IS THE SMART ROMANTIC comedy a lost art?

For fans of sophisticated Hollywood classics like “Adam’s Rib,” “Ninotchka” and “Some Like It Hot,” a trip to the multiplex can be a demoralizing experience.

Every winter, Hollywood churns out splashy star vehicles like “Two Weeks Notice” and “Maid in Manhattan.” And every winter, the high standards set by the classic Hollywood romantic comedies — energetic, dialogue-driven tales with social nuance and moral complexity — drops another notch.

But the public can’t get enough of the stuff.

A genre that these days encompasses everything from “The Bachlorette” and “Sex and the City” to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” romantic comedy continues to generate billions of dollars for Hollywood.

That makes it a hot category for Hollywood book scouts.

ALLISON PEARSON’S TALE of a beleagured London mother, “I Don’t Know How She Does It” — in development at Miramax — is riding high on bestseller lists, and HBO has begun developing a series based on Jennifer Weiner’s recent bestseller about a sexed-up overweight reporter, “Good In Bed.”

Both books have been widely compared to “Bridget Jones’s Diary” — which is now a full-blown Hollywood franchise. A bigscreen sequel is in the works at Universal Pictures.

Such movies are generally not big financial risks — no dazzling f/x shots or action sequences. And they’re comparatively easy to cast.

But for studio execs, separating the good material from the bad, and the task of seeing a trenchant romantic comedy through the development gantlet with its teeth intact, is no mean feat.

“It’s the one genre that never falls out of favor,” said a development exec. “But it’s the hardest genre to do well because you always know how it ends.”

Novelist Jane Heller, who has had four of her novels — all romantic comedies — optioned in the last 12 months, says the genre works best when it isn’t reducible to that most cliched of questions, “Will he or won’t he?”

“My heroines are women who have to solve a problem,” she said. “In the course of solving it, they find love and find out who they are. They become better people. It’s not simply about getting the guy.”

THAT’S CERTAINLY THE HALLMARK of most romantic comedies that hit their mark both commercially and critically. Consider “Bridget Jones,” “Legally Blonde,” “About a Boy,” “What Women Want” and “There’s Something About Mary.” In each case, the romance is rooted in trendy conemporary issues: single parenting, gender battles in the workplace; the struggle to balance a family and a career, etc.

It’s hard to replicate the spirit of innovation and sophistication of Hollywood masters like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges — in part because those qualities tend to get stamped out in the development process.

“It’s hard work that goes into making it look effortless,” said director Cameron Crowe. Billy Wilder, said Crowe, “was a guy who said ‘I’m going to be my own boss.'”

Crowe said the classic filmmakers focused on character development. “It’s easy to lean on genre. The greats go character first.”

That may be one reason that romantic comedy is flourishing on television.

To sell a movie script to a studio, said screenwriter Josh Goldsmith, “the questions are: ‘What’s the idea? ‘What’s the big picture? ‘What’s the log line?'”

Goldsmith co-wrote “What Women Want,” a movie with a big concept that became the highest grossing romantic comedy before “Greek Wedding.”

But now he is an exec producer and writer on CBS’ “King of Queens.”

“In TV, you can explore the little moments of relationships more easily than in film,” Goldsmith said. “You tell smaller, more human stories.”

“Everybody Loves Raymond,” he said, “shows two people talking about taking out the trash or buying a baby crib and you’re interested.”

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