I hate romantic comedies – generally speaking. There’s something about the combination of boredom-inducing cliché and spleen-imploding cringe-schmaltz that makes the genre a particularly odious and insipid affair. A woman – presumably Jennifer Lopez – meets a guy, doesn’t get on with him, they fall in love, hit a bump in the road but then ultimately find that their love for one another prevails (the poster for the film – ubiquitously – is a man shrugging like “love is complicated amirite?” and a woman beside him, hands on hips, shaking her head like “men amirite?”). We all know what’s going to happen, and we all could come up with a more interesting story in our sleep. However, there have been a handful of exceptions over the years that I feel future romantic comedy writers or directors need to take notes from, and that people – such as I – who normally scoff at the idea of watching a romantic comedy, can watch and enjoy without resorting to clawing one’s eyes out to alleviate the lack of originality.
When reviewing this list of mine, I noticed that several qualities kept surfacing: authenticity/realism; originality; flouting romcom conventions; favouring comedy over romance; wit; and unique directing/cinematography. However, it is key to note that the following films do have romance in them, and – by definition – have to in order to be considered a ‘romantic comedy’. After all, when watching a romantic comedy, the film has to hit certain marks and deal with certain themes in order to satisfy audience expectation. As Robert McKee said in his book ‘Story’ (thanks LFTS):
“The genre sophistication of filmgoers presents the writer with this critical challenge: He or She must not only fulfil audience anticipations…but…must lead expectations to fresh, unexpected moments, or risk boring them. The challenge is to keep convention but avoid cliché”
In this sense, I feel that the following selection films achieve this quite successfully.
This was the first romantic comedy I saw that changed my perceptions about the legitimacy of a romantic comedy as a worthwhile genre. The film – first and foremost – is aware that it’s a romantic comedy. At no point does the film insult your intelligence by pretending to be something else. On the contrary, Woody Allen utilises this self-awareness in order to experiment, flouting various filmic and narrative devices. For example, whilst many romantic comedies would include a tedious scene involving the two love interests flirting with one another, Annie Hall has the two protagonists – played by Woody Allen and Diane Keaton – have an innocent conversation about the artistic merits and aesthetic of Annie Hall’s photography, all the while honest and excessively flirtatious “mental subtitles” appear on screen every time one of them speaks. The film also destroys the concept of your traditional romcom within the first scene itself which consists of a fourth wall-breaking monologue directed at the audience that establishes right off the baton that the two love interests aren’t together and broke up, and that the film will be conveyed in a non-linear narrative.
The very reality of the film frequently breaks down; Allen’s character Alvy appearing in his own childhood memories as an adult, conjuring Marshall McLuhan out of thin air whilst queuing behind a particularly obnoxious Fellini naysayer at the ticket stand of a cinema just to prove a point, not to mention an animated comic-strip scene depicting Alvy and the wicked queen from Snow White, all the while the effortlessly witty Woody Allen dialogue pervades each line. Simply put, it is a classic and an utter joy to watch.
When Harry Met Sally
Whilst it doesn’t disrupt the very foundations of film as much as Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally is still rife with originality, humour, and a much desired lack of mawkishness, a quality that is so prevalent in the average romantic comedy. Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal‘s characters don’t instantly fall for one another for a start. The two meet repeatedly throughout their adult lives, disliking one another more and more each time, until their affections begin to grow. Even then however, they spend the majority of the film as friends, debating love, life, sex, and the structural integrity of a heterosexual male/female platonic relationship.
In short, the film is more about romance – as apposed to being romantic. That isn’t to say that the film is devoid of any sentimentality; instead the film deftly tugs at your heartstrings at opportune moments as opposed to constantly yanking on them throughout. There’s also an exceptionally enjoyable flowing Seinfeldian badinage throughout (despite the film preceding Seinfeld by 10 years); the sort whereby mildly cynical but witty New Yorkers discuss in detail relationships and dates in a diner whilst eating a pastrami on rye. It is endlessly re-watchable.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Kind of a curve-ball but I think it’s worth a mention. Rarely is a romantic comedy as visually mesmerising as it is in Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Director Edgar Wright attacks your eye-spheres with the vibrant, kinetic, and incredibly original style for which he is famed – albeit through the surreal lens of a comic book world. At no point are you given the freedom to be bored; what with the dramatic action-pacing (which is nicely juxtaposed in a comedic fashion with the mundane elements of a young twenty-something in pursuit of a love interest), the impressively stylised scene transitions (that are more interesting than whole film trilogies that I could name), and video game boss fights that are brought to life.
To reiterate, at no point does a cringe-inducing, saccharine moment occur – and better yet, there are more video game references within the film than one could feasibly shake a stick insect at. Whilst I feel that the ending would have perhaps been more satisfying had the faux-love interest ended up with Scott, the film is compelling enough as it is. Simply imagine a hip young romance, set in Toronto, whereby tongue-in-cheek, self-aware Dragon Ball Z battles occur at regular intervals i.e. great fun. (Also check out Youtube Channel ‘TheNerdWriter1‘ and his video analysis of Edgar Wright’s scene transitions in Scott Pilgrim. Check out every single one of his videos in fact. You will not regret it).
This one is what I’d describe as a ‘hidden gem’. Obvious Child is centred around a female stand-up’s experience with abortion after a drunken one-night-stand, and the repercussions that come along with that, as well as how is affects a possible relationship with the person with whom she had a one-night-stand. Jenny Slate plays stand-up comedian Donna, and the fact that she is a stand-up in real life gives her performance an authenticity that immediately convinces you to watch whole thing from Scene 1, Line 1.
