Romantic Comedy is the hardest of all genres to get right, which is why there are so many duff ones around. The Western concept of romance is already shaped by a century of movies and weighted by cliché and delusion: there is only one true love for you in the entire world, but never mind, because you will find him/her,everything must end happily ever after, and no-one gives a toss about what happens afterwards. Never mind that the successful relationships are the ones built on compromise, sacrifice and a lot of hard graft after the initial passion wears off; rom-coms aren’t interested in that, and neither are their fans – they want instant gratification and assurances that everything will continue to be all right, for ever and ever.
So how do you express emotional truths within a formula which demands a rose-tinted approach in order to please its target audience? Here are five rom-coms which manage to get some of it right, some of the time, which have female leads you don’t want to slap, smart one-liners, sassy supporting players and/or a smidgeon of honesty. Four of them also feature cute kids, but hey, you can’t have everything.
“I’m not bored. I’m quite happy. Everyone wants to be me!”
Garry Marshall is frowned upon by serious film critics – not without reason – but years of sitcom experience have made him a dab hand at comic timing, and he gets everything right in this smashing screwball romance. Goldie Hawn has never been better than as a rich bitch who falls off her yacht and gets washed ashore with amnesia in an Oregon backwater called Elk Snout, where widowed carpenter Kurt Russell settles an unpaid debt by claiming she’s his wife and mother to four unruly sons, the youngest of whom insists on speaking like Pee-wee Herman.
Like 10 Things I Hate About You, it’s a variation on The Taming of the Shrew which skates around potentially offensive material (unfulfilled woman finds true happiness as a domestic drudge) but Marshall dodges the plot’s sleazier elements by making it clear that Russell never takes sexual advantage of his amnesiac “guest”. Goldie and Kurt have real chemistry and Hawn’s obnoxiousness is so funny it’s a shame she has to reform.
Feisty Female? She’s a spoilt plutocrat. But a sexy one. Then she’s a housewife. But a feisty one.
Cute Kid? Four of them, all fairly obnoxious.
How Would It Work Played Straight? Rather well. See Julio Medem’s bewitching La ardilla roja (The Red Squirrel), in which a suicidal young man claims an amnesiac woman is his girlfriend.
Extra points? Edward Herrmann as Hawn’s husband (“I was whacking the donkey with painted ladies”), Katherine Helmond as her mother, Roddy McDowell as her butler.
10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (1999)
“Romantic? Hemingway? He was an abusive, alcoholic misogynist who squandered half of his life hanging around Picasso trying to nail his leftovers.”
First and best of the high-school Shakespeare updates – followed by O (Othello), Get Over It (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) – this is a delightful transposition of The Taming of the Shrew to contemporary Seattle, anchored by a couple of likeable central performances by then up-and-coming stars Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger. An obstetrician anxious about teen pregnancy decrees that his younger daughter, Bianca, can’t go on a date until her elder sister Kat (Stiles) starts going out with boys. Since Kat’s a snippy feminist whose nose is invariably buried in The Bell Jar, prospects don’t look rosy until Bianca’s would-be beau bribes a broody Jim Morrison lookalike (Ledger) to take her on.
An unexpected treat which in one respect – the iffy sexual politics – actually improves on Shakespeare. This was Ledger’s breakthrough role; by all accounts, he wasn’t proud to have it on his CV but it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and a darn sight classier than The Order, say, or The Brothers Grimm.
Feisty Female? She’s smart, she’s prickly, she’s a feminist.
Cute Kid? Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the guy who wants to date Bianca, is barely out of nappies.
How Would It Work Played Straight? This is one plot that needs all the laughs it can get.
Extra points? Allison Janney as the headmistress with a sideline in erotic fiction, Larry Miller as the girls’ obstetrician dad (“I’ve got news for you. Kissing isn’t what keeps me up to my elbows in placenta all day long”), David Krumholtz’s presentation of the increasingly ridiculous school cliques (Cowboys?).
MUSIC AND LYRICS (2007)
“You’re Cole Porter in panties. Of course, having said that, Cole Porter probably did wear panties.”
