A Discourse on the Romanic Comedy
You know what, I like romantic comedies. I like them a whole lot. In any event, I like them a whole lot more than the average guy. If you know me at all, or have read my prior posts, this revelation will not come as a surprise at all. And you know what, I'm tired of apologizing for my taste in movies, and of pretending not to like something that I DO like, and of being made to feel inferior for my taste in motion pictures. It is my contention that romantic comedies are not a blight on the intellectual movie consciousness, as they are often made out to ben, and that a well-made romantic comedy can be among the most satisfying moviegoing experiences out there. I'm gonna talk about romantic comedies, why I love them, why they get bad press, then end with several examples of romantic comedies I did or did not like and what worked or did not work about them.
A word in advance: This post is strictly gonna be about romantic comedies, which I will define in the primary sense it will be used here as a movie where the primary point of the story is a romance, and there is some comedy there to keep the movie light. So any movies which are primarily comedies but with a romantic story thrown in will not be included. And though I'm not including other types of movies, the points in this post could probably be applied to several other types of movies that I also enjoy (e.g. kids movies in the vein of Life-Size or teen movies, or other movies which are primarily liked for being "cute").
What makes a good romantic comedy good?
There are several factors that go in to making a good comedy, and where people get confused about them is that the factors that make a romantic comedy good are not the factors that we normally look at in a movie. Also a lot of the standards that we normally apply to films aren't really appropriate to apply to romantic comedies (see the next section for further discussion on this). These are the most important points of a romantic comedy, in descending order of importance.
1. Chemistry between the leads. If the leads don't have the chemistry there, the movie just will not work. There needs to be a good rapport between the leads, they need to work together well, for the romantic backbone of the movie to be believable. This one should be obvious.
2. Dialogue. The quality of the dialogue between the characters needs to be high, because this is what generally is gonna drive the actions and the plot of the movie, and this is what is supposed to make us believe the characters are falling in love. Poorly written dialogue will sink any romantic comedy, no matter how witty and charming the leads are.
3. Believability of the ending. A romantic comedy will almost always end up with the main characters together. Anything else, with a few notable exceptions, is just not conceivable. Most romantic comedies take place over a very short period of time, with the main characters having not had much interaction with each other, so it has to be believable that the main characters end up together. Furthermore, the audience has to really believe that they are gonna STAY together, and not break up one week later. Everything leads up to this point, if it doesn't work it kinda ruins the point of the journey.
4. Quality of the acting. Usually this is more important for the female lead. This seems like an easy role, but, again, it needs to be judged on different terms than regular acting. The important and essential characteristics of a female lead are that she is sweet and cute and funny and charming. There usually isn't too terribly large an emotional range required, but you really need to be a charmer, and not all good actresses could pull this off.
5. Factors keeping the main characters apart. Delayed gratification is the point of a romantic comedy, they can't get together until the very end. On the other hand, the characters have to be shown and made to be falling in love slowly throughout the film, so the ending will be believable. So if they're already in love, why not get together? There have to be external forces keeping the characters apart. A certain suspension of disbelief needs be granted in this regard to the film, but sometimes they can take it overboard. A move where two people who are in love can't get together just because of their own idiotic decisions and actions can become too stupid to watch at a certain point.
6. Emotional arc of the film. A good romantic comedy should end with both the male and female main characters having learned something about themselves en route to ending up together.
7. Actual quality of the comddy. All things considered, a romantic comedy that is legitimately funny will be preferable to one that is not. This one isn't super important though, a movie can succeed as a superior romantic comedy even if the jokes aren't very good.
A Much Maligned Genre
Hardly any genre receives as much scorn from intellectual moviegoers than the modern, bubbly romantic comedy. The most common complaint given about romantic comedies is that they are too predictable. This complaint bugs me to no end. YES, the main characters will end up together in the end, YES they will say a cheesy line, and YES the film will often end on, or just after, a lingering shot of their oh-so-romantic first kiss. You're just gonna have to get over that. Not every movie needs to have a surprise ending to be good, and it can be very satisfying to watch the events play out even if you basically know where it's going. Every once in a while they'll throw a nice curveball in there too (e.g. Little Black Book, Down With Love).
