The Romantic Formula

April 30, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Those who know me are aware that I'm a sucker for romances - as long as they are well-made and lacking in excessive sentimentality. Tear-jerkers like Ghost don't do anything for me. (I hate that film with an unholy passion.) But give me something like Before Sunrise, When Harry Met Sally, or even The Cutting Edge, and I'm putty in the filmmakers' hands.

When it comes to romantic movies, I don't mind formulas. Good love stories rarely rely on plot. In fact, the more convoluted the screenplay, the worse the film typically is. "Romantic complications" have been the death of many otherwise-enjoyable movies. Few things are more annoying that the arrival of an old girlfriend/boyfriend whose entire purpose is to generate an artificial conflict that keeps the real lovers apart until the happy ending. One of the great things about Before Sunrise (my favorite romantic movie) is that there are none of these cheap twists. The entire film is about two people falling in love as they get to know one another. What could be more appealing? I like romances that are about the people and their developing relationship, not about all the things that conspire to keep them apart.

The key to any romance is the characters. They have to be both likeable and believable. In a comedy, they can't be too absurd or the audience won't identify with them. Perhaps that's why it's easier to make a good romantic drama than a good romantic comedy. The appeal of the actors is also a factor, as is that dreaded, clich├ęd term: "chemistry." All that means is that the actors "click." We believe that they could be in love, even when they aren't.

Bogart and Bacall had smoldering chemistry (perhaps the most intense in the history of cinema), but that's not a surprise when you consider their off-screen relationship. In a sense, they didn't have to act (although knowing how to whistle helped). It's a different situation for Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who have never been romantically entangled, to convincingly play young lovers. Yet they are perfect in Before Sunrise (and its sequel, Before Sunset). Credit the actors and their director, Richard Linklater, for this.

The bottom line is that, for romances, if you give me a convicing relationship with affable characters, I'll probably like it regardless of how predictable the plot is. Love stories are not like thrillers. For the most part, audiences do not crave complicated storylines with endless twists. Simplicity suits a romance. There's enough complexity in the emotion of love.

So for those who wonder why I'm often "soft" on generic romantic comedies, this is the reason. Watching a romantic movie that works is the next best thing to falling in love in real life.