Romantic Comedy Pitfalls – Recent Films
Some of the most beloved box office hits of all time are of the Boy Meets Girl variety. But great Romantic Comedies seem increasingly hard to come by. They are among the most difficult stories to write. It’s hard to live up to the standards of The Philadelphia Story (Katherine Hepburn & Cary Grant) or more recently, As Good As It Gets (Helen Hunt & Jack Nicholson) or Moonstruck (Cher & Nicolas Cage). NOTE: Download the full Moonstruck script at the end of this post.
The three highest grossing Romantic Comedies in 2009 were The Proposal (Sandra Bullock & Ryan Reynolds) written by Pete Chiarelli, It’s Complicated (Meryl Streep & Alec Baldwin) written by Nancy Meyers, and The Ugly Truth (Katherin Heigl & Gerard Butler) screenplay by Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. Each is a gallant effort. But despite some terrific performances each movie manages to stumble into more than one of the RomCom Pitfalls.
Fundamental RomCom Elements
There are a number of fundamental elements that make successful romantic comedies emotionally appealing. These elements are just as important in a romantic subplot or any other emotional partnership. Here is a look at three of these elements (with more to be discussed at the February 18th workshop):
1. There must be a real “battle” for a “battle of the sexes.”
In classic romantic comedies, the love interests take an instant dislike, have a deep distrust or are separated by major philosophical or personal differences. Love interests should have opposite worldviews and views on what life and love is or should be. They should not agree on anything. Their values should be diametrically opposed. Two of the three 2009 films fumbled this element and one was right on target.
In The Proposal Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) actively dislikes but conscientiously serves his boss Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock). Sandra Bullock barely notices Reynolds except to give him orders. She doesn’t dislike him at all.
In It’s Complicated Jane (Meryl Streep) and Adam (Alec Baldwin) survive a bitter divorce from each other. They are civil in public ten years after their marriage has ended. Most of their hatred is now dissipated.
In The Ugly Truth Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl) is a hard-working “cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i'” TV news producer. Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler) is an impulsive, spontaneous and vulgar TV personality. This film’s characters start out with the most active dislike on both sides.
2. Both love interests must grow or change through their relationship with one another.
Something profound should be missing in each love interest’s life, character and or personality. This missing piece is an important personal deficiency leading to overall unhappiness. The problem isn’t just that the character is missing someone to love. It should be key to his or her difficulties in life.
In contrast to this major deficiency, each character has an abundance of some other over-developed trait. This should be something the other love interest has “to a fault.” One person has too much of one thing and gives a gift of a bit of that quality to the other.
For example: In Moonstruck Cher (Power of Love) is no-nonsense, practical, caring and responsible about all her obligations. This is demonstrated in the opening scenes where she visits her bookkeeping clients. She is so practical she is about to settle for a man she doesn’t love but who is a solid member of the community. During a very unromantic proposal he tells her: “You take care of me.” What she needs is passion, inspiration and the fiery spark of life.
Nickolas Cage (Power of Idealism) has passion and fire to the extreme. He needs someone to provide more of a stable base and an even keel. He needs to let go of his nearly operatic anger and bitterness and move on in his life. The two lovers challenge and learn from each other. Their exchange of gifts makes each a better, more well-rounded and complete person.
In a classic love story two imperfect halves come together to form a more perfect whole. Each character brings something that is vitally necessary to the other’s overall well-being and completeness. That critical exchange of gifts is obtained through clash and conflict with the love interest.
This is where all three of the 2009 romantic comedies fall down. None of the characters experience a full and equal exchange of gifts.
In The Proposal Sandra Bullock’s characte is a frosty Power of Reason character. She is all efficiency, smarts and expertise at what she does. In the first few minutes, we see her working and running on her treadmill like a robot. She is cold, superior, demanding and is without warmth, a personal life or deeper connections with others.
Margaret Tate: What am I allergic to?