Furthermore, extending on the comedy comment above, to be honest, the actual quality of the jokes is not a big deal. To me, the "comedy" portion of the romantic comedy serves to keep the mood light, and whatnot, and not necessarily to cause laugh-out-loud jokes. Everything is in service to the romantic story in these films.
Anyways I think this film genre is highly maligned, and the reason is people are judging it on the wrong terms. For the romantic story/drama, we might judge it on the basis of a dramatic film. The most important thing in a normal dramatic film is a plot, and most romantic comedies have stupid and very predictable plots, even the good ones. From a comedy standpoint, a lot of romantic comedies have kind of unoriginal jokes, that's the nature of the beast most of the time. So people judging it from a comedic standpoint are gonna be disappointed as well. But the point of a romantic comedy is the journey of seeing the interactions between the people, and watching them fall in love. The ending is important because we gotta see them end up together, but it's the character interactions that really drive a romantic comedy. The other problem with romantic comedies is that by their very nature they really can't be watched with a critical eye. They work best when you are just sitting there and letting yourself get caught up in the emotions. This obviously works against it a lot of the time from a critical standpoint.
All this being said, there are 3 reasons I can think of which I would consider to be valid as reasons for not liking the whole of romantic comedies:
1) Extreme reliance on the plot of movies, to the exclusion of other elements. If you consider plot, and the development/resolution of plot to be the most important part of all films you enjoy, you won't like romantic comedies.
2) You only or mostly like to watch movies to be intellectually stimulated. Obviously this rules out most romantic comedies.
3) You cannot or do not like to get emotionally involved in the events of movies.
There are probably more that people can come up with, I will review those on a case-by-case basis. But, each of these three reasons are valid, and I wouldn't consider any to be signs of being closed-minded. What DOES annoy me though is when people say/imply that the romantic comedy is an inferior genre of film based on their own biases of enjoying films. Or the seemingly common belief that romantic comedies are for brainless idiots. I like other aspects of films than you do, doesn't make me any worse. Also it annoys me when people say they don't like romantic comedies because they are too predictable, even when they like other types of movies which are not inherently plot based (e.g. my friend Rich). Just admit the real reason, which is that you are too much of a "man" to get emotionally involved in love stories.
Romantic Comedies that Worked (like usual, a lot of these reviews are gonna contain spoilers):
Notting Hill - This is a movie made in 1999 starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. I'm gonna assume you all basically knew that and basically know the plot of this movie, as it is one of the more famous romantic comedies. This film is written by Richard Curtis, who also wrote two other excellent romantic comedies in Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral. All three films work exceptionally well, and are a delight to watch, and for the same basic reasons. Richard Curtis is an expert at writing dialogue, and also writes characters very well. In addition, Notting Hill is legitimately funny. Hugh Grant plays the same character he always does, and does just as well as he always does, which is quite well indeed. The funny thing is, I don't like Julia Roberts at all (actually I kinda hate her), but, damn, I gotta admit she is perfect for this role. She does a damn fine job in this role. In addition, addressing the other points above, the forces keeping them apart, she being a celebrity, and him a commoner, work just fine in the film, and the ending is well deserved. We have seen they have fallen in love with each other, and the ending plays out in a very sweet, very cute way, right after the famous scene in the bookstore (ie the "I'm just a girl" scene).
