Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why are romantic comedies so hard to get right?

The New York Times ran an op-ed called "Tragedy of Comedy," a conversation between TV critic Maureen Dowd and Sam Wasson, the 28-year-old author of “Fifth Avenue." Here are some highlights from their discussion of why romantic comedies "now reek":
I can’t remember the last time I saw two people really falling in love in a movie. Now all we get is the meet cute, a montage, a kiss, then acoustic song into fade out. Nothing experiential, only movies manufactured from movies. 
I don’t think people realize how dire the situation is. I mean culturally, emotionally, the whole idea of romance is gone, gone, gone.
With so many women running studios, you’d think they’d focus on making better rom-coms.
Okay, okay. We've seen plenty of disappointing romcoms - but haven't we also seen plenty of disappointing movies of all types? I feel like romcoms get a disproportionately bad rap. Either way, let me defend a genre I work with and enjoy. I do understand the frustration.

Why are romantic comedies so hard to get right? 

1. They're extremely simple - so they're often predictable.

Structurally, romcoms are extraordinarily simple. You've got a girl and a guy, and they either can't be together (a la Sleepless in Seattle or many romantic dramas, like Romeo and Juliet), or they hate-each-other-amidst-sexual-chemistry but must be around each other (The Cutting Edge). One or both of them learns a big lesson, and then they live happily ever after! (Or die - sorry R&J.) Throw in all the complications you want, but romcoms almost always fit my formula - and nobody wants to feel like they're watching a formula.

If you see a poster of Will Smith and a gun, you don't know exactly what's going to happen. Probably some shooting and general badassery, but there could be some uber-cool twists, right? With a romcom, it's tougher. If you see a romcom poster with the faces of one man and one woman, you already know that these two are going to get together in the end. How do you make the audience (or reader) really feel like they don't know what's going to happen next? How do you add twists that aren't too convenient or unbelievable? It's effing difficult. One way is to create a love triangle. That way we get three people on our poster and we don't yet know which two will end up together. But even that is hard, because you have to make that third character actually feel like an option. Sweet Home Alabama did this pretty well with Patrick Dempsey's character. If Reese Witherspoon had chosen him, it wouldn't have been unbelievable. He was a really, really likable guy - but he just wasn't the right choice after Reese had learned her lesson and gone back to the roots that made her happy. In a lot of other movies, you know from the get-go that choice #2 is not really a choice, but somebody conveniently hanging around to keep our leads apart.

My very very favorite romantic comedy ever of all time is Bridget Jones' Diary, which features a successful love triangle between Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. For the first half of the movie, you really believe that Renee could end up with Hugh, because of two scenes: in the first, Renee goes on a date with Hugh and is trying to change herself into someone who cares about world events:

Renee: How do you feel about this situation in Chechnya? Isn't it a nightmare?
Hugh: I couldn't give a fuck, Jones.

They're on the same page. Renee doesn't have to change to get along with Hugh. But aye, that's the problem! She needs to change and find a real job and everything to be happy!

The second scene that clinches the actually-interesting-love-triangle status is when Renee and Hugh are getting drunk in a rowboat while boring Colin Firth and his boring Natasha are having a horrid time on a nearby vessel. Again, Hugh would be a fun, attractive choice. It's later when we learn about the guys' REAL characters that we realize Hugh is no choice for Renee at all. It all comes down to character. Your lead should choose their love based on their arc and what they've learned.

What's not so simple is that true two-handers mean two protagonists and two arcs. Many romcoms focus more on one member of the couple, giving that one person more to learn and accomplish. Unfortunately, if the other person is totally fine and well-adjusted, your story feels unbalanced and there's not a ton for your actor to do. Everyone should learn a lesson. Everyone should change. Everyone should be tested. If you want to  have two solid protagonists, you need two arcs - and they'd better be different, or you'll have repetitive scenes and a too-obvious theme. Two-handers take double the planning and plotting.

2. We've seen everything, and we already have so many expectations. 

Opposites attracting. Forbidden romances. Love triangles. Workplace romances. Wedding hijinks. Unplanned pregnancies. Conflicting jobs. Mistaken identities. Infidelity. Lies and bets. Teen comedies. Sex comedies. It's hard to write the usual events of a relationship in a new way. What haven't we seen? It's rare that a romantic comedy concept feels new and fresh and interesting. And remember that for every movie you see, there are dozens of sold scripts and hundreds of unsold scripts making their way around Hollywood. You may not have seen a "men and women can't be friends" kind of movie since When Harry Met Sally, but I've read at least 10 of them in the last year. I also think I'll have to take my own life if I have to read any more wedding movies or raunchy female sex comedies. Great characters and relatable themes should be enough to create a good movie, but they may not be enough to sell a movie anymore. As a result, we sometimes get silly, overly concepty and set-piecey ideas. I think sometimes writers get so caught up in the hook that they forget what we really want to see in a romcom: people falling in love.

