It’s been one of the most popular movie genres for around 90 years now, but recently people have begun to wonder: why are romantic comedies so bad?
Now, before we get into this, I’m just going to set up some guidelines. Romantic comedies or ‘rom-coms’, as I see them, are films where two protagonists, while following a romantic storyline by either falling in love or having an awkward will-they-won’t-they relationship, get into all sorts of crazy hijinks intended to make the audience laugh.
As such, romantic dramas aren’t counted in this discussion, so don’t expect to see films like The Notebook, Dirty Dancing, Flashdance, The Best Of Me, Safe Haven, The Last Song etc. in here, because they’re not that comedic, and therefore aren’t bad for the same reasons (although I like Dirty Dancing).
Surely all rom-coms aren’t that bad, right?
Yes, that’s right. The romantic comedy genre does receive a bad generalisation thanks to the significant amount of drivel that’s come out since the turn of the century. In fact, if you go back to times like the 1930s, 40s and 60s, romantic comedies were some of the best films on the market, but it’s today’s movies that are the problem.
So, the way this will work is that I’m going to look at the difference between rom-coms from the 30s-40s, ‘classic romantic comedies’ and those since 2000, ‘modern rom-coms’.
Yes, there are many other types of romantic comedies out there, from the brilliantly pleasant 50s and 60s ones and the witty 70s ones to the stylish 80s ones, but for argument’s sake, we’ll just look at these two time periods.
By the way: a big SPOILER ALERT to anyone who doesn’t want to know the ending to modern rom-coms. I will not spoil the classic films, but there may be some modern ones, with more predictable stories, that get spoilt. Sorry.
The FORMULA – Modern
I’ve talked about the so-called romantic comedy ‘formula’ in so many reviews, but actually is it?
Well, in modern rom-coms, the formula is painfully simple. Typically a boy-meets-girl situation that follows an almost fairytale-like Cinderella story, where the passionate love between the two ultimately brings them together. Meanwhile, some random jokes happen here and there to make the audience laugh, but with no genuine connection to the romance.
Take 2008’s ‘27 Dresses‘ for example. Katherine Heigl stars as a woman who has been a bridesmaid at 27 different weddings, and falls in love with a man, James Marsden, who is going to be marrying her sister.
Inevitably, the two end up together, as James Marsden discovers that the woman he must truly be with is the beautiful one overlooked by all, basically like Cinderella working as the lowly maid and then having her true beauty noticed by the Prince.
So, the film, like so many others, follows that painfully predictable plot line as closely as possible (the formula), and in doing so puts next to no effort into creating more interesting, non-fairytale-like characters that could add some degree of intrigue to the story.
In the meantime, there are terrible jokes flying around here and there, but they have no connection to the main plot, and are therefore clearly there just to make the audience laugh: just take anything from the collection of When In Rome, Bridget Jones’ Diary, What A Girl Wants and many others as an example.
That’s not to say, though, that all modern romantic comedies fail when they follow this fairytale formula. 2007’s Dan In Real Life, one of my favourite examples of how good the genre can be, even in modern day, is a perfect example of this.
Here, Steve Carell stars as a widower who immediately falls in love with a mystery woman he meets at a bookstore. It then turns out that the woman is inconveniently his brother’s new fiancée, kicking off a chain of hilarious events as the two attempt to negotiate the incredibly awkward situation.
That summary does show that Dan In Real Life, to some extent, uses the fairytale formula. However, the reason that it shines where other modern rom-coms don’t is because of its characterisation and use of comedy.
Firstly, Steve Carell stars as a widower dealing with three adolescent daughters – something different, interesting and real-world that makes him an interesting character to follow and care for, and not just another Disney character, adding some genuine emotion into the mix.
Secondly, this rom-com is so funny as well because, as I say, ‘the rom is the com’. All of the jokes in the film are related to how the two main characters are awkwardly trying to deal with the situation, making the story all the more entertaining to follow, and making the jokes seem genuine, rather than just someone falling over every now and then to force a few laughs.
The FORMULA – Classic
In comparison to nowadays, where romantic comedies are ridiculed and more often than not disappointing, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, rom-coms were very often big hits with critics and audiences, and have endured longer than a lot of dramas from the time.
The reason for this was that the films had a tried and tested formula that worked an absolute charm. 1938’s Bringing Up Baby is one of the first and best-known examples of a ‘screwball comedy’.
A ‘screwball’ is basically a romantic comedy where, most commonly, the typical gender roles are reversed, so a man’s masculinity is humiliated by a stronger-willed and more dominating woman in a relationship.
Of course, not all films from the era were screwballs, but it was a commonplace formula that was consistently proved to be one that worked, and that’s why it’s so iconic.
So, let’s use ‘Bringing Up Baby’ as the example of the effectiveness of a classic screwball comedy.
Cary Grant stars as an awkward scientist on the verge of getting married, until a wayward Katharine Hepburn and her pet leopard Baby jump into the picture and cause havoc.
In the film, Hepburn is a much more talkative and stronger-willed character than Grant, and as such begins to dominate the unexpected relationship with him, making him appear weaker and weaker, and more and more stupid as the film goes on.
So, there are laughs to come from all directions with a screwball, because whether it’s watching a man having his masculinity humiliated, or a dominating woman cause mayhem in his life, it’s all good stuff, and once again, related to the principle romance.
Without the relationship between the two characters, although it’s not overtly romantic in Bringing Up Baby, the screwball elements just wouldn’t be funny, and would feel more like bullying than anything else.
So, why are romantic comedies so bad?
Well, in short, they’re not. Romantic comedies, if done properly, can be absolutely hilarious, powerfully emotional or just a hugely pleasant watch.
The problem is that nowadays, too many generic rom-coms following this fairytale formula are being churned out by studios, with 2016’s Bridget Jones 3 looking like the next addition to this trend, and it’s really hurting the reputation of the genre.
If you want a good romantic comedy to watch, it’s not likely to be in a cinema near you, so give some of these a try:
1930s: It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby
1940s: The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday
1950s: Roman Holiday, The Seven Year Itch
1960s: Breakfast At Tiffany’s, How To Steal A Million
1970s: Annie Hall, Manhattan
1980s: When Harry Met Sally, Big
1990s: 10 Things I Hate About You, There’s Something About Mary
2000s: Waitress, Dan In Real Life
2010s: Flipped, Moonrise Kingdom