Romantic comedies did not always, well, suck. Some of the most beloved directors in American cinema made their reputations on them: Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Woody Allen, Cameron Crowe. And it really is possible to combine romance and comedy, as The Lady Eve (1941), Annie Hall (1977), and Tootsie (1982) all attest. But 2001’s top-grossing romantic comedies were The Wedding Planner, Someone Like You, Serendipity, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and What Women Want (released in late 2000). In other words: The genre’s in woeful shape.
Things are so bad that romantic comedies are now making jokes about their own lameness. In Kate & Leopold, this holiday season’s showcase for Meg Ryan’s preciousness, she’s Kate McKay, marketing whiz, and Hugh Jackman is Leopold, an oddly dressed fellow whose impeccable manners and excellent taste mean he must be from another century. We meet Kate at the end of a test screening of a typical romantic comedy, Love for Sale: the protagonists playfully kissing in a park at sunset, with insipid lite rock swelling over the scene (Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last”). The audience loves it, even when the director fumes that this process is “sucking the life out of American cinema.”
Sorry, Mr. Director, but test audiences aren’t the ones to blame: They don’t make the movies, they just watch ‘em. It’s your job to fix them. And as a devoted fan of the genre, I have a few small requests for you.
1. No more Sleepless in Seattle rip-offs. The way to build romantic tension is not to show us two characters who don’t really know anything about each other. The latest offender in this category is Serendipity, in which Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack meet cute at a glove counter and, rather than exchanging phone numbers, subject themselves, their friends, and the audience to a series of unholy coincidences and near-misses before reuniting even cuter. To be sure, the hardest part of writing romcom is coming up with a plausible obstacle—something to keep your lovers apart for 90 minutes before you bring them together in the final 15. But the Sleepless/Serendipity approach inevitably creates gaping plot holes and deprives the audience of the pleasure of actually seeing people fall in love or at least have amusing arguments.
2. Smart and capable is sexy.
Only in the movies do the high-strung and the hapless find mates so fast. These heroes (to use the term loosely) undermine themselves by being neurotic or clumsy or just plain stupid. This is painful, not funny, to watch. Bridget Jones’s Diary is a series of Bridget’s humiliating pratfalls and faux pas, usually in front of one of her two suitors: posh cad Hugh Grant (playing against his usual type) or arrogant yet sensitive Colin Firth. Grant became a romcom star in part because he could stutter convincingly, fumbling his encounters with Andie MacDowell and Julia Roberts.
3. Make the men less repulsive.
Someone Like You portrays a workplace love triangle in which Ashley Judd is seduced by Greg Kinnear’s questionable charms before realizing sleazy roommate Hugh Jackman is actually the one for her. There’s also a running comparison between the mating habits of men and cows, but the less said about that the better. America’s Sweethearts, billed as an updated screwball romantic comedy, asks the audience to believe that Julia Roberts (fat suit or not) is pining away for John Cusack, when his character has nothing tangible or otherwise to offer besides the somewhat kinky fact that he was once married to her prettier sister.
4. Romance isn’t everything.
The classic romantic comedy formula is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. But most romcoms concentrate so breathlessly on the love dance that they never establish their leads as anything more than besotted nincompoops. But life, alas, does not stop because love comes to town. In contrast, the year’s two best romantic comedies were career stories as well as love stories. Amélie, which introduces the lovely Audrey Tatou, is just as much about the title character’s transformation from a shy misfit to a certified do-gooder as it is about her romance with dreamy fellow loner Nino. The film lets its lovers find each other in their own circuitous way. Legally Blonde, wherein Elle Woods metamorphoses from a SoCal sorority princess to a slightly more serious Harvard Law School princess, fits into the same category.
5. Support your supporting characters.
As a rule, the better your supporting characters, the better your romcom (think Tony Roberts in Annie Hall and Play It Again, Sam, Kristen Scott Thomas in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Bonnie Hunt in Jerry Maguire, Thelma Ritter and William Demerest in just about anything). As Elle Woods, Reese Witherspoon invokes a classic smart-dumb blonde in the spirit of Judy Holliday, but much of the comedy in Blonde should be credited to the sharp supporting characters (especially her forlorn manicurist, Jennifer Coolidge). A true ensemble model means doing away with the “one friend” rule: You know, where every character has a less attractive but funnier person s/he can confide in about the travails of romance. This old saw is used most egregiously in Serendipity, where two personable if frumpy actors, Molly Shannon and Jeremy Piven, are forced to remain in the shadows cast by the hateful Cusack (where is the boy who held up the boom box in front of Ione Skye’s window?) and insipid yet comely Kate Beckinsale. More characters means more comedy—and it might help elevate some of these character actors to leads. Next Christmas, please give Molly Shannon a decent wardrobe and a romantic comedy of her very own.