The romantic comedy has been one of the longest lasting cinematic genres. We want to see the same characters, in the same situations, within the same storylines, in very similar settings and talking pretty much the same dialogue, sometimes with new stars that speak to a new generation but telling the same old story.
“The archetypal romantic comedy is certainly perceived to be a woman’s film, perhaps dismissed by some, often male, critics and lumped in a category labelled ‘chickflick’.”
Romantic comedies add up the significant part of chick flicks next to melodramas. The funny thing about chick flicks and romantic comedies is that they tend to go hand in hand because most romantic comedies are aimed towards women audiences, but not all the time.
For Women Only?
Genre films are about mass entertainment. They are about studios maximising their return on the considerable investment they made. Genre movies are about replicating well-tried formulas that have made serious money in the past. So romantic comedies as a genre usually talk about general issues of love and relationships. Especially Hollywood romcoms tell the stories of everyday romantic struggles that concern everybody including a broader male and female audience. Naturally, romantic comedies tend to focus on women. However, women are usually accompanied by male partners to watch these kinds of films. Romantic comedies are excellent date night movies, and there is a reason for that. Usually, that reason is money, therefore, a need for a broader audience.
The combination of repetition and difference can describe genre films. Successful romantic comedies are immediately recognisable by the general elements. Twisting some components can make the given movie unique. Innovative films take advantage of genre conventions, use the typical story-arch and then utilise circumstances to add originality.
In Chick Flick Guide I talk a lot about movies that are commonly agreed to be at the heart of the romantic comedy category. But I will also discuss the films that push the boundaries and lurk around the periphery of the genre. Because that’s where the magic happens.
The American Film Institute defines “romantic comedy” as a genre in which the development of a romance leads to comic situations. The definition is quite problematic because comedy and romance can be part of a film without making it a romantic comedy. Countless movies use a romantic storyline that goes along the main plotline sometimes overlapping it. Furthermore, many films utilise funny sidekicks helping the hero to provide some comedic elements in the drama or adventure film.
“[A] romantic comedy is a film which has as its central narrative motor a quest for love, which portrays this quest in a light-hearted way and almost always to a successful conclusion.”
The romcom can be seen as a hybrid of the romance and comedy genres, featuring a narrative that centres on the progress of a relationship or the pursuit of love, resulting in a happy ending.
“If humor establishes the tone, courtship provides the plot.”
The ‘battle of the sexes’ provides the central dynamic of the genre. Romantic comedies are ultimately about obtaining love, but before that happens obstacles arise and the hero or heroine needs to learn something. The protagonist must make a realisation or self-discovery that transforms her forever and finally makes love possible.
As Claire Mortimer puts it in her book called Romantic Comedy:
“The narrative often hinges around the central couple, who initially are antagonistic towards each other, but who come to recognise their inescapable compatibility in the face of great adversity and, often, mutual loathing. Their incompatibility may arise from social status, wealth, conflicting lifestyles and attitudes, or even purely their differing expectations of relationships.”
A Very Brief History of Romantic Comedy
The roots of the genre can be traced back to Shakespeare’s comedies. We find all things romcom here: ‘battle of the sexes,’ misunderstandings and disguises, absurd situations and a happy ending.
However, the first universally acknowledged romcoms are the screwball comedies of the 1930s (It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story). They brought something fresh and original to cinema audiences, making them a box office success, and setting in place a blueprint for subsequent romantic comedies. Usually, a warring couple is placed in the centre of the story with a collision of lifestyle, values and social class. Chaos, funny pranks, flirtatious quarrels and witty, fast-paced dialogue mark the progress of their explosive relationship.
Then came the so-called sex comedies of the 1950s like The Moon Is Blue, The Tender Trap and Pillow Talk. Despite the name, these romantic comedies were more about the acknowledgement of female desire and sexual pleasure, than actual sex. These films revolved around the narrative of both the man and the woman wanting sex. The conflict has risen by the woman wanting marriage first and then sex. Meanwhile, the man desperately wants to keep his freedom.
The next stage of romcom history arrived with the ‘nervous comedies’ of the late 1970s, most notably with the films of Woody Allen such as Annie Hall and Manhattan. These landmark romantic comedies showcase the era’s uncertainty about relationships and identity. They disrupted the classic romcom formula. Marriage is no longer an important goal for the characters. Sex has become the central force of relationships. The creators rejected happy endings in favour of greater realism. ‘Nervous comedies’ were not made for mass audiences, but for intellectuals and cinephiles with their constant references to other artworks, criticism and psychoanalysis.
The late 1980s saw a resurgence in the popularity of romantic comedies within mainstream cinema. The genre took back its place with films like Working Girl and When Harry Met Sally paving the way for the major box office hits of the 1990s (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail).
“Hollywood rom-coms in particular have enjoyed a massive revival since the 1990s, with When Harry Met Sally in 1989 marking a pivotal moment in the renewed visibility of the genre.”
After the ‘nervous comedies’ of the 70s, in the 80s and 90s romantic comedies turned back to more traditional models. In the majority, they showed heterosexual relationships and more conventional pairings. Happy endings had a comeback too.