The film is also exceptionally refreshing as it deals with a morbid but very real scenario that many women experience that isn’t discussed or portrayed on screen as often as it should, and does so with a levity, maturity, and wit that is utterly delightful, so much so that one has to be reminded that the whole premise of the film is based on abortion which – in case you didn’t know – isn’t typically a very hospitable premise on which to base a lighthearted romantic comedy. Its portrayal of a scared, awkward but determined twenty-something being forced to make such life-altering decisions whilst also struggling to maintain her comedienne perspective of the situation is spot on, and is done in such a way that it’s completely devoid of pretension or insincerity and has just the right amount of sentimentality too, thereby ensuring its effervescent charm.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Combine the talents of visually distinctive director Michel Gondry and the mind-bending, existential surrealist writing of Charlie Kaufman, and you get Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Nothing about this film is conventional, and everything about this film is narratively, thematically, and visually stimulating. A rather depressed, meek, and mild man called Joel – played impressively by Jim Carrey – meets a flakey, ‘free spitited’, tongue-in-cheek manic pixie dream girl archetype called Clementine – played equally as impressively by Kate Winslet, and – much like Inception – the audience finds themselves following the two love interests literally running and hiding through the fractured and collapsing psyche of Joel, after he discovers that some malevolent third party is attempting to alter his memories concerning the love of his life.
I have yet to see a better or more interesting way of conveying how it might look if one were to witness their memories being systematically deleted, or for them to collapse into other ones. The whole film is a lesson in set design and seamless narrative transition. Realities, time, and perspective prance around; whole realities merge and fade, and are visited and left within the same shot, all the while conveyed with a delicate mastery that prevents it from being an utter flustercluck. It is one to look out for.
I’m a stickler for realism, and this film has it in clubs and spades. Drinking Buddies is lo-fi romantic comedy drama surrounding two hip and trendy couples, and the resulting tensions and emotionally charged but ultimately unspoken tête-à-tête that occurs when they each have feelings for the other couple’s significant other. Fun-loving Kate (played by the charming Olivia Wilde) works at one of those independent craft breweries that are/have been popping up in the US with “chill” best friend Luke (played by Jake Johnson). Despite being ideal for one another, they each are in relationships with quiet and serious Chris (played by Ron Livingston) and rather practical and pragmatic Jill (played by Anna Kendrick) respectively. Things get complicated when an impromptu drunken weekend in Chris’ forest cabin goes romantically awry. The first thing to note is the realism in the dialogue, as well as the non-verbal exchanges between the characters. You feel like you’re actually experiencing a week with real-life individuals – as though the audience were some ethereal voyeur. This was accomplished to a great extent due to the film being entirely improvised save for a simple outline of each scene, Curb Your Enthusiasm style.
The realism and “stripped down” nature of the film also meant that it could be made for the paltry sum – or pint-sized sum (I hate myself) – of only 1 million dollars, which is cashews by Hollywood standards. The effortlessly natural way in which the intentions, moods, and emotions of the characters are conveyed through the screen just by looks, nervous laughs, and body language is superb. Olivia Wilde also stated in an interview that not only did they actually work for the brewery in preparation for the film, but the craft beer that they continuously drink throughout the film was real, and – as a result – the cast were “hammered the entire movie”. The film also has a great soundtrack too.
This movie is gonna be a tough one to explain. It has been described as a romantic absurdist dystopian black comedy, and to be fair, that is the shortest description you can possibly hope for. The Lobster is a high concept film set in a world where it is illegal to be single. Widows, divorcees, bachelors, bachelorettes, and singletons turning 18 are carted off to a hotel where they are required to meet and fall in love with a partner (who also has to share a distinguishing defect or trait) within 45 days, otherwise they will be – and I’m not kidding here – turned into an animal of their choosing via unknown, ambiguous means. In this rather Orwellian and depressing hotel, guests are required to attend dances and forced to watch propaganda showcasing the benefits of having a partner versus being alone. Guests have to follow the rules lest they be tortured and punished in rather medieval ways. As an opportunity for the guests to extend the deadlines of their stay, guests are regularly armed with tranquilliser guns and sent into the woods to hunt down people called “loners”; a community of nomad-like single people who have fled society to avoid being turned into an animal. “Where the hell is the romance or comedy?” I hear you ask. From that description, it’s admittedly hard to see. However I assure you, it’s about a romance between Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, and it’s exceptionally funny.
Every single line of dialogue is written, and delivered, in a consistently blunt, robotic, stilted, monotone, idiosyncratic way which, combined with the depressing setting and context the characters find themselves in, creates a reservoir of understated hilarity (In terms of dialogue, think a cross between Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Moss from The IT Crowd, and Keith from The Office at their most obnoxious. Amusingly, when watching the film and thinking about these comparisons, a scene involving Ewen MacIntosh, who played Keith from The Office, actually popped up). For example, a scene involving Ben Whishaw flirting with a swimmer in a pool contains the following exchange:
“Breaststroke is great; it is excellent exercise for the back.”
“When swimming breaststroke, one shouldn’t wear swim shorts as it really limits movement in the buttocks…but you knew that didn’t you?”
“I think your nose is bleeding”.
The film – despite its incredibly dark, disturbing, and depressing reality – is exceeding beautiful and oddly hypnotic to look at, with panoramic, muted-palette cinematography depicting slow-motion chases through the woods to majestic classical music – thereby making it feel as though you’re watching a living painting.
It is very weird, and frequently horrific, but it’s also kind of brilliant.
Honourable mentions/additional must-sees/other recommendations/after-thoughts/TLDR:
Shaun of the Dead
500 Days of Summer
Lost in Translation