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Modern Romantic Comedy
By Hollis Gillespie

What's Up Doc?


The Danger of Modern Romantic Comedies

First, I'd like to warn you that romantic comedies ruined my life, but I don't think the devastation would have been so thorough if I hadn't also, as a teenager, read a truckload of epic romance novels on top of it. It did not at all help to be 14 with "ample breasts bursting with desire." I spent decades just leaning pensively against balustrades in hopes someone would want to sculpt me.

This was a major waste of time.

Then I ended up with a boyfriend who broke up with me by pushing me out of his car. Granted, it was a VW, and granted, it was parked at the time, and granted, I was clinging to him like a love-sick squid and there really was no other way to get my bawling, begging ass out the door, but still. He moved to Australia the next day, so frantic was he to escape the yoke I tried to place on him - the yoke of the romantic-comedy leading man.

I have since become a jaded, misanthropic, smirk-prone sea urchin, which is (probably) a more realistic stance to take when tackling life. I still rent romantic comedies by the bushel, but not because I buy into their lovely little life-is-roses, pearl-of-wisdom, everybody-foam-at-the-mouth- and-fall-over-backwards messages or anything. I rent them because I enjoy shouting at the screen, "Ha! Like that's ever gonna happen!" or "Oh, I am so sure!" and such. You can't get away with that at a movie theater. (I've tried, and they are not polite when they ask you to leave, either.)

That's not to say I'm not in love. I am, as you read this, in love with someone who absolutely, without a doubt and with all his heart... probably loves me back, sort of. He owns the bar where my best friend works, and took me on a movie date once, to see a romantic comedy, no less: The Family Stone (2005). It was all of 15 minutes before he got up to get more popcorn and, uh, never came back. But I don't blame him, I blame the movie. He could probably quickly see the huge heavy yoke he would have had to bear. How could he possibly compete with Luke Wilson as he held back the hair of a barfing Sarah Jessica Parker? How could he hope to compare to Dermot Mulroney as he confessed his dreams, all big-eyed and quivery-lipped, to Claire Danes? It would have been the same as taking me to a porn flick and expecting me to perform that knees-behind-the-ears trapeze maneuver first made famous by Marilyn Chambers in Behind the Green Door. It's just not possible.

You have to ease into these things. While the aforementioned man now doesn't return my calls, I've been primed by a lifetime of these movies to expect this to be just be a phase. Until this phase is over, I'm renting romantic comedies.

You, too, can be me, if you adhere to the subsequent simple format when delving into the romantic comedy genre:


I Hate You, You Hate Me

This is how it almost always starts; the two leading characters meet and share an attraction that is obvious to everyone except themselves and, due to some external (or internal) factor, they do not at first get romantically involved - although some involvement is necessary, and it helps if they hate each other. Take You've Got Mail (1998), (a remake of sorts of Ernst Lubitsch's Shop Around the Corner), the quintessential for-women-only romance comedy, in which Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks play rival bookstore owners who spew heated barbs at each other until they each realize the other is their own personal internet love mate to whom they've been secretly (even to each other) baring their souls over the year.

Or even better, What's Up, Doc? (1972), with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal (also a sort of remake, of the screwball classic Bringing Up Baby). She doesn't really hate him, but he hates her enough for both of them until the end, when he realizes Streisand can really pull her appearance together, what with that amazing tan and the fact she hadn't yet begun the unfortunate habit of perming the hell out of her hair.

In fact, Streisand pretty much owned the seventies in romantic comedies. After What's Up Doc?, came The Main Event (1979), in which she played a rich perfume-scent inventor gone bust because of a criminal accountant, and Ryan O'Neal (again) plays a down-and-out boxer she unknowingly endorsed because said accountant figured said loser boxer would be a creative tax break. At the film's start, Streisand and O'Neal hate each other with equal passion, with Streisand the first to come around. She seems to always be the first to come around. Even in Hello, Dolly!, which was made in 1969 when Streisand was only 25 years old, she was in love with Walter Matthau long before his big old bassett-hound head knew anything about it.

