Call them ‘guilty pleasures’. Call them ‘chick-flicks’. Be brazen about them, or sneak the DVD furtively from the back of a cupboard to watch when nobody else is about. However you treat them, I’m coming to the conclusion that there’s someone inside us all who harbours a pandering for the genre that film-lovers tend to forget: the Romantic Comedy.
Throughout the history of cinema, there have been points where a certain genre has excelled. Westerns, horror, musicals, war, comedy, drama, thrillers, they are all there. The romantic comedy tends to get sidelined, either as a mere sub-category, or as light, fluffy, irrelevant entertainment. But lightness isn’t a failing, it’s a skill. And when delivered properly, it can quite literally lift the heart.
The best romantic comedy examples manage to move with the times whilst remaining true to the basic premise :
Two people falling in love, whilst all around them, hilarity ensues.
The simplest ideas can sometimes be the hardest to deliver, as there’s a tendency on the part of most directors and writers to embellish the plot to the point that this simple idea is clouded. They throw in too much slapstick, or (in the case of so many of the so-called comedies coming out of the US recently, too much overt sex and bad language). Movies like Road Trip, or even American Pie, would have been far better for having a gentler handling.
It’s probably best that I give some examples of where the actors, directors and writers, in my opinion, got it right.
You’ve Got Mail
The two acknowledged specialists in the genre, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, got together in this 90s film about two people that meet in an internet chat room and begin an anonymous online friendship that overtakes anything that happens in real life. However, in real life the two are business rivals, Hanks from the big chainstore and Ryan from the small local bookshop that suffers when a big old Fox Bookstore open just around the corner. The film follows their two paths as they publicly battle for their businesses, whilst they confide in each other online. Finally, Hanks discovers who his ‘friend’ is, and so needs to work out what’s right, what’s wrong, and more importantly, what’s important.
When Harry Met Sally
Everyone knows this one. Starring Ryan again opposite Billy Crystal, it follows the path of two friends who, after sharing a ride from college to the city (during which Crystal expounds his theory that “men and women can’t be friends, because sex always gets in the way”) then meet each other occasionally over the course of a dozen years, and the friendship slowly develops. As other relationships rise and fall, the two grow closer, until the inevitable happens. After they sleep together, Harry gets cold feet and runs, whilst sally realises that she’s ben in love for years, and now can’t handle the rejection. So when they next meet, on New Year’s Eve, what will happen?
It Happened One Night
This is a real early film, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, two superstars of the silver screen. Colbert is the sheltered daughter of a millionaire businessman, who runs away when her shock marriage to an older business rival throws her father into a rage. Trying to evade detection, she catches a bus from Miami to New York, and falls under the wing of desperate newspaper hack Gable. Gable realises who she is, and helps her to evade detection, protects her from sleazy men on the bus, and helps her become more independent. All in return for a story that will resurrect his career. As they fall for each other, the drive to get to New York, and the story, become less important. Then a misunderstanding threatens to throw them both back into their old lives, and only swift action will prevent the couple from parting for good. And good is what this film is – then and now. It deservedly became the first film to win the Big Five at the Academy Awards: Film, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay.
All three of these films follow the same, simple premise: two people growing to love each other, whilst all around them seems to be conspiring to keep them apart. That they are set in different times, and that the sub-plots (business rivals meeting in internet chat rooms, fundamental disagreements over friendships between men and women, and two people from different social and economic backgrounds thrown together by necessity) is immaterial. The simplicity of the central theme works because it hasn’t been clouded by the peripherals.
And that’s why so many people love a good rom-com, even if they won’t admit it. I know I do.