Andrew Paxton: Pine nuts, and the full spectrum of human emotion.
Time with Reynolds and his family cracks Bullock’s reserve. She tells him: “I forgot what it’s like to be part of a family.”
Power of Reason characters project an arrogant, hard and distant exterior (or Mask) not because they have no feelings, but because they have too many feelings. They fear that if they don’t keep those feelings buried, they they will be overwhelmed or annihilated by them. (We learn Bullock’s parents were killed in a car crash when she was very young and she never got over the tragedy.)
Power of Reason characters believe they can master and contain their feelings enough to never be overwhelmed or hurt again. Jack Nicolson in As Good As It Gets is another example of this Character Type.
Ryan Reynolds, a Power of Love character, is Bullock’s kind, responsible and very practical assistant, Andrew Paxton. He anticipates her every need and is always at hand to do her bidding. He may have his resentments but he never turns her down or disappoints her. His faithfulness, genuine talent and kindness (along with his love for his wacky family) melts her frozen heart.
What does Bullock give Reynolds in return? Normally, what a Power of Love character needs is the passion and strength to stand up and fight for what he or she wants. Reynolds’ character is already able to stand up to his father. He is strong enough to leave his family behind in Alaska and pursue his dreams in New York on his own. He has no trouble fighting for what he wants. He learns nothing of substance from Bullock. There is no equal exchange of gifts.
In It’s Complicated Meryl Streep is Jane, another Power of Love character. She is warm, kind and caring— a wonderful bountiful cook and a great mom. Alec Baldwin, Adam— the husband she divorced, is a Power of Ambition character. He is driven, vain and self-centered. He dumped her for a gorgeous and much younger trophy wife.
Despite the fun of their romp together neither one learns much from the other. Streep already is a savvy and successful businesswoman. She is fully capable of getting what she wants (exemplified by her very close supervision of her new kitchen addition). Baldwin gets his comeuppance and experiences sharp twinges of regret, but learns nothing from the affair. Steve Martin, Streep’s new love interest, is too bland to either teach or learn much from their affair either.
It’s interesting to note that It’s Complicated had very few lines in the “Memorable Quotes” section for the film on IMDB. It had the least memorable lines of all three films discussed here. I love seeing Meryl Streep on screen, and I thought the film was pleasant and diverting to watch, but it’s simply not a classic of the kind.
In The Ugly Truth Katherine Heigl is Abby Richter, a prim “tick-the-box” and “by-the-numbers” TV producer and person. She does background checks on her dates and has a specific checklist for her ideal mate. She is a tightly-wound, rather judgmental control freak Power of Conscience character. Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story is another uptight example of this Character Type. On television’s Cheers, Shelley Long played this Character Type as Diane Chambers.
Although Heigl’s character is as professional, efficient and hard-working as Bullock’s character, Hiegl (Conscience) is intense, neurotic and desperate-to-be-right whereas Bullock (Reason) is calm, cool and unflappable. Although both are bossy and controlling, passion and intensity is a key difference between a Power of Conscience character and a Power of Reason character.
Mike Chadway: (Love) It’s terrifying. Especially when I’m in love with a psycho like you.
Abby Richter: I am not a psycho!
Mike Chadway: I just told you that I love you and all you heard was “psycho.” You’re the definition of neurotic.
Abby Richter: No! The definition of neurotic is a person who suffers from anxiety, obessive thoughts, compulsive acts, and physical ailments without any objective reason…
Mike Chadway: Shut up! Yet again I told you that I’m in love with you and you’re standing there giving me a vocabulary lesson.
Abby Richter: You’re in love with me. Why?
Mike Chadway: Beats the shit out of me, but I am.
Heigl’s love interest, is Gerard Butler, Power of Will character Mike Chadway. He is a big, bold and a lusty larger-than-life man’s man. He makes no apologies for his appetites. But he is afraid of the vulnerability that comes with true love.
