Romantic Comedies

I was watching The American President on HBO tonight – a wonderful movie, by the way – and got to thinking about formulae.

There are many well-known recipes in the film industry, none more often used, I think, than the romantic comedy. You get a man and a woman to meet cute, then spend the better part of ninety minutes making it difficult for them to go ahead right away and spend the rest of their lives with each other. You do this by one of the following methods:

  1. Make them annoy each other, for whatever reason. Then melt the ice slowly.
  2. At least one of them is in a position/profession that makes it difficult for them to act on their impulses.
  3. A series of misunderstandings making one of them believe that the other is a cad/adulterer/whatever.
  4. Give at least one of them another love interest, and confuse the heck out of them.

There are a few others, but you get the general idea. It can’t take you more than a few minutes to come up with examples of each of these plots. It’s all standard stuff, tried and tested a gazillion times over.

And yet, there aren’t too many truly great rom-coms out there. There are some decent ones (You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, While You Were Sleeping etc) and some dreary ones (Serendipity, Look Who’s Talking, Kate and Leopold)… it’s a standard formula, yet it’s not so easy to get it just right. And I got to wondering about why.

I think with rom-coms, it’s primarily humor. Make ’em laugh, as Donald O’Connor sang, and you’ll get your audience where you want them. Most of chemistry is about having two actors with excellent timing. There is, beyond that, something else that elevates certain pairings – I won’t deny that. But for the most part, if the leads get good dialogue and get their timing right, most of the battle is won.

Look at When Harry Met Sally – surely one of the best rom-coms of all time. Both leads get moments where one is breaking loose and the other is playing it straight. And they both get it right, all the time.

America’s Sweethearts – this is a movie with big stars, a good script and the potential to be great. And yet, it falls short of that mark, and one big reason is that Julia Roberts isn’t on John Cusack’s speed.

Vanilla Sky – not a rom-com, but one of the movie’s singular pleasures is the chemistry between Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, and most of it has to do with great dialogue and wonderful timing. (This is one of Cruz’ few good English language performances, by the way.) Then again, any movie that has a line as quirky as “I’ll tell you in another life when we’re both cats” has a permanent claim to my good side.

The thing is, if you just get two good looking people to smile at each other on screen, you’re assuming that the audience will be satisfied with that and believe that these two characters are made for each other. You’re not doing any of the heavy lifting, and neither are your actors. You expect the audience to simply accept a romance because you say it is so. It doesn’t work that way.

Spend some time on creating an actual – preferably playful – relationship among the leads, have them talk about things other than the plot, invest some time in writing actual dialogue instead of just showing montages of the two talking… then you have a romance between characters that the audience will care about. It’s not so difficult. Certainly easier than most movies make it out to be.

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