Why is it so hard to make a good romantic comedy?
Great romantic comedies are an endangered species. It’s not often we get a gift like Harry meeting Sally — or Alvy Singer meeting Annie Hall. It’s not often that Julia Roberts stands in front of a boy, asking him to love her — or that Sandra Bullock kneels in front of Ryan Reynolds on the sidewalk. Most romantic comedies are clichéd, contrived, and an insult to love. ”Making a good romantic comedy is no harder than making a good drama or crime story or musical or Western,” Woody Allen insists, via email from a set in Rome. ”It’s hard to make a good picture, is the problem — and that’s why there are only a few really good pictures in any genre.” Maybe so, but bad rom-coms are particularly painful to behold because relationships are the one subject everyone knows something about. ”The romantic comedy is like a soufflé,” says Denise Di Novi, producer of the invigoratingly good new movie Crazy, Stupid, Love. ”They can just drop in one second if even one thing is wrong.” There are six big stumbling blocks to baking a great soufflé.
1. Chemistry can’t be faked.
No matter how sublime the script, a romantic comedy is never going to succeed if there isn’t palpable energy between its stars. ”It’s the one special effect you can get into a romantic comedy — that wow factor when two people are so good together that you believe it,” says Peter Chiarelli, who wrote The Proposal. But predicting who’ll have chemistry on screen is notoriously difficult. Which is why we’ve all witnessed the stupefying sight of two gorgeous leads whose romantic electricity could not power an Easy-Bake Oven. Who could have guessed, 10 years ago, that Jennifer Lopez would have chemistry with Ralph Fiennes (Maid in Manhattan) but not with her actual boyfriend at the time, Ben Affleck (Gigli)? If the same stars appear in all your favorite rom-coms — say, Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts — there’s a good reason. ”There are some actors that have chemistry with anybody,” says Di Novi. She cites Crazy, Stupid, Love‘s Emma Stone, and we’ll let her because we agree: ”She’s just one of those people. They just vibrate on a different RPM level. She’d have chemistry with a lamppost.” That will come in handy, because Hollywood is full of lampposts.
2. Men don’t want to star in romantic comedies — or go see them.
You know how a lot of men think rom-coms are ”chick flicks”? Well, actors are men. They don’t want to be stigmatized as a Romantic Comedy Guy — a label Hugh Grant has never really overcome — and they’ve also got power issues. ”When the movie stars a woman and the guy’s role is the supporting one, you’re probably not going to get the biggest actor around to do it,” says writer-director Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give). ”They’re not going to want to be a supporting character to a female lead. But you can often get really terrific women to be supporting characters in a movie with a male lead.” Then there’s the question of getting male audiences to see romantic comedies — which is crucial because studios aren’t fond of throwing money at movies with limited appeal. Judd Apatow has drawn men to theaters in hordes simply by dressing up movies like Knocked Up, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and even Bridesmaids in raunchy, buddy-picture clothing. ”Fundamentally, they’re romantic comedies,” says producer Andrew Kosove, cofounder of Alcon Entertainment (Something Borrowed, The Blind Side). ”But the concepts are very male-appropriate.” Di Novi ruefully agrees: ”If it’s seen as a guys’ movie, it takes the sting off.”
3. Hollywood romances often struggle overseas, so studios can be skittish about investing in them.
Romantic comedies ”tend to be very culturally specific, and a lot of them don’t travel well internationally,” says Kosove. Especially if they’ve got titles like Sweet Home Alabama and America’s Sweethearts. That means a lot of Hollywood rom-coms don’t have a chance of catching on in foreign markets, the way action, science fiction, and mysteries often do. This limits the resources studios are willing to sink into them — which can, in turn, make them bad. ”If you look overseas in Italy or France or Germany,” says Kosove, ”many of the successful ones are local-language products that push the American romantic comedies aside.”
4. Studios dumb everything down.
As with all genres, Hollywood looks for the lowest common denominator in an effort to hook the largest possible audience. ”If you are a writer and you are given a romantic-comedy script to rewrite, you almost always have to work from the first draft rather than the second draft, because the studio notes have made whatever it was worse,” says writer-director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail).