If you completely reinvent the wheel with a romcom, your audience feels cheated. Maybe it's because of our biases as Western audiences that have watched couples falling in love for 70 years, but if you show us a poster of a guy and a girl and they don't get together in the end, we're unsatisfied. I really liked The Break Up (which I know a lot of people didn't), but I wanted it to end with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston at least agreeing to meet for coffee, because I couldn't handle the idea of the two of them not giving their relationship one more chance. You might say you want something more modern than the Hollywood happily-ever-after ending, but do you really? These same expectations made 500 Days of Summer really impressive. In that movie, the guy and girl didn't end up together - but it still felt like a satisfying ending, because you didn't want them to. Once Joseph Gordon-Levitt went on his journey and learned his lesson, there was no room for Summer in his life. Can you think of a romcom you liked in which the two leads didn't end up together? It's not easy, is it?

3. Romance versus comedy

Most romcoms make a choice to focus more on romance (Just Like Heaven) or more on comedy (Failure to Launch). (There's also an entire genre of romantic dramas like The Last Song and Remember Me that I'm not including in any of this analysis.) I don't think there's really a right or wrong way to go, but sometimes the more romance-heavy movies feel cheesy or melodramatic, and the more comedic ones fail to pack that satisfying emotional punch. The mark of a really great romcom is that it makes you really, really laugh,  but also makes you weep - and it's a difficult, delicate balance. Is it okay to throw physical comedy into a desperate moment at the end of the second act? Do you really need the heartfelt thematic speech in act three that we've heard a million times? Are you spending too much time making a big statement about relationships or society and not making us fall in love with your characters? There's a lot to consider in achieving the perfect tone.

We want to believe the love story. We want to feel like we don't know what's going to happen, but be satisfied when our two leads end up happily ever after. We want to see something simple and classic told in a cool new way. We want strong, relatable, emotional themes but we don't want want them to be too obvious or oversimplified. And we want it to be hilarious, insightful and moving. 

Plus...to get it made into a movie, you need to convince a studio that your amazingly fresh new brilliant edgy idea is worth millions of dollars.

Does it still sound so easy to write a great romcom?


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19 comments:

Manda said...

Great post! Really smart. Falling in love must be one of the oldest cliches in the world and for the most part it does seem like cinema has responded in kind with its own cliches. And I forgot how much I love that exchange about Chechnya in Bridget Jones. One of my favourite scenes ever.

Ted Nusbaum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ted Nusbaum said...

Great post, Amanda. Breaking a rom com as we speak and man... it's tough to be original within the tried and true. There has to be a balance between romance and subtlety without tipping over to melodrama or cliche. And all of that comes AFTER you have a great concept.

How do you know two people are right for each other? And how do you dramatize this without simply repeating all that's come before? Further, you can't simply be inventive for the sake of being fresh or creative -- it still has to remain truthful to situation and character.

No easy task if you wanna do it right. Thanks. (Sorry for the confusing posts -- I'm trying to remove my last name from my account for anon. purposes...)

JamesV said...

Very solid analysis.

I'd go one step further and add that those cliche biases you're talking about go so far back to the original original Greek comedies. So many Rom-Com's follow the same two thousand plus year old template including the age old "end with a wedding" that they leave very little room for surprises.

You're right about 500 Days of Summer, too.

Also:

"With so many women running studios, you’d think they’d focus on making better rom-coms."

Really? Ugh.

Little Miss Nomad said...

Thank you. Maureen Dowd's piece really annoyed me, as if those two writers who were the only ones who had ever thought that most romantic comedies suck and something should be done about it. You analyzed the whole issue in a way that you think would be required for NY Times writers, but apparently isn't.

Also, While You Were Sleeping is a great rom-com that does the two-hander without having to work too hard at it because one of the legit options for Lucy is in a coma. Man, that was a good movie.

The Bitter Script Reader said...

Really awesome post.

DEV said...

speaking of 500 Days of Summer, if you haven't read "Underage" (same writers), you are really missing out. hilarious, sweet rom-com with very likable characters. i hope it gets made at some point

ximena said...

Thanks so much for this, Amanda! You really hit this on the head. Particularly the part about most rom-coms focusing too much on one member while the other is supposedly all perfect and well-adjusted.

