(ON TOPIC) The Time I Was in a Jennifer Aniston Movie and It Inspired Me to Write a Blog Post About the Current State of Rom-Coms

The idea for this blog post came to me the day I was an extra in the movie The Bounty Hunter with rom-com whores (Did I use the right word here? Is “romantic comedy” more professional?) Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler. We were in the parking lot of a race track in New Jersey—insert “New Jersey is the trashcan of the U.S.” joke here—and it was the fifth time I was watching Gerard chuck Jen over his shoulder and into the back of his 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale.

As she landed gracefully in the trunk, tan legs tucked neatly in front of her, I thought, “Did Moses write a Ten Commandments for romantic comedies because this scene feels so f-ing cliché.” And it was, as almost every romantic comedy features wacky, unrealistic stunts like this one.

With that said, during my semester off I decided to give myself an assignment: Watch romantic comedies, both old and new, and write a post about 1) romantic comedy clichés and 2) the current state of the romantic comedy.

So, to begin, let’s look at twenty-three clichés I found in most of the thirty-nine movies I watched.

Cliché

Examples

(as seen in the assortment of romantic comedies I’ve seen over the past six months)

Glossy B-roll footage, usually fast-motion shots of bustling city streets, the Brooklyn Bridge, and/or the Statue of Liberty
  • Every freaking romantic comedy ever
Helicopter shots of various city skylines
  • Every freaking romantic comedy ever
One or more characters who live in a fairytale-like apartment but are rarely ever seen working
  • Almost any Jennifer Aniston movie
Male and female hate each other upon first meeting
  • One Fine Day: Struggling parents Melanie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Jack (George Clooney
  • The Proposal: Editor-in-chief Margaret (Sandra Bullock) and her assistant Andrew (Ryan Reynolds)
Clumsy female
Lonely montage
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary: Bridget eats, smokes, and drinks the time away
The good-looking and rich douchebag who comes between the leading couple
  • The Switch: Sperm donor Roland (Patrick Wilson)
Intense emotional scene in the rain between leading couple during the second act turning point
  • The Switch: Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) and Wally (Jason Batemen)
The bitchy female who wants to steal the leading man from the leading lady
  • The Parent Trap: Meredith (Elaine Hendrix)
Cute little kids
  • The Holiday: Sisters Sophie (Miffy Engelfield) and Olivia (Emma Pritchard)
  • Love Actually: Love-stricken Sam (Thomas Sangster)
  • The Switch: Frame-collecting Sebastian (Thomas Robinson)
Guy slinging the girl over his shoulder
  • The Bounty Hunter: Milo (Gerard Butler) throws Nicole (Jennifer Aniston) into the back of a trunk
Slapstick, wacky mishaps
  • Everything in Fool’s Gold, What Happens in Vegas, The Bounty Hunter, and The Proposal
  • …and in every other freaking romantic comedy
Quirky best friend(s)
  • Working Girl: Style icon Cyn (Joan Cusack)
  • Going the Distance: Dan (Charlie Day), who goes Number Two with the door open, and Cougar-chasing Box (Jason Sudeikis)
Female protagonist works in a media-related field
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary: Bridget, a publicist at a book publishing company
  • 13 Going on 30: Jenna (Jennifer Gardner), a big-time magazine editor
Overworked female who needs a break
  • The Holiday: Iris (Kate Winslet), a column editor in London, and Amanda (Cameron Diaz), a Hollywood movie trailer editor
Totally ignoring the logistics of things
  • The Holiday: Again, Iris and Amanda—Why/how did they feel comfortable swapping houses (and leaving a dog) with a stranger they met online?! Why did Iris think Amanda wouldn’t come across her brother while staying in a small town?! How did they have time to pack and clean their houses?!
Makeover montages
  • She’s All That: Laney (Rachel Leigh Cook), paint-stained/overall-wearing artist turned high school hottie
  • Miss Congeniality: Gracie (Sandra Bullock), grungy Special Agent turned sexy Beauty Queen
Singing into random objects
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary: Bridget sings “All By Myself” with a magazine rolled up like a microphone. SEE VIDEO BELOW.
One-night stand turns out to be new boss
  • Working Girl: Strangers-turned-colleagues Tess (Melanie Griffith) and Jack (Harrison Ford)
Elderly people who say/do inappropriate or weird things
  • The Proposal: Grandma Annie (Betty White), who conducts a tribal ritual honoring Mother Earth
Chase scenes to stop someone from going somewhere/doing something
  • Love Actually: Sam chases after Joanna (Olivia Olson) in an airport at the end of the movie
  • When Harry Met Sally: Harry (Billy Crystal) runs to Sally (Meg Ryan) on New Years Eve at the end of the movie
  • (What’s with men—both young and old—chasing women? Why isn’t it the other way around?)
Guy tells girl all the little details he likes about her to win her over
  • Every freaking romantic comedy ever
“It started off as a game, but I swear I actually really like you!”
  • The Switch: Wally swaps Roland’s sperm with his, subsequently impregnating Kassie with his child
  • The Proposal: Margaret and Andrew actually fall in love after Margaret convinces Andrew to marry her in a ploy to avoid deportation to Canada

