Rom-coms are, probably, the most predictable genre of Hollywood films one can watch. Mostly, this has to do with the fact that the genre tropes they include haven’t changed, at least in any essential way, since the 1940s. And even though we all know how the film is going to end, sometimes we still find ourselves wanting to watch it.
The first and major element of rom-coms is the ‘mandatory’ happy ending aka boy and girl get together. If this is not the case, the film runs the terrible risk of not being categorized as a rom-com or, even worse, being called an ‘alternative’ romantic comedy, a dramedy or, horror of all horrors, realistic. (Notice how The Break Up, even though it includes all the ingredients needed to make a rom-com is still considered a ‘comedy-drama’, simply because of its ending). I hate to be the cynical voice of conscience, but something tells me that, in this day and age, most relationships will end up in a break up. And, in all societies based on monogamy, only one will last. Which brings us to element no. 2. ‘The One’. From Sex and the City to Pretty Woman to pretty much every romantic comedy out there, the story is about the fact that the two protagonists find ‘the one’ who’s right for each other.
From the screwball comedy days, ‘the one’ is always presented as someone who compliments the other person. Someone who has what they lack and, therefore, can offer it to them. Which, to the writers of the silver screen, has come to mean that the man and woman of the story have to be polar opposites, at least in most respects, in order for the romance –or is it the script?- to work. No antagonism would mean no suspense, which would mean no obstacle at the end of the second act in order for the film’s happy resolution to provide the film’s much needed closure. So, you have the screwball comedies which feature a woman who is free spirited, bold and fun while the man is shy and quiet (see Bringing Up Baby). Or the sex comedies of the 1960s where the man is a playboy, not willing to settle down, and the woman has her mind set on marriage more than anything else (see almost every Rock Hudson-Doris Day film). And the spin on the screwball comedies, the career-woman film, which features a woman powerful in the work place but strict, cold and not at all sexy, implying she ‘s only half a woman. All these variations on the rom-com have shaped all the films that were to come, and are still coming.
No Strings Attached would probably be the most recent example of the current version of the career-woman comedy with Natalie Portman’s character declaring she can’t commit to a relationship because her career leaves her no time. At the same time, she is presented as cynical and quite cold, while the film’s outcome proves, as it happens with the vast majority of films that deal with a woman in the workplace, that romance and love should be the priority for a woman, instead of her career. In the same vein are most films starring Katherine Heigl or Sandra Bullock, as they are both presented as enjoying successful careers with Heigl’s characters being, almost, always too uptight (The Ugly Truth, Life as We Know It) and Bullock’s being just plain awkward when it comes to relationships and men in general (Miss Congeniality, Two Weeks Notice). Men are urged, through all rom-coms, to settle down, not sleep around, and fully commit to one relationship. And, perhaps, that’s a reason why rom-coms are considered ‘chick flicks’, as most men grow up with the idea that not settling down means you’re more of a man. However, rom-coms are based on the idea that both individuals will relinquish their freedom in order to become part of the couple. The fact that the target group of these films is, mostly, women goes to show that women may be easier to persuade, since they probably have been presented with the idea that family and love comes first much more in their everyday lives.
Still, there are rom-coms who don’t obey the rules and these turn out to be the ones that stand the test of time as well. No, I’m not talking about Pretty Woman, a personal favourite but, also, a film which seems to imply that a woman needs to be ‘saved’ by a man. Even though Vivian is probably one of the most beloved female characters in rom-coms, still the way the film plays out again binds the woman to the traditional role of being the man’s better half, as her independence is taken away and, pretty much, equated with prostitution. Well, maybe that’s a stretch but is there a hint of what Vivian will do after the end of the film other than the fact that she was ‘saved’ and will now be his girlfriend? She says she’ll save Richard Gere’s character as well in the sense that she will validate him in order to be able to be the man that he should be.
No, the rom-coms I had in mind were the Woody Allen and all the ones that take after it. From Manhattan to Midnight in Paris, relationships are complex, exciting, and, most importantly, don’t involve only two people who are, somehow, meant to be together. Instead, people break up, or come together not because they change in some significant way but because they find someone who can stand their neuroses, flaws and can live with them. And the ending does not imply that this is it for the two characters. Instead, life goes on as it did when the film started and the protagonists may have been lucky enough to have experienced glimpses of true romance, with its flaws and all, and keep going. That sounds, and seems on film, much more romantic to me than formulaic and predictable plots based on impossible expectations. Before Sunrise over Notting Hill? Any day of the week!
Romantic comedy: boy meets girl meets genre (book) by Tamar Jeffers McDonald
The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History and Controversies (book) by Leger Grindon
Rom-coms ‘spoil your love life’ Watching romantic comedies can spoil your love life, a study by a university in Edinburgh has claimed, at bbc.co.uk
Romantic comedy film at Wikipedia