies). Given all of that, the movies usually stand or fall on two things—the sharpness of the writing and the chemistry of the casting.

Next Stop Wonderland (1998, R)—which I watched by myself on Valentine's Day, thank you very much—is pretty strong on both counts. The moderately hyped indie film, the second from writer-director Brad Anderson, is a one-trick show that makes the most of its gimmick—two people who we just know would be perfect for each other keep almost meeting but missing, sometimes by inches or seconds. The real focus here is Erin (Hope Davis), a nurse who's been dumped by her Marxist boyfriend. When her meddling mother places a personal ad for her, Erin is annoyed but lonely enough to go on a series of disastrous dates with her respondents. Meanwhile, Alan (Alan Gelfant), a sensitive plumber, is pursuing his dream of becoming a marine biologist. Gelfant is kind of a stiff, but he's the kind of thoughtful stiff that passes for the perfect guy in such movies. The real pleasure is Davis, who matches her yearning for companionship with enough smarts not to settle for anything less than she deserves. When she finally gets it, you can't help cheering for her.

You may not be cheering at the end of Sliding Doors (1998, R), but it does at least have an interesting conceit to keep you occupied before things get too tear-jerky. Gwyneth Paltrow plays a British ad exec who gets fired and finds her boyfriend having a go with another woman—but then there's also the alternate universe Gwyneth who doesn't catch her conniving beau in the act. Thus, we watch as both Gwyneth A rebuilds her life and finds romance with John Hannah (who's genuinely charming) while Gwyneth B putters along unfulfilled. While the gimmick gets to be old hat after a while, Paltrow and Hannah do inspire a few sparks of romance before they all get doused by sudden tragedy. Oh for more effervescence.

For really timeless romantic comedy, however, you can't do any better than Bringing Up Baby (1938), Howard Hawks' madcap classic that matches stuffy professor Cary Grant with spunky society girl Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn is intoxicating; she makes Grant, and the whole movie, giddy. There are a lot of reasons she's the greatest American actress ever, but this is my favorite one.

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