Hugh Grant does pelvic thrusts aplenty in a spot-on pastiche of a cheesy 1980s boy band video at the start of this romantic comedy that predictably got dumped on by most (male) critics, though it’s actually rather delightful. Flash-forward to contempo Manhattan, where Hugh’s a washed-up pop star reduced to nostalgia gigs and Battle of the ’80s Has-Beens until an unexpected career-break offers itself when a Britneyesque pop diva called Cora asks him to write her a song. Our man is stymied by the lack of a lyricist until he discovers that the woman hired to water his plants (Drew Barrymore) has a way with words…
Marc Lawrence’s directing is heavy-handed, but Grant has the knack of making even so-so dialogue sound witty. Barrymore, who seems to hail from a different rom-com tradition entirely, overdoes the neurosis, but the stars do their own crooning and the songs are nifty – just as well since we get an earful of them.
Feisty Female? She’s creative. She writes! Maybe has a bit too much pride, but hey, the plot has to find an excuse to keep the lovers apart until the end.
Cute Kid: No.
How Would It Work Played Straight? Rather well; give the washed-up celebrity a problem with alcohol and bingo! A Star Is Born.
Extra points? Third Rock from the Sun‘s Kristen Johnson is fun as Barrymore’s boisterous sister, Haley Bennett is very funny as the pop diva.
I COULD NEVER BE YOUR WOMAN (2007)
“When enough people are ridiculous, it starts to look normal.”
Amy Heckerling, who hasn’t had a hit since Clueless, wrote and directed this perky rom-com which inexplicably went direct to DVD in the UK, though it’s more fun than most others in its genre. It’s destined to appeal to older women (like me) who won’t mind AT ALL being asked to identify with Michelle Pfeiffer as a fortysomething teen sitcom producer who falls for a 29-year-old actor played by the perennially underrated (though not by those in the know) Paul Rudd.
Though the setting’s LA, this was shot in the UK – which works better than you might think. The only major misstep is the unwelcome presence of Tracey Ullmann as a hectoring Mother Nature who redundantly expresses Pfeiffer’s age-related worries out loud. Rudd overdoes the puppyishness but is generally cuteness personified, and while Pfeiffer is generally underappreciated as a comedienne, she has always had terrific comic timing.
Feisty Female? She’s a TV producer! And a single mom! She rocks!
Cute Kid? And how. Saorise Ronan (Atonement) is terrific as Pfeiffer’s precocious daughter.
How Would It Work Played Straight? Loveless older women are invariably sad, desperate and tragic, just waiting for younger men to come along and exploit them. See The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone.
Extra points? Jon Lovitz as Pfeiffer’s ex-husband, Rudd’s disco dancing, the TV soap opera, plus (thanks to the UK shoot) a bizarre supporting cast of British TV comics like Graham Norton, Steve Pemberton, Mackenzie Crook and David Mitchell.
DEFINITELY, MAYBE (2008)
“I had two serious girlfriends… and then some other smattering of other women.”
The likeable and not untalented Ryan Reynolds stars in this romantic comedy which spins a welcome variation on the familiar formula and adds a few home truths about the standard happily-ever-after scenario. Reynolds, embroiled in divorce proceedings, tries to cheer up his 10-year-old daughter Maya by telling her about the women he has loved and lost, but neither she nor we know which of them is Maya’s mother.
“It’s like a love story mystery”, says the tyke, and it is indeed like a feature-length episode of How I Met Your Mother, only with fewer laughs. The candidates include Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher, Bill Clinton’s electoral campaign provides unusual background detail, and there’s a credible suggestion that successful relationships owe more to fortuitous timing than to everlasting love. Plus it’s a rare rom-com from the male point of view which doesn’t degenerate into sexist smut (yes, Dane Cook, we’re looking at you.)
Feisty Female? All three gals are fully-rounded personalities leading interesting lives beyond the screenplay.
Cute Kid? Little Miss Sunshine‘s Abigail Breslin is so precocious you may want to slap her.
How Would It Work Played Straight? Whodunnit? Or Which One Was It? See A Letter to Three Wives.
Extra points? Kevin Kline as The Other Man, the Clinton election campaign as background.
So what do you reckon? Do you agree with these choices? Have I left something out? What makes a good rom-com?