Speaking of the sixties, I will share with you the only other romantic comedies my toddler brain remembers seeing during that decade: The Aristocats (1969) and The Parent Trap (1961). As one is animated and the other is more of a teen film, you might be fooled into thinking they don't belong in a piece about romantic comedies, but you'd be wrong. The characters in the films romantic plots hate each other at first, but then fall googly-eyed in love. Besides, Brian Keith is probably hotter after being dead for a decade than Freddie Prinze, Jr. is today.

But probably the most masterful employment of the hate-each-other-at-first technique can be found in When Harry Met Sally (1989), starring Meg Ryan in what marks the first in a string of roles that would crown her the romantic-comedy queen of the latter half of the eighties and all of the nineties, and Billy Crystal, who until then kept his sex appeal hidden in his coat pocket like secret beer money. In this movie, which spans a decade in their characters' lives, they not only hate each other at first, but then they like each other, then they hate each other very much (or at least she hates him, but good enough), then they love each other.

Also, even if the main characters don't hate each other at first, they will hate each other eventually. They have to in order for the next component essential to romantic comedies to apply, and that is:

The Big Misunderstanding

In Must Love Dogs (2005), John Cusack and Diane Lane meet, he likes her but she doesn't like him, then she likes him but he's acting ambivalent toward her, then they are on the cusp of liking each other at the same time when The Big Misunderstanding occurs. In this case it's when (very hot) Dermot Mulroney plants a (very unwelcome) kiss on Lane just as the not-as-hot-but-somehow-more-attractive Cusack is walking through the back door expecting wild buffalo sex after driving her drunk brother home. John takes the scene the wrong way and Diane, for some reason, doesn't latch herself around his ankles to keep him from leaving.

Must Love Dogs

Another Streisand seventies classic that employs this method is For Pete's Sake (1979). This romantic comedy, in fact, departs expertly from the hate-each-other-first scenario and one ups it with the love-each-other-first then-hate-each-other then-love-other-again coup de gras. Genius. Here Michael Sarrazin and Streisand play a blissfully married couple until Sarrazin falls under The Big Misunderstanding that Streisand went and whored herself out to any old horndog who ponied up the cash - which is exactly what she would have done if not for all the comic pratfalls, including a corpse in a wardrobe trunk, that got in the way. The atmosphere takes a turn when Sarrazin realizes that, yes, Barbra was willing to whore herself, but for a good reason. In this case, the reason was to earn money to finance his dream of hitting it big in the stock market with the purchase of pork bellies. Gosh, the warm fuzzies in that one.

And speaking of whores: the movie Pretty Woman (1990) employs the Big Misunderstanding technique pretty deftly when street hooker Julia Roberts considers Richard Gere's offer to keep her in satin sheets for the rest of her life as an insult. She turns on her heels and off she goes, back to the rat hole she shares with fellow prostitute Laura San Giacomo, which leads us to the next fairly essential component in all romantic comedies, and that is:

The Forlorn Separation

In the case of Must Love Dogs, this component is employed with the montage of Diane Lane's tailspin into internet dating, culminating in a very curious choice for "a rock-bottom revelation": a heated romp in the sack with Dermot Mulroney. But whatever.

In When Harry Met Sally, the Forlorn Separation is evidenced in the scenes following the impetuous copulation of the main characters, this after a decade of friendship. (Note: The Big Misunderstanding here was the momentary lapse in sanity both the characters underwent when they thought they could buddy-screw each other without consequences). This Forlorn Separation sequence is expertly acted by Meg as she ignores many forlorn phone messages from Billy, who, in one of them, surmises, "You're trapped under something heavy and can't reach the phone." A good line; I've ripped it off four times today alone.

