Warning: possible spoilers for all 5 of you who have not seen the following but intend to someday: The Shop Around The Corner, In The Good Old Summer Time, You’ve Got Mail, the play She Loves Me, the play Parfumerie, and all the others who have ripped off that plot.
Every year, Hollywood throws together a few haphazard romantic comedies in a way that suggests they think it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. Just throw together two good-looking actors, have them fall over once or twice, maybe a supporting role for an up-and-coming comic, and voila! You are done.
Oh nonononono. This is why, if I say I like romantic comedies, I might as well be saying I like Hummel figurines or velvet paintings of crying eagles. I only like good ones, OK! Of which only a handful have been released since the end of Hollywood’s golden age.
Romantic comedies are actually the hardest genre to get right. A good romantic comedy is a delicate machine of many intricate parts. Remove one, and you fail. To see how a romantic comedy is properly made, let’s look at the greatest one of all time: Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner.
1. The two main characters have to be equally interesting and have to have chemistry with each other. Just because you like them individually,doesn’t mean they work as a couple. In You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are bland and blander. I have no trouble with them individually (just with most of the choices they make in movies), but they both have a tendency to milky niceness that needs someone with an edge for contrast (I was rooting for Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle--people with allergies need love too). Note to Hollywood: Gerard Butler doesn’t have romantic chemistry with anybody, except maybe that big ol’ Persian drag queen in 300. “Down on your knees,” indeed!
Also, if either of they characters seems like nothing than eye candy, the wish-fulfillment aspect becomes pathetically obvious and ruins it. The one thing that keeps Say Anything from being perfect is that, although Ione Skye’s character is written interestingly, with a whole character arc and everything, the actress is kinda . . . meh. Playing a super-genius whose future work will probably save the world isn’t easy, though.
The genius of Shop Around The Corner is, we see each character’s every day struggle: trying to get a promotion, get a job, dealing with back-stabbing co-workers and a cranky boss. We also see their hopes, dreams and aspirations for something better and higher as expressed in their letters (maybe a little pretentious and vague, but who’s aren’t?) Each character has their inner sensitive side and the hard shell they have to wear at work. Frankly, Margaret Sullavan’s character is a bit of a bitch--but 1) her behavior is later explained; and 2) she has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes us love her anyway.
2. They have to be surrounded by a bunch of memorable character actors. In While You Were Sleeping, they play lip-service to this by having the female lead fall in love with the whole family right along with the guy. Sadly, while the actors playing them were great (Jack Warden! Glynis Johns!), they were pretty much generically nice without much in the way of personality. I think a fractious, eccentric family with some failings, like Cher’s in Moonstruck, creates more of a nice contrast. The henpecked sad sack, slimy two-face, full-of-himself new hire, and possibly bipolar boss make up a whole interesting world in The Shop Around the Corner, one a little heightened but similar to our own.
3. There has to be just enough conflict to keep the characters apart from each other for 90 minutes, but not too much. This is possibly the hardest part. Why should two attractive people with chemistry not get together immediately? Based on my study of the trailers of Katherine Heigl movies, it’s because she is a snooty bitch and he’s a douchebag. Now, leaving aside the question of why I would want to watch that anyway, when a romantic comedy leaves you with the thought, “I give them three weeks, tops.” it is not exactly successful. That’s certainly what I thought when seeing Knocked Up. The worst movie for that in recent memory was Reality Bites--Ethan Hawke’s character acts like a total tool for every minute of the movie, until his dad died and he suddenly reforms. Once again, totally rooting for Ben Stiller. If there is a serious enough roadblock, like Communism in The Way We Were and mother issues in The Whole Wide World, the story becomes a tragic romance,
The classic roadblock, of course, is the boring but nice fiance, a character embodied for all time by Ralph Bellamy in The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. Since that’s been used enough for there to be a movie deconstructing it, we should probably retire this trope. Instead, Shop Around The Corner uses workplace conflict. Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson show how a little issue like Clara showing up Alfred when he’s already worried about being in the boss’ doghouse can blow up to create workplace “enemies” of two people who would like each other just fine if they met under other circumstances.
4. Though the main tone is comic, there has to be some darkness in the background. A lot of people confuse the word “romantic” with the word “sentimental”. Sentimentality is about pretending that the world is all sunshine and flowers and cute little puppies and suppressing all bad things. Romance is about big emotions which have the potential to go very, very bad. There is no romance without the possibility it could go wrong. As Nicholas Cage’s character says in Moonstruck, “love don't make things nice - it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess.” In While You Were Sleeping, everyone is no nice and wholesome that we don’t really know why Sandra Bullock has a lousy job and no friends except pure masochism.
Lubitsch and Raphaelson use a light touch to suggest that the outside world is in a Depression and things are actually pretty bad, while never letting it bring us down. We see Clara’s desperation for a job in the very first scene. Pirovitch’s complaints about his wife and the breakup of Matuschek’s marriage makes it clear that true love is hard to find. The darkness makes the romance more sweet.
While I enjoy bromances like I Love You Man, Role Models, Superbad, and the 40 Year Old Virgin and womances like Bridesmaids and Baby Momma where it’s mainly about friendship and romance is secondary, it would be nice to see a good romantic comedy again. Here are a few that don’t make me want to hurl:
The Shop Around The Corner
The Palm Beach Story
Truly, Madly, Deeply
The Sure Thing
Music And Lyrics