Redeeming the ‘romcom’

"The Proposal" (2009)

Just say the word “romcom,” short for romantic comedy, and many men will instantly cringe, the phrase conjuring up memories of movies they were dragged to see, against their will, by their wives and girlfriends. Most guys will probably quite willingly admit romcoms aren’t their favorite type of movies, though with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, a trip to the theater to watch (or a stop by the nearest Redbox to rent) one of these movies is likely in their future.

Although men hating romcoms is probably a stereotype that’s not always true across the board, lately critics in general haven’t seemed to have a lot of love for the genre, either. There’s been quite a few duds in this category the past several years, from 2011’s “Something Borrowed” starring Ginnifer Goodwin and Kate Hudson (the film scored only a 15 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was labeled by the film review website as “an unpleasant misfire”) to 2010’s “Life As We Know It” starring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel (it scored a slightly higher 28 percent, and Rotten Tomatoes accused it of having a “formulaic plot and poorly written script”).

Why is it that romcoms seem to turn out so badly so frequently? One of the most common accusations leveled against romcoms is that they’ve become predictable, but I’m not sure if this particular criticism is helpful. Romcoms are, for the most part, predictable by default; after all, if the two leads didn’t always end up falling in love, the movie wouldn’t be a romcom any more.

One of the biggest problems in a lot of romcoms is the chemistry (or lack thereof) between the lead actors. Just because you take a really good actor and a really good actress and stick them in a film together, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll click. For a romcom to succeed, the audience has to buy the idea the leads make a good couple. The banter has to be believable, and their interactions have to have a certain spark. Chemistry is, unfortunately, something you can’t create; it’s either there, or it isn’t, and it can make or break a romcom.

An example of a film with good chemistry between the leads is “The Proposal.” This movie was a surprise hit in 2009, and it’s one of my favorite recent romcoms. Sandra Bullock stars as the executive editor in chief of a book publishing company who finds she’s about to be deported back to Canada. She blackmails her assistant (played by Ryan Reynolds) into pretending to be engaged to her so she can stay in the country. I know I picked on Reynolds in my review of “The Green Lantern” last year, but he’s at his best here, his snarky sense of humor playing well off Bullock’s reliable comic timing. The two have great chemistry (although Betty White steals many of the scenes as Reynolds’ character’s feisty grandmother).

Film makers also should keep in mind the limits of the genre, and while they should try to find a way to make the plot fresh, they aren’t likely to find success if they push the envelope too far. One of the reasons “Life As We Know It” didn’t really work for me was it seemed too much like it was trying to be both a serious drama and a romcom. The plot revolves around a couple who dies in a car wreck and named their two best friends (who happen to hate each other) as guardians of their daughter. It’s hard to go from a dark, rather depressing beginning like that and then turn the rest of the film into a light and fluffy romantic comedy.

And a light-hearted romcom doesn’t have to be light on substance, either. While 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice,” starring  Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, isn’t a romcom in the strictest sense of the term, the Jane Austen period drama has plenty of witty dialogue and great performances from the supporting cast. It’s funny and intelligent, and it’s easy to see why the story the film was based on has become a classic.

Looking for some other good romantic comedies to watch on Valentine’s Day? Here’s a list of films often recommended by critics and film lovers:
– “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Another period drama based on a Jane Austen novel. The film follows two sisters with very different personalities through their romances and heartbreaks.
– “(500) Days of Summer” (2009), starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “An offbeat romantic comedy about a woman who doesn’t believe true love exists, and the young man who falls for her.” — Internet Movie Database
– “Roman Holiday” (1953), starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. “A bored and sheltered princess escapes her guardians and falls in love with an American newsman in Rome.” — Internet Movie Database
– “Annie Hall” (1977), starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. “Neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer falls in love with the ditsy Annie Hall.” — Internet Movie Database
– “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. “A silent film production company and cast make a difficult transition to sound.” — Internet Movie Database
– “50 First Dates” (2004), starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. “Henry Roth is a man afraid of commitment up until he meets the beautiful Lucy. They hit it off and Henry think he’s finally found the girl of his dreams, until he discovers she has short-term memory loss and forgets him the very next day.” — Internet Movie Database
– “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart. “When a rich woman’s ex-husband and a tabloid-type reporter turn up just before her planned remarriage, she begins to learn the truth about herself.” — Internet Movie Database
– “Sabrina” (1954), starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and William Holden. “A playboy becomes interested in the daughter of his family’s chauffeur. But it’s his more serious brother who would be the better man for her.” Or, try the 1995 remake starring Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear. — Internet Movie Database
– “Ever After: A Cinderella Story” (1998), starring Drew Barrymore, Anjelica Huston and Dougray Scott. “The ‘real’ story of Cinderella. A refreshing new take on the classic fairy tale.” — Internet Movie Database

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4 thoughts on “Redeeming the ‘romcom’

  1. I’ve never seen “Life as We Know It”. But I’ve begun to think Katherine Heigl is stuck between drama and comedy.

    I’m glad “The Proposal” is snarky. It didn’t really appear that way despite Bullock and Reynolds being cast. But then I’m unrealistic about Reynolds and want him to always be as snarky as he was in “Just Friends” — my favorite movie with him.

  2. I really liked “The Proposal,” but I haven’t seen “Just Friends” yet. I’ll have to check it out.

    Also, I’ve enjoyed your blog! I’m a huge Richard Armitage fan as well. 🙂 Can’t wait to see him in “The Hobbit.”

  3. Simon Pegg refers to “Shaun of the Dead” as a rom-com.

    I’ve never grasped some of the complaints against rom-coms. The criticisms usually apply for most movies, but it’s easier to tear rom-coms apart.

    Rom-coms are like horror movies though, in that a lot are made pretty quickly and usually are not of superior quality. Crappy horror films seem to be more acceptable though.

  4. I forgot about “Shaun of the Dead” – it’s a fun movie. 😉

    You’re right, romcoms often are frequent targets of film critics. A lot of the romcoms I’ve seen recently weren’t truly terrible; they just didn’t seem to be really great, either. Some of them can be fun, though. I liked “When in Rome” with Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel, even though it wasn’t a big hit with critics.

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