But it's not possible to reference romantic comedies of the eighties without highlighting Arthur (1981). This was a double-dose love story, one between spoiled filthy rich playboy Dudley Moore and the loveable klepto Liza Minnelli, and another between spoiled filthy rich playboy Moore and the kind-but-stern British-butler father figure Sir John Gielgud. It's all quite touching while making you laugh so hard you'll cough up all the margaritas you belted before inserting the disk. In Arthur, the Forlorn Separation is evidenced in the expanse of time it takes Moore to realize he would rather forsake his inheritance than risk losing Liza, who by this time has quelled her klepto urges in favor of a job as a counter girl at a coffee shop.

Usually, the Forlorn Separation is depicted in a montage of scenes meant to convey how the main characters are getting their souls sucked right out of their eye sockets because the other - their soul mate - is off somewhere not with them. In Arthur, Moore attends engagement party after engagement party where his beautiful yet vapid fiancée gives the audience vivid hints of the succubus she really is, and Liza wipes the coffee-shop counter top with a look of sad longing in her eyes. This is all necessary for the next component in romantic comedies, which is:

The Incredible Coincidence

If I were to narrow it down to the exact component in romantic comedies that most ruined my life, I think it would be this. I cannot tell you how many hours I wasted roaming the globe trying to facilitate The Incredible Coincidence that would reunite me with the VW man, who I heard had left Australia and was traveling around the world. I even got a job as a flight attendant with a major airline - and learned two other languages while I was at it - because I had this vision in my head of how, one day, perhaps in the Basilica di St. Marco or some place, I would happen upon him while he was being arrested by the local police due to a romantic-comedy kind of mix-up, and I'd in turn swoop in - all worldly with impeccable accent - to extricate him from the predicament. He would not even recognize me; that's how desirable I'd be to him in this new light.

But instead here I sit stuck in the hate-each-other stage with I-know-who, and nothing to do with my time but watch romantic comedies and eat cake batter straight from the bowl. I am, at this moment, devising a plan to get us stuck in an elevator together.

Because The Incredible Coincidence, I tell you, is a powerful tool. In the case of Must Love Dogs, The Incredible Coincidence is an interaction by proxy involving Diane's incredibly romantic, recently widowed father, who, unknowingly and separately, imparts to John and Diane the importance of love and companionship. (I really appreciate, though, that Lane got to have sex, however meaningless, with Dermot Mulroney before this revelation occurred.) In Arthur, it happens when John Gielgud coincidentally croaks during the couple's Forlorn Separation, but in the process imparts to Moore's Arthur a few death-bed pearls of wisdom along the lines of how he better get his ass out there and grab Liza before it's too late.

The Incredible Coincidence in When Harry Met Sally may be the scene of the marriage of their two best friends, who coincidentally picked Sally and Harry to be their maid of honor and best man, respectively. Maybe this coincidence is not all that incredible, per se, but when you couple it with the wedding's timely proximity to New Year's Eve, the night Billy is forlornly roaming the streets of New York, which coincidentally is deserted except for a smattering of hand-holding couples, and how that night happens to be their annual date night - maybe if you put all that together it qualifies as incredible. Whatever the case, this incident is always the catalyst for the next essential romantic comedy principal, and that is:

The Grand Gesture

Understand that at some point, after various knee-slappingly comic scenes (and some not so, as in: Little Black Book) one of the two main characters has a revelation and makes The Grand Gesture. In The Main Event, it happens after Streisand whips O'Neal into prizefighter shape, thus becomes a rich success again, and then has to choose between O'Neal and said success. In the end, her Grand Gesture is that she purposefully causes his loss in the ring as if to say, "I'd rather us be poor losers together than rich successes apart." I kind of hate that about 70s romantic comedies (why can't they be rich and happy?), so let's jump ahead to:

In As Good as It Gets (1997), another cluster romance (Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt not only fall in love with each other, but they both fall in love with Greg Kinnear as well, and who can blame them?), The Grand Gesture occurs when Nicholson leaves his house to talk to Helen. It might not seem so grand, but that is the beauty of the screenplay, because for Nicholson's multi-phobic character it's a massive gesture, and we buy right into it.