 

Case Study #23: How many clichés can you spot in the opening credit sequence of Bridget Jones’s Diary?

A Google search for “romantic comedies” will expectedly supply you with website titles like “The Worst Romantic Comedies” or “The Romantic Comedies Your Boyfriend Will Actually Watch With You.” When looking for writing about romantic comedies, I therefore decided to skip this step and hop to my go-to source for all things pop culture, NPR’s Linda Holmes, who unsurprisingly wrote a thorough post last year on the state of the romantic comedy entitled “Don’t Worry: The Romantic Comedy Is Not Dead At The Hands Of Gerard Butler.”

She begins by acknowledging the proliferation of articles stating the romantic comedy is dead, so I’d like to begin by saying I hate the “Romantic comedies are dead” theory. While we’re at it, I also hate the “It used to be good, now it’s bad” line, too. These statements just aren’t entirely true.

For one, they didn’t always used to be good. ‘80s and ‘90s romantic comedies are usually cited in the “used to be good” category, but, um…Two of a Kind. Cough, cough. Two of a Kind. This was the 1983 Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta romantic comedy (five years post-Grease) featuring God, angels, and John proving the goodness of mankind by falling in love with Mrs. Newton-John. It will forever stand as a good example of a classic romantic comedy that is, in short, quite unlife-like. And also really, really bad.

In regards to the notion that romantic comedies are dead, this implies they were once alive. And while this is somewhat true, they’re always going feel somewhat “dead” in the sense that they’re always going to be a bit fundamentally cheesy. That’s just how they work—no GTL, no Jersey Shore; no cheese, no Hollywood rom-com. And we all know why this is.

Fact: Life doesn’t have neat resolutions that always lead to a conveniently happy ending.

Sure, we have happy endings, but as Linda writes, there’s unfortunately a lot of sad stuff (i.e. death, disease, anxiety attacks) that rain down on us unexpectedly. And speaking of rain, as her article also thankfully points out, it’s totally not normal to stand in it while having emotional conversations. Normal people go inside because rain is very cold and dirty and uncomfortable. In any case, sad stuff is the kind of tricky stuff that can’t realistically be made good in ninety minutes.

The “meet-cute” scene also doesn’t help. The meet-cute moment is a genre convention used by writers to generate an artificial situation in which the two romantic leads meet in an unlikely albeit entertaining manner. I think it’s best explained by Arthur Abbott (played by the brilliant Eli Wallach), a veteran Hollywood screenwriter, in The Holiday: “Say a man and a woman both need something to sleep in and both go to the same men’s pajama department. The man says to the salesman Ted, I just need bottoms, and the woman says, I just need a top. They look at each other and that’s the meet-cute.” If only such contrivances were as clean and easy in real life…

(…I’d show up spontaneously at my crush’s college, find him sitting at a table staring aimlessly into the distance with literature scattered around two empty cups of locally made coffee, and sit down in the empty seat across from him and say, “Fear no longer. Love is here.” But in the real life version I ramble on like I am now while he calls the police and runs out the door as I yell, “Get it! Because you’re looking for love!! And I love you!!! So we can love each other!!!!” at which time the wind caused by his speedy escape sends coffee-stained pages showering down on me like rain. See. Rain even litters writing about romantic comedies.)

