“A movie! That’s your problem! You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.”
Today is Valentine’s Day, and I’m not going to write about love. I’m going to write about love in the movies.
This is a genre that doesn't get a lot of respect, but I adore romantic comedies. Or, rather, I adore good romantic comedies. Sadly, there haven’t been a lot of good ones since the 90s, and most of them were written, directed, or both by the incomparable Nora Ephron, whose death last summer saddened me immensely.
So what makes a good romantic comedy? Well, the “comedy” part is important- if you’re not laughing, it won’t work. But the humor, in most romantic comedies, needs to be more character-driven than situation-driven and more verbal than visual. Obviously, the two leads need to be likeable, and you need to believe that they will work as a couple. And while the ending is a forgone conclusion (or it better be- I've already blogged about what I think about movies that end in breakups), there need to be enough plot twists and suspense to keep things interesting. Sadly, most romantic comedies fall short of these standards.
Also, just to be clear on what we’re talking about here, a romantic comedy must be primarily about a romantic relationship and the prospect of two people getting together. This disqualifies movies like Juno or Bridesmaids, where the romance is more like a large subplot, and movies like Love Actually, Crazy, Stupid, Love., He’s Just Not That Into You, and even 10 Things I Hate About You, which are ensemble movies about multiple romances.
Without further ado, here are my favorite romantic comedies. Would you be surprised to hear that the majority of them are from the 90s and late 80s? And that two of them have ellipses in the title?
Sleepless in Seattle
This is the movie the quote at the beginning of this post is from. Nora Ephron herself described this movie as being not about love, but about love in the movies.
More concretely, it’s about Sam (Tom Hanks), a man in Seattle raising his eight-year-old son Jonah (Ross Malinger) alone after his wife’s death. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Annie (Meg Ryan) has just gotten engaged to a nice but somewhat awkward man named Walter (Bill Pullman). On Christmas Eve, Jonah calls a psychologist on a national radio show and says that his dad needs a new wife. Sam gets on the phone and, after overcoming his initial resistance, opens up and talks about how much he loved his wife. Annie hears the radio show and is deeply moved by it. She becomes obsessed with the idea that falling in love with Sam might be her destiny. Unfortunately, she’s not alone- women across the country write to Sam after hearing the show, and Sam is adamantly opposed to meeting any of them.
I don’t know what it is about this movie- there are just so many things I love about it. It’s funny, but in a very gentle, subtle way. The characters are written well enough that it’s never really bothered me that Annie is borderline-stalking Sam- if she’d had more resources than the extremely basic 1993 Internet we see her using, she would have found out all that information faster. And Sam is such a great character that I don’t doubt for a minute that all these women would fall in love with him. He’s sad, but has a sarcastic sense of humor that keeps him from being too depressing and is also a great dad— I love all his scenes with Jonah.
One self-aware motif in this movie is how men and women watch movies differently, and one of the most famous scenes is this one. Sam is talking with his married friends Greg and Suzy (played by Victor Garber and Tom Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson), and when Suzy gets teary-eyed describing the plot of An Affair to Remember, Sam says dismissively, “That’s a chick’s movie,” and proceeds to get emotional over The Dirty Dozen with Greg. (In college, for a class on screenwriting, I wrote a paper on this movie based on what I’d read in the shooting script, and most of this scene wasn't originally in it!)
You’ve Got Mail
“Don’t cry, Shopgirl.”
Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and Nora Ephron reunite, and this time, the two leads meet before the end of the movie! Ryan plays Kathleen, the cheerful owner of a small children’s bookstore she inherited from her mother, while Hanks plays Joe, who’s about to open up a large chain bookstore that threatens to put Kathleen out of business. In real life, they can’t stand each other, but unbeknownst to them, they’re carrying on an online romance the way people did in 1998— with lots of dial-up Internet and AOL. It’s maybe a little less sweet than Sleepless In Seattle but a lot funnier. Watching it now is kind of weird because of how much is dated- aside from the old-school Interwebs, it makes me long for the days when big bookstore chains were the bad guys rather than e-readers.
While You Were Sleeping
“I'd say that she gets under your skin as soon as you meet her. She drives you so nuts you don't know whether to hug her or, or just really arm wrestle her. She would go all the way to Europe just to get a stamp in her passport. I don't know if that amounts to insanity, or just being really, really...likable.”
This is a movie that always makes me smile. Sandra Bullock plays a nice woman named Lucy who works in the Chicago subway system. With her parents dead and no siblings or significant others, she’s lonely and has no one to spend holidays with. On Christmas, a subway rider named Peter (Peter Gallagher) whom she has a crush on but has never spoken to, is mugged and falls onto the train tracks, hitting his head, and Lucy drags him away from an oncoming train. She saves his life, but he’s still in a coma, and when a nurse at the hospital overhears her saying out loud that she was going to marry him in a moment of wishful thinking, Peter’s entire kooky family ends up believing that she’s his fiancee. Fearing disappointing them and possibly giving his grandmother a heart attack, as well as longing for a family of her own, she’s unable to give up the charade. But while Peter is still in the coma (which his loving family seems weirdly unconcerned about), Lucy starts falling for his brother Jack (Bill Pullman). It’s all a bit implausible, but it’s so sweet that it’s hard not to love. And speaking of love, unlike most romantic comedies, this one is as much about familial as romantic love.