Oh and Bridget Jones, ftw!

http://theserialbox.wordpress.com

Dan Williams said...

Nice work!

Monsterbeard said...

Wow! Really smart analysis. Thanks!

Jeff said...

It's funny, I think what people really want out of a romantic comedy is basically one of the oldest truths. They want them to feel honest. People don't necessarily always want to hear a story for surprises, there are lot of emotional reason people like stories. It's not because they're predictable, at least I think, that people complain. It's because if the story isn't engaging and sincere enough to make you relate and invest, it just doesn't feel honest and no one likes being lied. It feels fake. For me, at the end of any well done romantic comedy, I always get suckered into fearing that the characters won't get together.

I also think one thing that a lot of movies shy away from is really letting their characters screw up. When all the drama is coming from outside the character, it becomes so much harder to not feel melodramatic. At least that's how I feel about. Great post btw!

Dan Williams said...

Jeff said: "if the story isn't engaging and sincere enough to make you relate and invest, it just doesn't feel honest and no one likes being lied [to]."

Couldn't agree more. This link takes you to a Suzie Qutro and Chris Norman song, and if she isn't head over heels in love with him...well, she is. But how many romcoms show near this much love between the co-leads?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEX-exLd8BY&p=C44F41E79A86C190&playnext=1&index=11

Quitty McQuittertons said...

i guess i fall into the category of "poor saps" because even if a rom-com sucks, i still love it.

i'm interested to hear what you have to say about the romance movies a la nicholas sparks, etc ... because they sure deserve a category of their own. which i will call "infinitely frustrating."

Amanda said...

@Quitty - Honestly, I rarely see those movies because they get too melodramatic for me, and I don't really have an interest in watching couples get split up because of cancer, car accidents, etc. Generally I like movies that don't take life so seriously.

But I don't think the romantic drama is flawed as a genre. I think the key is strong characters and a fresh new take on something. I loved REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, CLOSER and ETERNAL SUNSHINE.

Max said...

You do know 500 days of summer was just a ripoff of Annie Hall right? Especially, the ending

Script said...

Just watched Leap Year, an allegedly failed romantic comedy. But I wasn't as disappointed as I anticipated (don't ask me why I watched it with that attitude) because I really felt like the two leads were in love by the end. Yes, it failed miserably at achieving a believable triangle - Amy Adam's fiance was the biggest douche I've seen on screen in a while. Yes, the moment when the male and female protagonists first kiss is tremendously forced. And yes, overall, there were way too many holes in the story for the movie to work as a whole. But, I was into the romance. So, on some small level, Leap Year was a success.

So, two people falling in love is indeed the most important factor of a rom com. You're totally right in that regard. And as a writer, I know that that's hard to create. Why are two people ever just right for each other, and how can you prove that?

Script said...

Just watched Leap Year, an allegedly failed romantic comedy. But I wasn't as disappointed as I anticipated (don't ask me why I watched it with that attitude) because I really felt like the two leads were in love by the end. Yes, it failed miserably at achieving a believable triangle - Amy Adam's fiance was the biggest douche I've seen on screen in a while. Yes, the moment when the male and female protagonists first kiss is tremendously forced. And yes, overall, there were way too many holes in the story for the movie to work as a whole. But, I was into the romance. So, on some small level, Leap Year was a success.

So, two people falling in love is indeed the most important factor of a rom com. You're totally right in that regard. And as a writer, I know that that's hard to create. Why are two people ever just right for each other, and how can you prove that?

Holly McDorman (Hope L. Brock) said...

I thank you for this post. I was just thinking the same thoughts just today. I watched Letter to Juliet to review for my blog. I have been reviewing a lot of rom coms, and they do seem all of the same. As an aspiring writer myself (non fiction novels and poetry), I found myself with the lack of any creative new angle to use as a foundation of a great love story. However, I do have to say that The Notebook is one example of a love story that is off of the beaten path. Good Luck and keep looking up!

Sahar P. said...

(I'm actually very fond of all the movies you've reference in this post)
Rom-coms have a way of making the audience feel good. Sometimes we want them to get together and have the perfect life because we all know in reality that's hard to come by, and watching the happily ever after on screen gives us hope in a way. But that's just me. I know they can be predictable and have full of constant clich├ęs thrown in at every corner of the narrative but just as long as the characters are charismatic and have great chemistry, there's no harm in enjoying a romantic-comedy on a rainy day at the comfort of your own home. I'm not fond of sex-comedies tho' as I always found them as an excuse to allow horny audiences to watch vulgar imagery without being judged (plus they never really focus on the romance part...which is the whole point of rom-coms)!