When I tell people that one of my favourite genres is the romantic comedy, they give me a look, as if I had said knitting was a favourite pastime or that I adored watching cricket. I must be testing them, they likely think. Surely, I cannot be serious.
Here is the thing: I am serious. And I am the perfect target audience for these kinds of films. I’m in print journalism, a career that you often do not see grace the lives of characters unless in the romanticized world of the rom-com. I also have been more unlucky than lucky when it comes to relationships. Naturally, I sympathize with the social awkwardness and mis-communications that befall the lovelorn protagonists in these types of films.
This week marks 25 years after the release of When Harry Met Sally, a film you just cannot forget to mention in a column about the romantic comedy. I want to stick up for a genre that seems to have lost its sense of cool. In spirit of the Lloyd Doblers, Jerry Maguires and Alvy Singers out there who have a thing with big declarations, I want to argue that the romantic comedy deserves far more credit than it gets. And, despite the title of this column, why enjoying one should not feel like a “guilty pleasure.”
Foremost, the romantic comedy is a genre that we can all relate to. We have all been in love. We have all done some pretty clumsy and curious things while trying to find out if that love is for real. And, we have all been through our share of sad and happy endings. Odds are good that we will find something to laugh at in these films. The bizarre and brash romantic pursuits of these characters remind us of things we did or the behaviour of people we know who were in a similar situation.
If we are trying to hide a secret from our love interest, do we not feel just as melancholic as Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, as he struggles to keep his cover as a woman while falling in love with one? After a romantic night goes just the way we want, don’t we all feel like strutting down the street with the same glee as Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer, a scene that shifts into a sunny dance number to suit his mood? The moments from these films earn a special poignancy and emotional sensitivity since they capture feelings so familiar to us. The experiences of the characters in many of these films feel personal.
With such a small distance from our experiences to the characters onscreen, it is little surprise that the screenwriters behind many of the best romantic comedies are the darlings of film fans. Billy Wilder (The Apartment), Cameron Crowe (Say Anything…), Charlie Chaplin (City Lights), Buck Henry (The Graduate) and even Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) are among some of the finest storytellers and sensitive wordsmiths in film history. Their stories and characters summon feelings of joy and despair that we all move toward again and again.
Another great feature of the genre is how creatively studios match up movie stars to play love interests. One of the genre’s most appealing assets is bringing together two stars of competing popularity in a very watchable package. The Philadelphia Story brought audiences what may be the most intoxicating love triangle between A-listers ever – James Stewart, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. That comedy classic was a bona-fide pleasure on a deeper level, as we could feel the stars’ personas shining through their characters.
A producer and director can also take the sublime combination of two very different stars and see what kind of chemistry they can create. Think of Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt in As Good as it Gets, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night and Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment. To watch fine characters collide usually had much to do with the winning combination that ended up headlining the picture.
However, the genre is not as prized in modern cinema as it had been in the past. One of the things that have sunk the romantic comedy to its poor contemporary reputation is that traditional notions of love and romance are very different. In a world of Match.com and Tinder, finding stories that reflect the way we fall in love and connect is harder to replicate on the big screen. Some films have succeeded to update the antiquated meet-cute associated with the rom-com. Will Gluck’s refreshing Friends with Benefits could be compared to a raunchy, 21st-century updating of When Harry Met Sally. Spike Jonze’s superb Her, meanwhile, certainly fits the boundaries of the genre and spends much of its running time exploring how hard it is to find new love in an increasingly artificial world.
Nevertheless, it will continue to be the mission of great actors, writers and directors to find ways to bring the jolly, old-fashioned sweetness of It Happened One Night into an increasingly personalized and cynical age. Still, it is certainly time for a greater representation of romances onscreen, whether it be same-sex or interracial.
The genre’s poor reputation today is also likely due to a weaker collection of romantic comedies over the past 15 years. The disarming smiles of Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, Rachel McAdams and a variety of other starlets became these film’s selling points, instead of the interesting stories, characters and relationships. Lazy plotting more akin to a corny fantasy, featured in films like Maid in Manhattan and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, to name but a few, has also tried to bury the majesty of a genre best realized with realism and relatable situations.
Why is it so easy to make a parody like They Came Together (now playing in theatres), which pokes fun at the conventions-turned-clichés of these films? Likely due to how familiar the beats of a bad romantic comedy are. However, even if great romantic comedies (or just a good one) is rarer today, old and new classics should still be treasured. Even if falling in love is a challenge for us—at least for now—there are dozens of great movies that we can fall in love with over and over again.