Contemporary Romantic Comedies
Then came the 2000s with Bridget Jones’s Diary leading the way and since then romantic comedy continues to regenerate. There is a tendency of integrating new elements into the familiar genre. It can be new topics like in the case of Silver Linings Playbook (mental illness) or Juno (teenage pregnancy). A new approach can work too. Injecting gross-out comedy into Knocked Up and Bridesmaids was a success. Quirky characters can also make today’s indie romcoms special. Like we saw them in 2 Days in Paris, 500 Days of Summer or What If.
The different phases of romantic comedy reflect the social, economic and cultural climate of the time, but the genre formula is clearly identifiable. So it seems that romantic comedies will never die, just evolve.
Narratives in RomComs
The narrative of a typical romantic comedy is quite simple.
Step 1: boy meets girl.
Step 2: boy and girl face obstacles to their romantic union.
Step 3: boy and girl conquer obstacles to find true love. Happy end!
The two lovers are apparently meant for each other. However, due to some complicating circumstances (e.g., class differences, parental interference, a previous girlfriend or boyfriend), they are kept apart. Then finally they are reunited.
There can be variations of the above storyline. One of the basic narratives sees the couple as separated in the initial stages of the film, only to be reunited by the end after discovering that they still love each other, as in such movies as His Girl Friday, Adam’s Rib and Sex And The City.
A second variation on the romantic comedy narrative is that of the couple falling in love at first sight yet being unable to be together, due to factors beyond their control. Examples of this story structure include Pretty Woman, The Wedding Planner and Enchanted.
A third version of the model is that of unrequited love. One half of the couple realises their love for the other early on. However, the other half is slow to recognise and return their love. Often the hesitant one needs to lose the wrong partner first to be ready for the right love. As it happens in My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby and 27 Dresses.
The fourth narrative is that of the couple who are at war with each other from the start. Then after various misunderstandings and complications, they recognise their love for each other. Examples of this variation include It Happened One Night, Pillow Talk and How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days.
The “Meet Cute”
There are universal tropes and plot devices that work well within the romantic comedy structure like the “grand gesture.” After realising that he or she is in love the protagonist makes an extravagant romantic effort to find the other person and declare their love. Say Anything, 10 Things I Hate About You and When Harry Met Sally all end with it too. Before the “grand gesture,” nevertheless a potential couple has to “meet cute.”
Roger Ebert describes the “concept of a Meet Cute” as “when boy meets girl in a cute way.” One of the conventions of romantic comedy films is that the potential romantic partners meet in an unusual way or under comic circumstances. During a “meet cute,” screenwriters often create a sense of awkwardness between the potential partners. They usually show a comical misunderstanding or clash of personalities.
In a scene in The Holiday, a writer explains to the protagonist how the “meet cute” works.
Arthur Abbott: Say a man and a woman both need something to sleep in and both go to the same men’s pajama department. The man says to the salesman, “I just need bottoms,” and the woman says, “I just need a top.” They look at each other and that’s the ‘meet cute.’ – The Holiday (2006)
The ultimate “meet cute” happens in Serendipity. During some holiday shopping at a crowded store, both protagonists reach for the same pair of black cashmere gloves. The situation shows that they are destined for each other.
Contemporary romantic comedies are pushing boundaries and flipping old-school conventions. It is still the same happy love story but with more complexity added.
Some films change up the narrative or have an unexpected ending. For example in 500 Days of Summer, the two primary love interests do not end up together. Despite the Narrator’s claim, we still root for the couple to be.
Narrator: This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story. – 500 Days of Summer (2009)
Other films alter the classic romantic comedy tone like the quirky, indie romcoms of the noughties and our decade. Examples of it include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ruby Sparks or Greenberg.
Romantic comedies can also add some complexity to their palette by introducing new themes. Take, for example, the death of a parent (Beginners), domestic violence (Waitress) or mental illness (Silver Linings Playbook).
Adding another genre to romantic comedy new hybrids evolve. Mr. and Mrs. Smith mixes its action adventure story with the battle of the sexes. La La Land combines musical with romantic comedy. Warm Bodies offers the combination of romantic comedy and horror. The further away the two genres are from each other, the harder to make them work together. But Warm Bodies manages to pull it off.
With new ideas flowing into the genre and new voices popping up romantic comedy is continually revigorating itself. Be it a guilty pleasure or a film experience of a lifetime the contemporary romantic comedy is alive and well.
- Claire Mortimer. Romantic Comedy (Routledge Film Guidebooks). (Taylor & Francis e-Library: Taylor & Francis, 2010).
- “AFI’s 10 Top 10.” America’s 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres. AFI.com.
- Tamar Jeffers McDonald. Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre (Short Cuts). (New York: Wallflower, 2007).
- Leger Grindon. The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History and Controversies. (UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2011).
- Stacey Abbott, Deborah Jermyn. Falling in Love Again: Romantic Comedy in Contemporary Cinema. (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2009)
- “Lost and Found.” Roger Ebert. 28 June 1979.
Source of Featured Image: When Harry Met Sally…(1989)