As discussed in our recent article “Falling in Love with Settings”, romantic cinema is built on fantasy. Everything is ‘romanticized’; the setting is perfect, the characters are beautiful, the plot is somehow more romantic than usual. Truth is irrelevant, fantasy is everything.
Romantic Comedy is no different, but the real ‘focus’ of that fantasy centers on the pairing at the heart of the story.
Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks; Renee Zellweger and Colin Firth; Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler. All white. What’s up with that?! However, the weird lack of diversity in romcoms is not the point of this article.
Audiences often decide to see a rom-com based on the couple they see on the poster. There’s a reason Meg and Tom did three movies together! But when it comes to actually writing romantic comedies, what is the secret of this pairing? Is it truly ‘opposites attract’? Well, kinda but not really. There are a few recurring links that seem to connect most romantic comedy pairings from the cynical romcoms of the 1930s through to the optimistic romance of the present day.
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)
In 1934, the Romantic Comedy became a mainstream genre when Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night had a night of triumphant success at the Oscars. The first movie to sweep the ‘big five’ (best picture; director; actor; actress; original screenplay) — and at time of publishing, one of only three in history — the movie kicked off a genre entirely of its own. An incredible feat when you discover that almost nobody wanted to make this movie (and some just hated it). The story, as usual, is a simple one: a snobby runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) runs away and happens to meet a gruff, recently-fired newspaper man (Clark Gable) on a bus; while she’s on the lam, a curious and contentious romance strikes up between them.
The great thing about Colbert and Gable’s relationship is the complete unlikelihood of these two falling in love. Comedy depends on reversals and opposites, something screenwriter Robert Riskin understands. In romcoms, the characters are usually opposites in some form or another; it’s usually ideology (she’s a romantic, he’s a cynic, etc.). Riskin uses this ingredient of opposites to the extreme. They’re opposites in every way. She’s a princess, he’s a man of the people. She’s very snobby and he’s indifferent to just about everything. In fact, the only thing they have in common is a chaotic distrust of… everything and everyone, including each other. But this is somehow the thing that ultimately brings them together.
This is something you see most in old romantic comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Screwball comedy centers on the ‘battle of the sexes’ between the ‘wild’ woman and ‘subdued’ man, and the romance that develops amidst the chaos. Bringing Up Baby (one of the funniest movies ever made, in my opinion) is the perfect example: unassertive paleontologist Cary Grant meets unhinged Katherine Hepburn, who demands he help find and look after her pet leopard Baby. Even writing that sentence was fun. As things get progressively more and more out of control, Grant realizes he loves Hepburn and the chaos she brings, despite his better instincts. This pretty much sums up romantic comedy, right? Opposites meet, chaos ensues, and they fall in love.
In romantic comedy, opposites are a comedic goldmine, but also perfect opportunities for romance.
Woody Allen’s masterpiece is a significant moment in the history of the romantic comedy. It created the template for what has now developed into the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’: the young, pretty, intelligent yet scatterbrained ‘cool’ girl that the male protagonist falls in love with. The lasting legacy of this stereotype has inspired many articles of critical analysis and I’m far too stupid to contribute any actual commentary, but I think Annie Hall is one of the more subtle variations of the trope. Like Colbert and Gable or Grant and Hepburn, Diane Keaton’s free-spirited and quirky Annie Hall manages to counterbalance Allen’s uptight neurotic wisecracker Alvy Singer. Too much of one or the other would be difficult to handle. Too boring, or too chaotic. Unrealistic.
But Allen manages to infuse the relationship with a realistic quality rarely seen in the fantasy-obsessed romantic comedy.
Amidst all of the surrealism and changing format, Allen doesn’t shy away from the fact that relationships are a balancing act, and they aren’t always perfect and clean like the movies suggest. Allen has no problems writing devastating arguments between the characters that harken back to the sharp honesty that populated romantic comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s like The Philadelphia Story or The Awful Truth. Of course, Annie Hall isn’t exactly a Hollywood fairytale, but there’s something more interesting here. The characters are believable in their situation. They’re real. We understand them as their own people, and exactly why they need this relationship. They need balance in their lives.
In You’ve Got Mail (God, I love this movie, I don’t even care how unrealistic it is), Meg Ryan worries about the future of her independent book store because of Tom Hanks’s desire to make a big corporate store down the street. We, as the audience, understand both sides of the story. They feel real — he wants to expand, she wants to protect. We know they can’t be together without compromise, and they can’t be happy alone. They feel believable, and the relationship feels inevitable. They’re not two-dimensional characters like Katherine Heigl in a business suit and her commitment-phobic boyfriend in that movie… and that other movie… and the other one. You know the one.
The relationship feels real, necessary and inevitable because the characters are perfectly matched.
Speaking on behalf of Britain (because, obviously, that’s what I’m here for), Richard Curtis is one of our finest filmmakers. The man has somehow managed to consistently produce some of the greatest romantic comedies in cinema, and Notting Hill is one of his best. Julia Roberts herself said it was the ‘best Romantic Comedy she had ever read’: a simple story of small-time bookshop owner falling in love with a big-time movie star.
Incidentally, a common element of romance movies is a very simple story, because the plot ultimately doesn’t matter. Romantic comedy is a character-and-relationship-motivated genre.
Richard Curtis understands this better than anyone. Look at any of his movies, and you’ll see a strong focus on character — what’s the story in Love Actually? Primarily, Curtis makes his characters downright loveable. They’re funny, good-natured, sweet. You don’t see muggers or Mafia bosses in his movies. You see bookshop owners and well-meaning world leaders.
Notting Hill pairs Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant — HUGE movie stars at the time of release — as the loveable pair at the center of a non-Hollywood Hollywood romance. Roberts is not your typical ‘movie star’ stereotype. She doesn’t play a diva, but an ordinary girl in an extraordinary situation — a little more realistic. Hugh is a divorced bookshop owner that falls in love. Very realistic.
What’s interesting about Notting Hill, compared to Curtis’s other movies, is the lack of any major flaw in the characters. Grant and Roberts are well-meaning people. Sure, Hugh Grant is a bit hesitant to be in a relationship, but that’s about it. He’s not a jerk, she’s not a jerk. This rarely happens. Often, romcoms give the lead an ‘issue’ to rectify — something that relates to the theme of the movie. Shallow Hal needs to give up his prejudices; The 40 Year Old Virgin needs to let go of his concern about his virginity before he can love; Hitch needs to figure out that the only key to romance is to be himself. But, as Curtis shows, this is ultimately optional. The only requirement is that we, as an audience, like them. The romantic comedy doesn’t even need to say anything but ’love will triumph’.
The characters in the relationship need to be loveable, or at the very least, root-for-able.
The pairing in a Romantic Comedy is crucial to the success of the screenplay. But also crucial is juggling the ‘holy trinity’ that comes with the genre: your characters must somehow be opposites that are perfectly matched/need each other and be loveable all at once. This sounds impossible, but all of the ‘good’ and lasting romcoms have abided by these rules. Moonstruck, You’ve Got Mail (I don’t care how unrealistic it is, I love it), Splash (apparently more realistic than You’ve Got Mail to some wrong people) — all masterclasses in creating the perfect pairing.
But to simplify it, audiences ultimately just want to watch an attractive pair of people that they really like fight and disagree until they realize how much they love one another.
Although, if anyone wants to throw an unpredictable pet leopard into the mix, I recommend it.