The Romantic Comedy File

February 14, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

When it comes to genre films, a certain amount of formula isn't a bad thing. Such is the case with the romantic comedy, where plot has always taken a back seat to two more important characteristics: chemistry and character likeability. For a romantic comedy to work, all that's needed are two actors who generate sparks and romantic tension when they're with each other, playing characters viewers root for to get together. Of course, the screenplay will likely throw all sorts of "romantic complications" in their way to keep them from finding bliss until the end of the last reel, but that's part of the convention. Couples leave the theater smiling and holding hands.

In order for a comedy to make the leap from a good romantic comedy to a great one, a little more is needed than perfect casting and likeability. Great romantic comedies typically have sparking screenplays that either invest effort into doing something interesting with the storyline without violating the basic formula and/or inject the dialogue with wit and intelligence. While there are plenty of good romantic comedies, there aren't that many great ones. Unfortunately, every year also produces a series of dogs. These are usually the result of poor chemistry between the leads or bad casting. This is the kind of thing that happens when filmmakers are influenced more by the names of the actors than by a consideration of how well they work together.

Romantic comedies are all about buying into the fantasy. They may not begin explicitly with "once upon a time" or conclude with "happily ever after," but that's what they're selling, which is fine. Viewers attend a romantic comedy with the expectation that they will spend the next 90+ minutes falling in love with characters who are falling in love with each other. Real-life romance isn't like what we see in romantic comedies, but it's not supposed to be (anymore than the dialogue in Juno is supposed to replicate real life dialogue). Romantic comedies are intended to make us giddy while bringing a smile to our faces.

Over the years, the phrase "romantic comedy" has become an umbrella term for any movie that features hugs and kisses. A lot of romantic comedies aren't especially funny nor, in some cases, are they intended to be. Consider the duet of Before Sunrise­ and Before Sunset, which gets my vote as the most romantic cinematic saga of all time. It's pretty much a straight drama, with occasional moments of humor coming out of natural character interaction. Nevertheless, I have repeatedly seen this referred to as a "romantic comedy." Putting that up against Judd Apatow's 54The 40-Year-Old Virgin seems a little unfair, since the movies have much different goals. Nevertheless, playing by the rules, it seems that if a romance makes one smile, it's considered a romantic comedy. That generally exempts romances where one or both of the leads die at the end. It would be more than a stretch to consider Titanic to be a romantic comedy. Romantic, yes, but not funny (unless you're focusing on Billy Zane's overacting).

So, in honor of Valentine's Day, here are a dozen notable recent "romantic comedies." All of these titles were released within the last 25 years - not because there were no good romantic comedies before then but because I'm trying to make the list contemporary enough that some of my younger readers might consider renting the movies rather than laughing at them because they're in black-and-white or feature actors who now look more like wrinkled prunes than romantic leads. These are alphabetical and include some very well known titles and a few that are more obscure.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Judd Apatow proves that it's possible to combine raunchy humor with affecting romance. The love story between Steve Carrell and Catherine Keener is touching and there are plenty of hard laughs in between the gentle scenes. Could be described as a "guy's romantic comedy."

Before Sunrise/Before Sunset: For my money, Before Sunrise is the most romantic movies of all time. The chemistry between Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke couldn't be better. The only downside for some viewers is that the films are talky (although, for me, that's a major plus). Before Sunset is an epilogue to Before Sunrise, answering the question of whether the characters meet in six months and where they go from there.

The Cutting Edge: Sports and romance are a popular combination. This movie succeeds because Moira Kelly and D.B. Sweeney work so well together. It's always a lot of fun to see two characters dancing back and forth over the line between love and hate. While some might argue that the film ends with the perfect romantic moment, I would have liked to have seen an epilogue. (Ignore the sequel, which features none of the original actors. It is, quite simply, an abomination.)

Definitely, Maybe: This may not be one of the best romantic comedies of the last 20 years, but it's worth seeing and is the only one on this list currently in theaters. If you have an urge for a multiplex date, this is your best bet so far in 2008.

Kissing Jessica Stein: What happens when a bisexual woman and a heterosexual woman fall in love? This movie not only offers laughs and tenderness but asks some pointed questions about sexuality. It's one of the more unusual titles on this list.

Little Shop of Horrors: At its heart, this is a romance between nerdy Seymour and slutty Audrey. Yes, it's silly but it's also surprisingly sappy. The leads are so likeable that director Frank Oz couldn't bear to stick to the original ending (which he famously filmed then abandoned) and the revised one makes for the perfect romantic wrap, even if Audrey II doesn't get to chew on the Statue of Liberty.

Love Me if You Dare: For those who like their romantic comedies leavened with twisted black comedy, this is a great choice. It's French, though, so there will be subtitle reading. Still, a lot of fun for those who want romance but with a little bit of an edge.

Love Serenade: From Australia, this is more a parody of romantic comedies than an actual one. Like Love Me if You Dare, it's a little off the beaten path and doesn't necessarily go for the "happily ever after" ending. It stars Miranda Otto from her pre-Lord of the Rings days.

Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen is both funny and romantic - the original romantic comedy writer. Whatever version you opt for - the epic 1995 adaptation with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle or the more recent Kira Knightely one - you can't go wrong. Of course, women melt at this story. So do a lot of men, although I'm not sure how many will admit to it.

Saving Face: A lesbian romance with an ethnic twist - both participants are Asian. The movie is unquestionably a comedy but it has a lot to say about cultural issues and the pressure of expectations. It shares some thematic similarities with Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, about a gay man entering into a marriage of convenience.

When Harry Met Sally: Arguably the best pure romantic comedy of the last 20 years. Everyone knows about this film, which qualifies as both funny and romantic. It's Nora Ephron's best script, one of Rob Reiner's best outings as a director, and the chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan is peerless. If you haven't seen it in a while, it's worth another look.

Wimbledon: I never understood why this film was ignored at the box office and buried on DVD. Like The Cutting Edge, it combines sports and romance, with tennis standing in for skating. Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany are delightful together and, while the film doesn't take m(any) chances, it works on a number of levels. Plus, it has the kind of epilogue I wish The Cutting Edge had given us.