With Valentine’s Day upon us, it makes sense to look at the classic Romantic Comedy. In fact, Valentine’s Day and rom-coms are incredibly similar. They both view romance through rose-tinted glasses, and both are so overrun with profit seekers that they are hardly any fun. But every now and again, a really great rom-com comes out. So, why are some rom-coms able to better utilize the formula than others?
Maybe I’m the wrong person to write this piece—since I whole-heartedly believe the best rom-com ever written is “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”—but a great rom-com boils down to three major elements:
Half the of a rom-com has got to be the romance (it’s half the title!). Without two leads that the audience actually wants to see together, the whole scheme falls apart. Denise Di Novi, producer of a rom-com that works, (“Crazy, Stupid Love”) explains why we see the same leading women over and over again: “There are some actors that have chemistry with anybody.” Her movie casted Emma Stone, and she describes her as “just one of those people. They just vibrate on a different RPM level. She’d have chemistry with a lamppost.”
The repetition of leading women in romance is as true today as it was in early cinema. They included the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, and of course, two of the most famous people in cinema history, both named Hepburn. Modern cinema romance films have welcomed people like Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl (and more!) over and over again. It’s not just women. Many men like Spencer Tracy and Hugh Grant have found success in the same genre.
It’s not necessary for a rom-com to cast big stars or tried and true talent. Many studios will do it because it hedges their risk. Hey, if Emma Stone can have chemistry with a lamppost, she’s certainly not going to tank this project when she has to work opposite an actor who might as well be one! It’s hard to quantify, and usually involves a very talented casting director, but if they fail to cast actors with chemistry, the project is doomed from the meet-cute.
One of the defining features of a rom com is the thing that separates the couple. Usually, sometime in the end of the second act, it’s the thing that breaks the couple up. The problem is most conflicts have been done to death. Cheating? Seen it a hundred times. One’s stuck up and one’s a wild type? Come on. One’s a princess in a tower and one’s in touch with the people? Boring.
Some modern romantic comedies have put spins on the old formulas. The “Romeo and Juliet” family clash is rebranded in a modern, racial way with “The Big Sick” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” The new Christmas rom-com “Happiest Season,” twisted the familiar family conflict under a same-sex romance.
The conflict must also be incredibly timely. It’s probably harder for an audience today to connect with a conflict of premarital sex than it might’ve been 50 years ago. In the age of technology (and in a pandemic!), today’s viewers may resonate more with the struggle to find genuine human connection than a king trying to find love with a commoner. Most recently, “Palm Springs” played on these exact uncertainties.
A great rom-com has to find the balance between a conflict that generates enough stakes but is not overly serious that it detracts from the film’s comedic value. At the same time, it must be distinctly modern and properly address the culture’s view on love and romance. It’s no easy task, but it’s an essential one.
The other half of the title is the com. And that’s just as important! Some rom-coms forget that they can’t just be cute, they have to be funny. Relying on a mix of one-liners, crazy mix ups, and unforgettable shenanigans, rom-coms must work to create laughs. Some rom-coms really lean into this side of the equation, like “Bridesmaids” or “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” One of the biggest pitfalls of this genre is relying on the premise to create the comedy instead of the writer.
All in all, a rom-com is a staple of cinema. Some have felt that the rom-com genre has been declining as studios have taken safer and safer bets. While I try to avoid seeing early Hollywood as all roses, where everything was ten times better, there is an increase in the amount of poor romantic comedies. But there are also some truly great ones that came out in the last ten or twenty years.
This Valentine’s Day, kick back and watch one of my favorite scenes from one of the most influential rom-coms, “When Harry Met Sally”: