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'Ticket to Paradise' is a screwball rom-com throwback — in all its cynical, charming glory

The divorced couple who reconcile is an old Hollywood trope. As in, really old.
Julia Roberts and George Clooney in "Ticket To Paradise."
Julia Roberts and George Clooney in "Ticket to Paradise."Vince Valitutti / Universal

Centering on Julia Roberts and George Clooney, two great, aging stars of rom-coms past, “Ticket to Paradise” was always going to be a throwback. But in a fun twist, the movie’s two couples end up giving us a brief tour through the history of the entire genre, highlighting how Hollywood’s preferred love story has shifted as well.

The movie’s two couples end up giving us a brief tour through the history of the entire genre, highlighting how Hollywood’s preferred love story has shifted as well.

Clooney and Roberts play David and Georgia Cotton, a long-divorced couple. Their daughter, Lily (Kaitlyn Dever), celebrates her college graduation by leaving with her roommate Wren (Billie Lourd) for a vacation on Bali. Lily plans to just stay in Bali temporarily before returning to the states and law school. But instead she falls in love — at first sight, naturally — with seaweed fisherman and generally beautiful human Gede (Maxime Bouttier). David and Georgia stop bickering long enough to agree on one thing: They need to stop Lily from leaping into a marriage right out of college, as they did 25 years ago.

The divorced couple who reconcile is an old rom-com trope. As in, really old. It significantly predates Clooney classics like “Out of Sight” (1998) or Roberts’ “Pretty Woman” (1990). The heyday of the divorce romance was some 60 years before those pictures, in the era of screwball comedies. Iconic examples include the Cary Grant and Irene Dunne vehicle “The Awful Truth” (1937) and Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday” (1940) with Grant and Rosalind Russell.

Clooney has often been compared to Grant, and director Ol Parker refers to these old-style rom-coms quite deliberately as he plays with retro rapid-fire dialogue in many of the Clooney-Roberts exchanges. (“Worst 19 years of my life.” “We were only married for five.” “I’m counting the recovery.” Rim shot.)

The Cottons’ relationship also recalls the bracingly cheerful cynicism of that same screwball era. Contemporary rom-coms tend to embrace destiny and love at first sight, or at least (as in “When Harry Met Sally”) love after a while, leading to the happily ever after. But “His Girl Friday” starts after the love has already worn off, and “The Awful Truth” gears up after multiple gratuitous betrayals and infidelities. The protagonists have had all the dew knocked out of their eyes. The path back to romance is more like a battle, where the combatants know each other’s weaknesses and aren’t afraid to exploit them.

David and Georgia show up in Bali convinced that love is a sham. They don’t believe Lily’s idyllic tropical romance will work, just like their predecessors from the '30s and '40s wouldn’t have believed in that kind of love — at least, not on the first try.

Also like those skeptical and combative Hollywood stars of yesteryear, David and Georgia get to have a lot of fun with their lines. And they’re the ones who have to deal with dolphin and snake attacks, harking back to the leopard in “Bringing Up Baby.” (It’s a trope suggesting that nature itself is unexpectedly opposed to the project of reproduction.)

Later-vintage rom-coms are mostly less focused on getting you to laugh out loud and more centered on emotional catharsis. An especially important trope in the modern rom-com is the public declaration. In these scenes, the central couple expresses their love for one another in a grand gesture before a big audience — an audience that stands in for, and implicitly includes, the movie viewers themselves.

“Love Actually” (2003) includes a number of iconic examples. The trope is elaborated on almost to the point of self-parody in this year’s “Marry Me,” in which Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson exchange vows in front of a stadium full of people. And, yes, there’s a parallel moment in “Ticket to Paradise” (though with an interesting tweak).

These audience participation set pieces frame rom-coms as ritual spaces for the worship of love. They celebrate lifelong commitment, just as those older screwball comedies mocked such fidelity with a wink and a quip.

It’s not spoiling anything to say that in this film, released in 2022 and not in 1940, the more hopeful, uncomplicated view of romance (mostly) wins out over the crotchety older one. The world-weary Georgia and David cast a jaundiced eye on even the most beautiful Bali sunset. But Lily and Gede, as Hollywood-beautiful as they are, can’t really compete. Even young gorgeous individuals in a tropical paradise aren’t as effortlessly, gracefully charming as George Clooney and Julia Roberts batting putdowns back and forth.

That’s ultimately also the biggest similarity between the two generations of rom-com love. Relationships in real life can be tedious and mundane, sometimes tragic, and rarely filled with meet cutes, epiphanies or tightly scripted dialogue. Whether knowing and fast-paced or pausing in rapt contemplation, the rom-com gives love a glamour, a structure, a wonder and an intelligence that sweeps you off your feet. The new love and the old anti-love seem to be at odds. But really they’re joined by a singular, timeless fantasy that’s bigger than life. And who better to fulfill that fantasy than George and Julia.