Most of us are familiar with that reliable standard formula for the traditional romantic comedy: boy meets girl, they fall in love, conflict gets in the way, they overcome the conflict, and their love is stronger than ever. Despite the fact that some of us occasionally enjoy returning to the comfort of that formula, the fact remains that they are still often viewed as movies of lesser caliber.
Of course, there are several respected classics: When Harry Met Sally…, 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, Bridget Jones’s Diary… the list goes on. But despite being adored by many, these are films that are ultimately thought of as confined by the limitations of their genre—and a fairly shallow one at that. But what draws us to these movies time and again?
While it may seem a simple sentiment, these movies often provide a much-needed sense of optimism in the world of cynicism we live in. Some filmmakers seem to have picked up on this, as more releases in the 21st century have been taking the romantic comedy and putting a unique, creative flare on it, proving that the genre does not have to remain so static and hence bringing attention to the value that can be found in these films.
In 2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie was released, a French romantic comedy about a shy young woman who decides to devote her time to improving the lives of those around her, her good deeds leading to her own potential romance. Amélie is unique in its art direction and focuses highly on the development of its title character, making it quite bold as far as rom-coms go (especially in 2001). But it’s definitely a film that promotes that sense of optimism and life finding a way of working itself out. The film’s quirks eventually paid off, resulting in five Academy Award nominations and helping to establish that rom-coms have the potential to hold artistic merit, too.
A more recent example of a rom-com receiving recognition for its achievements in the film community is 2017’s The Big Sick, a movie based on the true story of screenwriters Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani’s own romance, whose two characters must deal with cultural differences between their families after Emily falls ill. Seeing as rom-coms still get fairly minimal exposure on the awards circuit, it was notable that The Big Sick make its mark after fantastic critical reception. The script arguably got the most recognition, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay in 2018. The film brought a refreshing sense of realism to the table that rom-coms are often criticized for lacking, a twist that helps to again demonstrate the value this genre can have.
There are also romantic comedies that have opted to take the far more unconventional route, such as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. Using deadpan black comedy, this film strays extremely far from the prototypical rom-com, set in a society where single men and women are given 45 days to find a partner before being turned into an animal. Despite the bleak circumstances, the protagonist still finds love. While it may seem like an odd approach, the absurdism of the film emphasizes the pockets of hope that can be found even in the worst of times.
Another unconventional entry in the genre can be found in Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl. The film follows a socially awkward man whose family is relieved when he announces he has a new girlfriend whom he met on the internet — until they find out she is just a life-size plastic doll. But based on a doctor’s advice, they choose to go along with it. This is another film that strays from many of the typical tropes of the rom-com and keeps some others, carefully crafted to create a thought-provoking product that makes us re-evaluate our ideas of love and happiness. Once again, the genre’s boundaries are pushed to expand the kind of statements it can make.
In terms of continually expanding the scope of rom-coms, some have opted to take more of a realist approach, exploring the different types of relationships and dynamics that can blossom out of romance. One example would be Lee Toland Krieger’s Celeste & Jesse Forever, the story of a couple who get married young but eventually end up choosing to get a divorce. However, the couple decides to remain close friends, garnering surprised and often confused reactions from those around them. The film ultimately depicts two people who still find comfort in each other and are scared to let go of their relationship. It provides the sentiment that sometimes to be truly happy, we must learn to let go. The happily-ever-after doesn’t necessarily mean running off into the sunset.
Another film that echoes this is Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer, which follows hopeless romantic Tom as he ponders why his relationship with his girlfriend Summer failed, and it becomes increasingly apparent how Tom idealized her throughout their relationship. This film is also one that depicts the central relationship as a passing chapter in their lives, but ultimately not as one that was meant to last forever. This perhaps rings more true to how relationships can help contribute to a person’s self-discovery and that finding contentment doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship lasts. Films like this defeat the notion that rom-coms are too unrealistic to hold much significance.
Continuing in the vein of idealizing partners in relationships is Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Ruby Sparks, the tale of a novelist who is struggling with writer’s block, but eventually has a breakthrough with a character he pens named Ruby Sparks. All is back on track for his writing but not so much his life when Ruby suddenly appears in the flesh, as if straight off the page. Ruby Sparks is a fun, light-hearted story about a seemingly impossible romance, but with that comes a warning about holding someone to unrealistic standards for who you’d like them to be as opposed to who they are. It channels the upbeat, optimistic tone that most traditional rom-coms have, but the cautionary-tale angle pushes it a step beyond that.
Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is perhaps more of a romantic comedy-drama (rom-com-dram?), but it nonetheless focuses on the deep joy and pain that loving someone can bring. The film follows a man named Joel, whose girlfriend, Clementine, decides to go through a memory-erasure procedure after their breakup. Heartbroken, Joel decides to do the same but begins to realize that perhaps he does not want to forget their relationship, after all. This entry is another that touches on the idealization of partners in relationships and executes an unconventional approach to the genre. This film serves as a reminder that despite the pain we may have felt, the joy we felt prior may have well been worth it, further reinforcing the rom-com’s overriding optimistic outlook on life.
Another important film to look at in the expansion of the romantic comedy as a genre is this year’s Love, Simon. While this is a film that sticks to many of the genre’s traditional tropes and clichés and plays out like any other rom-com in most ways, it is significant in its LGBTQ+ representation. Its gay protagonist is an example of the diversity that has been missing from this genre for so long. This makes Love, Simon a milestone of sorts, and it is one that many both young and old will find comfort in for years to come — another way in which this genre has made an impact.
While many of these films stray from what is typically thought of as a rom-com, the fact still remains that some will fall into a formulaic pattern due to their nature, despite many of them being indie films. This can be viewed as either positive or negative, but one thing’s for certain: the genre doesn’t need to be completely rewritten to make an impact. These thought-provoking films help push the notion that sometimes there is merit to be found in simply acknowledging the beauty of life and love, and we can only hope more films like these will be made in the future and that the rom-com will continue to make its mark as a genre.
Related Topics: (500) days of summer, amelie, celeste and jesse forever, eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, lars and the real girl, love simon, romantic comedies, ruby sparks, The Big Sick, the lobster