Good romantic comedies are also hard to come by because, well, good movies in any genre are pretty hard to come by. And as Linda supports, this applies to any era. To me, It Happened One Night is one of a kind. It was special then, and it was still special to me when I watched it last month. Nuance and subtlety make good films like this one great, but they often don’t lend well to glossy romantic comedies. (They do, however, work for less mainstream, darker romance films like this year’s Blue Valentine. Go see it. You may or may not believe in love and marriage when you walk out.) You can’t have a cutesy movie like The Holiday without a script that makes you think, “Real life is so not like this movie.” After all, only a fictional website could provide a cheesy instant messaging system that lets you connect instantly with a stranger who’s conveniently looking last-minute on the same site to swap houses.

In truth, though, straying from an age-old formula is easier said then done. I had to write a paper last year on George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940), which is a good example of a film adhering to the basic structure of the romantic comedy as established in the ‘30s. The formula, with Philadelphia Story as the model, goes something like this: a heterosexual couple desires a change for the better (Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are the newly divorced C.K. Dexter Haven and the wealthy Tracy Lord); the archetypal “Wrong Man” enters the leading lady’s life (George Kittridge woos Tracy); an “Ah-ha” moment occurs (Kittridge reacts affectedly to Tracy’s act of indiscretion on the eve of their wedding as she decides she’s no longer in love with him); and finally the leading man and woman long for things to return to the way they were before (Tracy happily accompanies her true love, Dexter, down the aisle on the day of her and Kittridge’s wedding). And so they lived happily ever after.

But if achieving originality and innovation were easy, don’t you think it would be happening now to quell the anti-rom-com rhetoric? Or maybe we’re just looking at things the wrong way. Maybe there really are solid romantic comedies out there that suffer from an inevitable placement in the “dead” or “bad” category before they’re even given a chance to swim. Case Study #38: Going the Distance. While I could write about some of our beloved romantic comedy clichés, I’d prefer to discuss what made this romantic comedy stand out from our All About Steve and The Switch. For one, it was light on the cutesy moments between Garrett (Justin Long) and Erin (Drew Barrymore) and heavier on the realistic raunchy ones (i.e. sex between the otakus after discovering a mutual nerdy passion with the arcade game Centipede). More important, it delved into the true difficulties of maintaining a physical and emotional relationship while thousands of miles apart (i.e. the trouble with phone sex and thin walls allowing a nearby roommate to participate in said phone sex).

Yes, you’re going to get a When Harry Met Sally that becomes the blueprint for the rom-com of the next decade or two, but there’s something to be said about viewing current romantic comedies like Going the Distance in and of themselves. (I can’t believe I just wrote that. Nothing really exists in and of itself. Work with me here though.)

So what does this mean for the future of the romantic comedy? I want to write a romantic comedy one day, so the takeaway for me is…do the opposite of almost every romantic comedy I watch? I guess this means my story should have a lead male or female that is unattractive the whole movie, without kids and wacky friends/family, and who lives in a random suburb in a mediocre apartment. And who is logical.

Kinda sorta sounds like real life to me.

Herein lies the real message: When Sarah Palin has her own reality show, Democrats and Republicans are struggling to get along, and Justin Bieber continually gets mistaken for a girl, enter The Proposal or Bridget Jones’s Diary to pick you up. Romantic comedies aren’t always going to be a whole lot like real life, but this is precisely why we go see them. With that said, let’s begin by curbing the complaints that romantic comedies are the New Jerseys of movies. (Get it. Like, romantic comedies are trash. Because New Jersey is trash. Yeah you get it.) Just sit back, forget about Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron’s Harry and Sally, and enjoy as your heart gushes and you pine for a love like the one you’re probably paying (way too much) to see. Even though that kind of movie-love may never quite find you like it does up on that screen. Then, with a more open mind, you just might have some room to welcome a good romantic comedy every now and then. Yes, a good one.

My name is Jonathan Hurwitz and I’m here to tell you that they do, in fact, exist.

Sometimes they’re few and far between, but hold on to the good ones and you won’t fail to assemble a pretty nice pile of movies for some go-to Happy. Now I must return to a double feature of Love Actually and It Happened One Night, two of my year-round romantic comedy staples that never fail to make me feel good.

There’s nothing like rediscovering an appreciation for a crying Jude Law whilst picturing what life would be like without him in it.

 

COMING UP NEXT MONTH:

  • (ON TOPIC) “The You-Me-Us Theory – What is it and is it here to stay?”
  • (ON TOPIC) “The Danger of Low Expectations”
  • (SHORT NOTES) “Talking Back”
  • (SHORT NOTES) “Justin Beiber Gets Mistaken For a Girl. Again. And Cries This Time. Like Really F-ing Cries.”

 

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