One device that studios particularly love is the Big Misunderstanding — you know, the one that tears a couple apart for the sole purpose of a ”dramatic” final act in which the guy chases after the gal at the airport so he can explain that it’s all been…a Big Misunderstanding. ”People tend to be really lazy when they make romantic comedies,” says Nicholas Stoller, director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the upcoming Five-Year Engagement. ”You can’t just rely on running to the airport, which is basically what all romantic comedies rely on for their final sequence.”
But studios are addicted to dumb misunderstandings because they can be resolved easily — and just in time for the happy ending. ”It’s hard because romantic comedies are by definition clichéd,” says director Will Gluck (Friends With Benefits). ”You know what’s going to happen, so you can’t rely on the plot to drive the movie. So you have one gigantic arrow in your quiver that you can’t use. You have to rely on the other things — the casting, the chemistry, the comedy, the tone. You can never rely on that Inception moment: dun-dun-DUNH! ‘Oh my God, I didn’t see that one coming!”’
Actors and directors are as bored by clichés as you are. As Drew Barrymore puts it, ”I’m sick of that whole thing where I pretend [to be something I’m not], and then, oh my God, I’ll show up in the last scene and tell the truth.”
5. Filmmakers are afraid to get personal.
Rather than build genuine, real-life clashes into their movies, some filmmakers resort to harebrained contrivances. How do you find something authentic? Borrow from your own life. (500) Days of Summer includes the prologue ”Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you Jenny Beckman. Bitch.” Coscreenwriter Scott Neustadter later revealed it was based on a real relationship of his.
Want more evidence? Okay, what’s the most memorable scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall? It’s the one in which Jason Segel gets dumped while nude so that it isn’t just his broken heart that’s on display. Director Stoller points out that the humiliating (and hilarious) moment was ripped straight from the actor’s real life. ”The more specific you get, the more universal it becomes,” he says. ”And the more specific it is, the funnier it is.” Stoller adds that many cherished romantic comedies have been autobiographical to some degree, using the director, star, and writer of When Harry Met Sally… as a case study: ”Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal, and Nora Ephron all talked about their relationships ad nauseam as they were developing the film. It’s unique because these brilliant people put personal stories into it. I’m sure the same thing is true of Annie Hall and Woody Allen.”
Barrymore says she’s drawn to romantic comedies that grapple with questions that are relevant to both her audience’s lives and her own. Questions like ”How does love function in a long-distance relationship?” (Going the Distance) and ”How do you make someone fall in love with you every day?” (50 First Dates). She’s currently directing How to Be Single. ”I was single for a year and a half, and I was genuinely thinking, ‘How do I not miss out on this time? How do I enjoy it? Why do we consider this time a malady as opposed to the best time of our lives?’ ” Unfortunately, most filmmakers aren’t digging for gold, just Fool’s Gold.
6. Women love a good fantasy — but don’t want to be treated like idiots.
In Friends With Benefits, Mila Kunis’ lovelorn character and a friend walk past a poster for The Ugly Truth. ”I’ve got to stop buying into this Hollywood cliché of true love,” Kunis says, slapping the poster angrily. ”Shut up, Katherine Heigl, you stupid liar!”
It’s a fair point. If you watch enough rom-coms, you might start to believe that no matter what’s wrong with your life, there’s a guy who can kiss your problems away — and that it may just be that self-involved jerk you’re pretty sure you hate. ”I think women kind of resent being sold the bill of goods that your life can be perfect, you just need to find your soul mate,” says producer Di Novi. ”A lot of suffering has come from that.” At least one veteran screenwriter agrees: ”Part of me never wants to do another romantic comedy because I feel like it’s feeding this sick fantasy to people. It can be really destructive.”
The great romantic comedies are cherished not just because the world is awash in so many uninspiring, generic ones — who can remember anything at all about Rumor Has It? — but because they teach us something about a subject we all think we’re experts on. ”Everybody has fallen in love or had some kind of heartbreak. Not everyone has a story that’s like an action movie. I like writing romantic comedies because I can relate to them,” says Nancy Meyers. ”These are our stories.”
And just because love stinks sometimes doesn’t mean that movies have to.