As Good as It Gets

Another quasi-modern example of grand-gesture minimalism can be found in Jerry Maguire (1996), when Tom Cruise braves a contingent of bitter fishwives to profess his love to Renée Zellweger, who had already married him but, I guess, wanted more, which can only be attributed to The Big Misunderstanding occurred earlier in the film. In fact, if you ask a girl what she remembers most about Jerry Maguire, she'll tell you it's the "You complete me," line. If you ask a guy, he'll tell you it's "Show me the money!" An interesting example of the emotional dichotomy between the sexes, but it doesn't deter from the fact that Jerry Maguire is really a chick flick camouflaged with enough football references to bait dudes - evidence you can get guys to swallow anything as long as you attach scenes in which men in pads and tights pile on each other, too.

I must add here that in Must Love Dogs, a movie that was heralded for its innovation, there exists one of the lamest Grand Gestures in the history of movies: Diane Lane careens to the waterside, actually commandeers a rowing team, then jumps into the river to get to John Cusack. (Also, there is some ado about a dog afraid of water that so obviously foreshadows this scene you can see it coming from 50 galaxies away.) Anyway, I understand why I'd jump into a river to get to John Cusack, seeing as how I don't have his address or phone number, but since Diane's character had both, I fail to see the reason behind the belly flop. But I still give the movie three wooden-spoon loads of cake batter out of five.

Cusack's High Fidelity, meanwhile, gets five. High Fidelity, based on the book by London writer Nick Hornby but re-set in Chicago, marks a turning point in modern romantic comedies because it doesn't coddle the story line with kissy-poo sentiment. The dialogue is stuffed with independent women and dude humor, so, whereas Jerry Maguire was a chick flick for dudes, High Fidelity is a dude movie for chicks.

"A relationship is like a shark..."


So there you have it, the five components to your basic romantic comedy. There are variations, such as My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), where all the components apply except the last one, and Julia Roberts does not get the guy. In face, Annie Hall (1977), in which Woody Allen marvelously fails to win Diane Keaton, is one of the gems of the genre. If you allow for the format you won't be disappointed. But I'm warning you, don't confuse romantic comedy with real life. I recently orchestrated an Incredible Coincidence in order to facilitate the aforementioned man's Grand Gesture so we could commence our life-long love of each other, and it just didn't work out like it does in the movies. In fact, I wrote half this primer while stuck in an elevator. Alone. Beware.



Hollis Gillespie is a regular NPR commentator and author of Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch, Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories and several essays on Salon.com. She was voted Best Columnist in the Creative Loafing Best of Atlanta 2001 Reader's Survey.

GreenCine Recommends...

Hollis Gillespie's Favorite Romantic Comedies:

  • High Fidelity. John Cusack is proof that the perfect man is riddled with imperfections.

  • Arthur. The audience laughed so hard the first time I saw this movie I had to see it again just to hear the dialogue that got drowned out.

  • When Harry Met Sally. It's the standard by which other romantic comedies should aspire, even without the orgasm scene.

  • Annie Hall. It's the anti-standard; a romantic comedy that deconstructs romance.

  • Splash. Which is the bigger fantasy figure, Tom Hanks' lonely hunk or the mermaid?

  • As Good as It Gets. Make no mistake, Greg Kinnear is the love object here.

  • The Graduate. Anne Bancroft was only 36 when she played the "senior" siren who seduces Dustin Hoffman in Mike Nichols' classic. Don't you find that interesting?

  • Some Like It Hot. Going farther back for this favorite. Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis are the love story, but Jack Lemmon is a scream as the cross-dressing musician who can't shake his male paramour even after revealing he's a man.

  • Tootsie. Speaking of cross-dressing, that old staple for cinematic yucks, it was even funnier in the early 80s. Maybe it was the big hair and shoulder pads.

  • Moonstruck. When Nicolas Cage passionately tells Cher that love was meant to make people miserable, you really don't care if it's true or not.

Go back to the primer index.

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