Just Like Heaven - This was a film released just last year starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo. Using the above scale of factors noted, the most important things that this movie has working for it are #1 (Chemistry of Leads), #3 (Believability of Acting), #4 (Quality of Acting of Female Lead), and #6 (Emotional Arc of Film). Reese Witherspoon is probably my favorite actress working today (non-Amber Tamblyn division), and her and Mark Ruffalo just work wonderfully together. The chemistry between them really is excellent, and Reese is just so perfect for acting in a romantic comedy. The emotional arc of this film is both excellent, as both characters learn important lessons in the film, and it really does have a good message. As to the plot and the comedy, the plot is highly original for a romantic comedy, but doesn't really add a ton to the romantic arc, and the comedy is OK but really derivative. But the ending of the movie, oh, the ending. I was really surprised at how emotionally affecting the entire film was, but especially the ending. It's probably not quite correct to say it made me cry, but my eyes were welling up, and certainly I was made highly emotional. If this film doesn't hit you emotionally you seriously must have a heart of stone. This was the best romantic comedy in a long while, and one of the best films of 2005 period. I highly recommend either this film or Notting Hill if you are a first-timer to romantic comedies who has never really given 'em a chance.
Roman Holiday - This is my favorite film of all time, as I have said before. I absolutely adore Audrey Hepburn, and she is outstanding in this film (actually she won the Oscar for it), and her and Gregory Peck have tons and tons of chemistry. The reason I bring this film up is because it does violate the central tenet that the main characters will end up together. Normally I hate it when that happens, but it WORKS for this film. It doesn't seem self-indulgent, and the very last scene of the movie, a lingering shot of Gregory Peck walking away, is one of my very favorite film scenes of all time. You are just sitting there waiting for the classic cheesy romantic comedy scene were Audrey runs out and yells at him to stop and they kiss and all is well, but you know it can't happen.
Down With Love - Another personal favorite, not nearly as emotionally affecting as the above but works because Ewan MacGregor and Renee Zelwegger each have tons of charm, and the film keeps a great breezy light pace throughout. It's very pretty to look at, and the humor is generally actually pretty funny. There is a pretty funny twist thrown in at the end, but most of this movie is just a very surface-y but very fun romantic comedy.
Romantic Comedies that Didn't Work (just my opinion):
How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days - This is a romantic comedy that is torn down by the plot, the very rare kind. Roger Ebert has a great term, the "Idiot Plot". This is a plot that is driven only by the fact that the two main characters are idiots, and the entire plot/misunderstandings would be solved if only a couple people would get together and have one decent length conversation. For example, most episodes of Lost would meet this description. He also wisely points out that in a well-made film (such as Just Like Heaven), the idiot plot can serve the film really well by creating tension. In a poorly made film, such as this one, it just completely destroys the film. The main issues I have with this film, from the list above are #3 (believability of ending) and #5 (factors keeping main characters apart). I didn't believe the ending to this movie, I didn't feel like it "earned" it, and I didn't feel like the main characters were staying together. The whole film was just kind of a mess, which is a shame because Kate Hudson is very cute and charming and I would love to see her star in a good romantic comedy
Tying into a previous post, Hello Sister, Goodbye Life, though not technically a romantic comedy could easily be judged on the same scale. And by the scale it fails on #2 - #4. As I noted, the acting was bad, the dialogue was unrealistic, and the ending was not justified by the prior events in the movie.
I guess the reason I wanted to write this post was because I often see romantic comedies trashed in reviews that completely miss the point. Often when reading a negative review of one, it is clear that the person writing the review just doesn't like romantic comedies as a genre at all, and people just think that's okay! I mean, it's absurd, I'm not gonna go write a review of some metal album, or some slow paced arty foreign film, because I don't get those genres and I don't like them. But because it's a "romantic-comedy" it's COOL to hate. And oh yeah, guys don't like them either because you have to be emotionally involved to like them, which we are all trained out of as children. But EMBRACE THEM. It's really fun, and it plays to a kind of primal, inborn desire in all of us for true romantic love. Anyways, I've read so many reviews of romantic comedies that trash them for being predictable, or for not being funny enough or something, that I just wanted to make a post on what factors IN MY OPINION are properly used in judging a romantic comedy. And if this post seems kinda gay or stupid, whatever, I'm through with apologizing for my taste in movies.