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The Art of the Rom-Com: love in the time of banality

By Gabriela Dickson La Rotta

When did the world fall in love with the romantic comedy? Was it the moment in City Lights (1931) when the Flower Girl saw the Tramp for the first time? Perhaps when in Some Like It Hot (1959) Jack Lemmon finally tears off his wig and reveals that he is not Daphne to the indifference of his alarmingly persistent suitor? Or did it strike us as we watched Wesley pine for Buttercup in The Princess Bride (1987), yet limit himself to a simple: “As you wish.” What these films share is what makes the romantic comedy such a deeply human endeavor: they have managed to capture the absurd, ineffable quality of love.

Some, however, have declared the rom-com dead. Headlines like Vox’s “7 reasons Hollywood doesn’t make romantic comedies anymore” and LA Weekly’s “Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?” are splashed across webpages with twisted glee. Whereas icons like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn once dominated our screens, we are now forced to endure the endless parade of Jennifers, man-children, and contrived meet-cutes. Nobody wants to waste their money on a formulaic two-hour long bag of randomly selected clichés. Or so they claim.

Admittedly, the past 15 or so years have endured their fair share of bad movies, and particularly bad romantic comedies—think The Ugly Truth (2009) or Employee of the Month (2006). Nonetheless, there exists an entire class of films that continue to innovate and pay homage to an underrated genre that is more relevant now than it has ever been.

Although the true origins of the rom-com can be traced far back—think Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Austen’s Emma—the genre came into its own when it transitioned to film. Without the innovation of “talkies” or the loose social norms of the early 20th century, the tongue-in-cheek nature of rom-coms would have never existed. Critics are right to hold up movies such as His Girl Friday (1940) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) as paragons of good storytelling. By turns heartfelt and hysterical, these films pioneered the screwball comedy and marked a shift in female characterization, allowing women to match the men quip for quip. Beyond that, films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Apartment (1960) walked the line between sorrow and elation, and echoed the hollow ache of loneliness. Whatever joy we derive from today’s love and laughter we owe to the vision of directors George Cukor and Billy Wilder.

I would argue that recent rom-coms have not shirked that legacy, but honored it. Who can deny that Nora Ephron’s rapid-fire dialogue in When Harry Met Sally (1989) immediately calls to mind the chemistry of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn? Or that Joel’s desperation in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is every bit as wrenching as watching Holly Golightly push away the only man who ever truly loved her? And do not even try to tell me Emma Stone’s character Olive in Easy A (2010) is not a direct through-line to the wonder that was Carole Lombard. These are just examples, but they serve as references for the genre as a whole. Modern technology may have changed the way we interact with one another, but not the way we love each other. Time passes and social norms change, but the core of the romantic comedy stays the same: love is senseless, and people even more so.

Art by Kaamiya Hargis

Nowadays modern rom-coms are free to push the boundaries of what a romantic comedy can be. Three that come to mind are My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), The Big Sick (2017), and Spanglish (2004), vastly different films exploring themes of self-worth, religion, and class conflict. They seamlessly tie the complexities of the immigrant experience to the endless confusion of falling in love. And not only do these entries imbue the genre with some admittedly much-needed diversity, but they expertly juggle the quirks associated with each nationality without ever straying into reductionist stereotyping. We enter the movie theater expecting a funny family comedy and exit having realized that the nuances of being a foreigner in such a large country aren’t as inaccessible as we thought. After all, who among us does not know what it feels like to be a little lost?

While we are discussing modern rom-coms, I would be remiss to exclude But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), a worthy contribution to the new romantic comedy and its somewhat new views on sex. While Cheerleader represents only one of many LGBTQ+ rom-coms that have popped up in recent years, it is an exceptionally well-crafted one that reminds us that whether you are 15 or 55, sexuality is fluid and always a learning experience. And for those that are straight, there is also an abundance of rom-coms to choose from that tell authentically funny and wacky stories of sex and desire. For a Good Time, Call… (2012) does so by deconstructing the Madonna-Whore complex and letting its two female protagonists explore everything they desire. I won’t spoil it, but the last scene in particular is unlike anything you will ever see. Sleeping With Other People (2015) takes a different route, but its refreshing honesty in the bedroom and fearlessness in the face of sometimes terrible and often horny main characters is all the more rewarding.

A separate category exists for those romantic comedies that play with the very definition of the name, choosing instead to explore non-romantic love. In the eyes of their creators, what matters is not the magical first date, or the mad dash through the airport, or the proposal—even if the movie is 2009’s The Proposal–what matters is the people that fill those scenes. The extras, if you will. Notting Hill (1999), for example, only works as well as it does because William Thacker’s loved ones fill in the spaces of his heart, making him so much kinder and more thoughtful, and by extension proving him worthy of the incandescent Anna Scott.

And on the topic of non-romantic romance, we must pay special attention to that most wonderfully weird category of rom-coms that spotlights that most wonderfully weird tradition: female friendship. Unlike bromantic comedies that deviate from the tropes of the genre, female friendship-centered films take the most tired aspects of rom-com tropes and recontextualize them within the frame of ladies who love other ladies. Ultimately many, if not most, of the protagonists end up with “the guy,” but that almost feels like an afterthought. It is the women who are the linchpins of these films.

Bridesmaids (2011) famously combines raunchy, self-effacing humor with a deeply felt understanding of how our closest friends complete us. Clueless (1995), as Austenian as it may be, charts the journey of its main character, Cher, not through her romantic pursuits, but through her female friendships in life, which force her to reckon with her mistakes and genuinely empathize with others. Miss Congeniality (2000) takes the inherently misogynistic concept of beauty pageants and peels back the layers of makeup and butt hairspray to reveal that there is just as much honor in being a badass woman as there is in twirling batons. What these films seek to show is a truth that feminists across the world champion: women should be allowed to live their lives. They should have the freedom to lie and fail and, in the process, find out who they are meant to be. They should be given the space to be human.

And yet, in spite of the trove of evidence that proves that romantic comedies are as profitable as they are worth watching, filmmakers remain reluctant to approach the genre. Painful as it may be to admit, Hollywood is filled with Harvey Weinsteins that view the needs, thoughts, and desires of women as irrelevant. And compared to heavy dramas or bombastic action thrillers, romantic comedies reek of femininity and lightheartedness. However, I would argue that the opposite is true. Love is one of the most deeply felt emotions. It is anything but weightless and it is nearly impossible to depict. If film is art, then romantic comedies are the work of Pablo Neruda, Gustav Klimt, and Jane Austen. They reflect what we so often see in ourselves and each other. At the heart of every good rom-com is the understanding that human nature is nuanced, awed, and full of passion. Romantic comedies are merely the vehicles through which that understanding is expressed, and they fill our lives with joy and pain in equal measure.

Perhaps no one said it better than Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck (1987). In what remains one of the most beautiful monologues ever written, he professes his love to Cher and reveals an enduring truth, “We are not here to make things perfect. We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and to die.”