When Harry Met Sally...
“When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
No list of romantic comedies would be complete without this one. Meg Ryan (yep, she did a lot of rom-coms at the height of her career) and Billy Crystal play the titular characters, who share a ride home from college after they graduate and can’t stand each other. Years later, after Harry is divorced and Sally’s long-term relationship has ended, they meet again and become friends. But, as Harry says, men and women can never really be friends, because sex always gets in the way. And the end of the movie doesn’t disprove that idea. (Although my dad, who also loves this movie, disagrees with me on that. He was like, “But they were friends! They were friends for a long time!”)
If you’re going to make a guy watch a chick flick with you, I’d pick this one. (Like I said, my dad loves it.) That’s mainly because it’s really funny- more so than the average romantic comedy, and the humor is all character-driven and verbal. Billy Crystal is so natural that it’s hard to believe he didn’t make up some of his lines himself.
“I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen.”
Oh, Lloyd Dobler, how I love you. John Cusack’s boombox-holding romantic has become a bit of a pop-culture icon, with good reason. Despite being an underachieving recent high school graduate with no plans for college or a career beyond kickboxing and knowing that he doesn’t want to sell, buy, or process anything, when he decides to ask out the valedictorian, Diane Court (Ione Skye), he follows through. His friends see her as out of his league, but Diane, who’s pretty but a bit of a loner, says yes for a simple reason: he makes her laugh. Their relationship is threatened by Diane’s fellowship to study in England at the end of the summer and Diane’s father’s indictment for a white-collar crime, but of course love conquers all in the end.
Lloyd really stands out as a character for a number of reasons. Unlike a lot of male characters in movies, like this one, he doesn't see the hard-to-get girl as an object, and it’s clear that Diane’s intelligence is one big reason he likes her. Once they’re together, he’s kind and thoughtful without being paternalistic, like when he makes sure she doesn't step on broken glass in a parking lot and comforts her on an airplane, knowing that she’s afraid to fly. His two best friends are girls for whom he doesn't have romantic feelings (yes, When Harry Met Sally..., sometimes that does happen, although it’s really rare in the movies), and he’s very sweet to them as well, at one point telling off a guy who treated his friend Corey (Lili Taylor) badly. And finally, lacking ambition of his own, he’s content to stand by as Diane chases her own dreams, like women in movies too often do for men.
Actually, you know what? If you have to watch a romantic comedy with a guy, watch this one instead of When Harry Met Sally.... All men could take some lessons from Lloyd Dobler.
“In case I forget to tell you later, I had a really good time tonight.”
I know I just went on about the feminism in Say Anything…, but here’s where I destroy the feminist goodwill I’ve just built up. I do love Pretty Woman, but only if I don’t think about it too much. This movie, about a businessman and a prostitute who fall in love after he pays her to accompany him to meetings for a week and pays for a new wardrobe for her, doesn’t exactly portray an egalitarian relationship. But if you don’t dive too deep into its messages, this is a really enjoyable movie.
Okay, that was a lot of negativity. So what’s to like? Well, Richard Gere’s character, for one thing. The first time I saw this movie was at a sleepover in high school, and I thought he was so kind and loving. Julia Roberts, in one of her earliest movie roles, is as entertaining as she’s ever been- there are a lot of small comic moments with her, like singing off-key in the Jacuzzi and defending her use of dental floss with, “Well, you shouldn’t neglect your gums!” And despite the oddness of this pairing, the relationship never seems unbelievable- the moment where she whispers, “I love you,” to him as he sleeps is simple but touching.
“Happiness isn’t happiness without a violin-playing goat.”
Another romantic comedy with Julia Roberts, but in this one, she’s the one with all the power. She plays Anna Scott, a movie star as famous as, well, Julia Roberts, whom British bookstore owner William (Hugh Grant) meets when she comes into his shop. Her being an internationally famous star constantly followed by paparazzi (it’s hard to imagine anyone but Roberts playing this part) and his being a nice, regular guy with a business, quirky friends and family, and a weird roommate present a lot of obstacles. But we progress to the inevitable happy ending with a lot of heart and quintessentially British humor. Incidentally, one of William’s friends is played by Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey!
As Good as It Gets
“You make me want to be a better man.”
Okay, this one barely qualifies as a romantic comedy, since it’s as much about Melvin (Jack Nicholson) overcoming his misanthropic ways and becoming a kinder person as it is about his relationship with Carol (Helen Hunt), the waitress who puts up with him every day. But although taking care of his neighbor’s dog is initially what starts his change, Carol is the one who makes him want to be a better man, and their relationship is too big to be a subplot. I remember the Boston Globe review, when the movie first came out (yes, I remember weird things), described the movie as being like a great, character-driven sitcom, and that’s pretty accurate. Aside from the loveliness of watching Melvin soften as he realizes that his dependence on Carol might actually be love, we see him getting attached to the dog and overcoming his prejudices to treat the gay neighbor he used to antagonize with more kindness. Impressive acting all around is what takes this movie to the next level.
What are your favorite romantic comedies?