They make a deal: Heigl will producer his show if Butler will help her snag the man of her dreams (the doctor next door). Butler teaches Heigl to relax, be more spontaneous and give in to her sensuous side. He gets her to stop thinking or worrying and start appealing to men’s carnal instincts (and enjoy her own).
Again, the exchange of gifts is very one-sided. Heigl learns something but there is no crucial missing piece she fills in for him. Butler admits he loves Heigl, but why does she and she alone give him the thing (other than love) missing in his life?
In all three 2009 films, nothing profound is missing in BOTH love interests’ lives and personalities. The corny line: “You complete me” in Jerry Maguire is key to making a classic Romantic Comedy work emotionally.
We must see two imperfect halves come together to make a more perfect whole. Each character must exchange a gift vital to the love interest’s overall well-being and happiness (and not just be someone to love).
3. The lovers must choose the soul mate by rejecting the appropriate mate.
In order for a romantic comedy to work the lovers have to overcome obstacles on three levels.
a) The external forces, that keep the lovers apart (i.e. differences in culture, class, status, ethnicity, race, gender, age, religion or social convention).
b) The conflict with others, that keeps the lovers apart.
c) The internal forces, that prevent the lovers from getting together (internal values that make each lover question and reject the initial advances that each receives from the other).
Romantic comedies work best when there is a strong personal impediment posed by a relationship with an appropriate mate. An appropriate mate is a person who, for a variety of external reasons, SHOULD be a perfect match but isn’t.
The appropriate mate is someone who is a good solid match on the outside. He or she is the person the family or the social circle believes is the safe choice. These other relationships are horrified that the lover isn’t being “sensible.”
The soul mate is someone who is wildly inappropriate but who completes the love interest in some vital or fundamental way. He or she challenges the love interest to risk all for love, ignoring or rejecting family, culture, tradition or social convention.
A lover must be prepared to reject and hurt well-meaning friends and family and the socially “appropriate” mate. The more compelling, the appropriate mate is, the more difficult and dangerous it is to choose the soul mate instead.
In Moonstruck, Cher’s appropriate mate is her soul mate’s brother! Her relationship with Cage has the potential to rip the two brothers and the larger family apart. If it wasn’t a comedy, the situation could result in tragedy.
No friend, family member or other significant other objects, fights against or presents any serious obstacle to the lovers in any of the three 2009 Romantic Comedies. None of the films demand enough of the lovers. There is not enough conflict and very little risk involved in any of these pairings.
In The Proposal, Reynolds’ father is against the match but his mother and grandmother seem to accept Bullock with open arms (giving her an heirloom necklace and the grandmother’s wedding dress). Reynold’s appropriate mate, a local school teacher, isn’t a serious option because she won’t leave Alaska. The external threat (the INS) serves more to throw the couple together than to drive them apart.
In It’s Complicated, Streep actually ends up with the appropriate mate. Steve Martin is a nice guy who won’t challenge, change or disappoint her. She ditches the wildly inappropriate and infuriating Baldwin.
In The Ugly Truth, there is very little opposing the match. The appropriate mate (the doctor next door) is a weakly drawn side character who poses no real threat and isn’t compelled to really fight for her.
Falling in love isn’t dangerous for any of the characters in these three 2009 films. We have little emotional investment in these stories because so little hangs in the balance.
Nothing in these pleasant but ultimately unsatisfying pictures delivers the emotional satisfaction of Moonstruck.
To quote Ronny Cammareri, played by Nicolas Cage, and written by John Patrick Shanley: “Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice—it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and DIE. The storybooks are BULLSHIT. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and GET in my bed!”
In the final moments of the scene, Cher holds the most wounded part of Cage, his hand, and he saves her from “freezing to death.” Like in Pretty Woman, “he saves her and she saves him right back.”
Read the whole scene above of Moonstruck by downloading the full script here. (NOTE: This is a earlier draft some which was cut in the film. But the key scenes are there.)