I found myself contemplating over the holiday weekend just why it is that Romantic Comedies writers of the modern era seem to presume that jerks and generally unpleasant people are characters we ought to root for?
Really, of all modern genres, I think none show more contempt for their audience than the Romantic Comedy. Sure, some horror films and comedies show little respect for their audience… but the Rom Com? It is in a class of its own. For this posting, I am splitting the genre into three sub categories.
First, there is the “Equal Footing” Rom Com. This often does involve opposites attract and can include screwball comedy bits. This tends to represent the strongest Rom Coms. Both of your main characters are strong self agents, they are likable, in spite of maybe some flaws. By strong, I do not mean that they are perfect or full of confidence. But that they exist for more than being part of the romantic couple. They are sympathetic. If one or both characters are not initially sympathetic, they will come around before the end of the movie. They have a real story arc. They are on firm footing from each other. They also do not need to rely as much on the romantic rival character, or the rival is not a villain, but rather a decent person (See Win a Date With Tad Hamilton). These films are in fact rare.
And I do not oppose these films. Like the other two I am about to discuss, they often rely on short hand notions of love and have situations in which the people fall in love very rapidly. And even the good ones rely on the pratfalls and mis-communications. Few are set after a relationship is started; it is pretty much accepted with a Rom Com that it is all about the “meet cute”. How do they get together? Heck, there is a show that has functioned solely on its eventual meet cute. And some of this is the limitations of movie story telling. So, having an over the top plot device or absurdly short time frame is not automatically bad. But the fact is, rarely are these things use effectively which usually leads to the other two types of Rom Coms.
Then there is the Rom Com aimed at women. Lately, these star Katherine Heigl as the lovable every woman (Though, she seems far to attractive to pass for “average”). Previously the role was filled by Ashley Judd, and before that? Meg Ryan. Usually, the focus is on the woman, often with a myriad of negative issues. She is neurotic and often very uptight. Usually, they are also terrific at their jobs… so terrific no man will ever love them. Seriously, that might sound like an exaggeration… but 27 Dresses and the Ugly Truth paint such a picture of their lead (both played by Katherine Heigl). Often, these women express Feminist ideals about careers and so on. These ideals are usually crushed by this type of Rom Com.
And the men in these Rom Coms? They are usually unpleasant and piggish. But often their negative behavior and attitude is rewarded by the story. The Ugly Truth often supports Gerard’s Butler’s character, his sexist act shown as having some core truth that Heigl refuses to accept. The problem is, the movie shows that he does not seem to buy his own shtick. He tells his nephew to not listen to the things on his show. But the movie keeps proving that he is right-to the continuing humiliation of Heigl’s character. An example? The film sets up a situation with… sigh… vibrating underwear, causing our female lead to be dealing with… pleasure issues during a dinner meeting with her bosses. Butler discovers that a kid has found the remote and not knowing what it is, has turned the garment on. Does Butler’s character show us a moment of goodness and quickly save her dignity? No, He watches and laughs. The film ends with Butler’s replacement endorsing rape. Yes. The way to make sure we know Butler might be sexist but is not a bad guy is that this other guy literally promotes rape.
The men also tend to be against any kind of serious relationship and especially opposed to marriage, which is the only thing they have to overcome. In both Heigl films, the guys do not really have to change any attitudes… they just have to realize that “the girl” is an exception to their rules, not that their rules were a problem. The woman, on the other hand always has to learn that her rules will keep her from finding love. Mind you, this is not a bad message for a movie to have. Trying to force people to conform to a prescribed list of your perfect significant other is not a good thing. People loving you for who you are is good as well. But these are always lessons for the woman, never for the man.
There is often a Romantic Rival, she tends to be very imbalanced. She’s often either hot and dumb or hot and mean.
All too often, the presumed humor is pulled from the bickering and embarrassments of the woman. In rare occasions, this works, but usually it is made workable by the performers. But even a decent cast cannot save a disastrous Rom Com (He’s Just Not That Into You or Valentines Day).
On the other side is the male focused Rom Com. Of course, people often do not call these films Rom Coms. I am not speaking of “the Bromance”. The Hangover is about the wacky hijinks, not Justin Barth’s desire to be with his future wife. I Love You Man is about Paul Rudd and Jason Segal’s close friendship, just as Superbad about Michael Cera and Jonah Hill’s friendship… and McLovin.
But without a doubt, there are male themed Rom Coms. Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall for example. Or the Heartbreak Kid. Looking at the Heartbreak Kid, Ben Stiller plays a guy who meets his dream girl (Watchman’s Malin Ackerman). They have a whirlwind romance and get married. On their way to the Honeymoon, Stiller discovers all these big issues he somehow overlooked or never ran into. The film plays it so extreme, there is no credible way for the viewer to believe she could keep this stuff hidden. And you need to believe she was actively deceiving Stiller. Why? Because you needs to sympathize for Stiller when he meets the true woman of his dreams (Michelle Monaghan). And hilarity ensues. Well, not really. But this is very common for for the male themed Rom Com. Women are pretty much there to be either the sweet dream girl, the vicious witch who broke his heart or the good friend/relative.
Women characters are focused as much on physical attributes (Good Luck Chuck) as anything else. They are only important so much as how they relate to the guy. While the female Rom Com might have a woman torn between two guys, the male Rom Com commonly mines cheating on girlfriends. Let me explain something… cheaters are not sympathetic. Nobody likes being cheated on, and a movie where your hero is cheating? He becomes very unlikeable.
The Romantic Rival in these is similar to the Female Rom Com. The guy they are up against is Handsome, Dumb/a Bully/Sexist and rich.
And no matter how outrageous your plot? If you cannot make sure your characters act in a fashion that actually makes sense, you disturb the suspension of dis-belief. I watched a comedy recently in which some jackass is late to his wedding. What does he discover when he arrives? His fiance married some other guy. Why? Because her Dad thought she should do it. When he faces her in a restaurant, rather than say, “I’m over it” he starts to whine about how he looooooves her. If a person actually married someone else because you were running late for your wedding? They did the stupid things folks. The character should get to walk off into the sunset. Instead he mopes, while his beloved catches her husband having sex with her sister. And she runs off and finds her mopey ex and they kiss to some bad indie rock song.
Rom Coms often show no sense of character development or logic. If they need a smart person to suddenly make a stupid choice? They just do it. It’s unfortunate, really, because I like so laugh and I am a sap. And yet, so many Rom Coms fall into the Male or Female dichotomy, rather than the smart Equal Footing Rom Com.