What’s a romantic comedy? Not this.

(500) Days of Summer: a romantic comedy?

My friend recently asked: is (500) Days of Summer a romantic comedy?  I did a spit-take in her face. My lord, woman, no!  Yes, it’s a comedy, and yes, there is some semblance of a romance, but the movie breaks several of what I consider to be all-important rom-com rules:

(1)  Romantic comedies are  a journey of soulmates. Tom and Summer are not soulmates (she can’t seem to stand him), nor do they end up together. (That’s not a spoiler. The movie begins with the narrator declaring “This is not a love story.”)  Even in romantic comedies like Roman Holiday, where the characters can’t spend the rest of their lives together due to circumstances, there is always an implication of 100% commitment to each other despite the fact that they will be apart. “There is always a marriage,” said my night-school screenwriting instructor, “even if that marriage is just figurative. And the more unrealistic it is, the more powerful it will be. Trust me.” 

(2)  Rom-coms idealize love.  (500) Days of Summer, though, is about the harsh reality of  love, and for our deluded hero, the film is a plethora of pain. There’s nothing idealistic about it. The viewer doesn’t sigh happily at the end, but instead wishes she could push Summer’s face into a meat grinder.  (500) Days of Summer is better labeled a dramedy, which combines comedy with serious drama. There is an element of  realism and emotional rawness present in a dramedy that will never be present in the best rom-coms, because that sort of realism is not what  rom-coms are about. Rom-coms are feel-good movies. Always.

Here are a few other rules of rom-com romance: 

(3) Romantic comedies are light-hearted, even in the characters’ most troubling times.  About a Boy is another example of a dramedy. Rotten Tomatoes puts it in their list of top all-time romantic comedies, which is absurd. First, the romance in the story is secondary to Hugh Grant’s developing friendship with the boy he meets and helps. Second, there are serious dramatic points in the film that  plant this movie in the drama category — such as  the intense, realistically portrayed suicide attempt.  

(4) Romantic comedies are not written and directed by Judd Apatow.  Much to my dismay, Apatow’s  Knocked Up has appeared in a number of online top-romantic-comedies lists. It’s a comedy, and it centers around a relationship, but if this is the new definition of “romantic” then end me with a baseball bat.  The element of  romance is key to the definition of a rom-com. A story about a relationship does not automatically make it a romantic film. The nudity, crude language, flatulence, and self-inflicted conjunctivitis which permeates movies like Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are fundamentally UNromantic elements, and puts those movies firmly into the comedy (not rom-com) category. 

(5) The best rom-coms stick to the same formula, but create an original plot: boy/girl meet, boy/girl are pulled apart by unavoidable circumstances (or threatened to be pulled apart), and boy/girl find their way back to each other at the end of the film — even if just emotionally. Critics who don’t understand the genre criticize the formula upon which rom-coms are built.  But it’s the formula that makes the viewer feel safe: we know Harry and Sally end up together in the end, or if the lovers must part we know they are committed to each other forever in their hearts. We are in no danger of heartbreak, so we can just sit back and be entertained by the unfolding of the relationship. As I mentioned earlier, rom-coms are always feel-good movies and the safety and comfort of this pre-determined ending actually adds to the viewer’s enjoyment of the story.

It’s a challenge for a writer to take an old formula and weave a fresh story from it, but the best can always do it.  The great Greek tragedians of classical Athens, for example, took culturally familiar stories with known outcomes (tragic ones at that!) and created fresh work which thrilled their audiences and then lasted throughout time.  In the world of romantic comedies, plenty of writers have failed at the task and given rom-coms a bad name in the process, but when a writer succeeds, the results are brilliant – three of the finest examples being Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally, Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give, and John Patrick Shanley’s Moonstruck.  All of those films were nominated for Oscars or Golden Globe awards in several categories, and this blog celebrates great film love stories like these.

Paula Jane

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6 Comments »

  1. It’s great to finally read about romcoms where I agree – yes, Judd Apatow doesn’t write romcoms, no, dramedys are not romcoms just because they have rom and com.

    There’s something uplifting, fantastical, and ultimately feel-good about romcoms (Ieven saw a list where Eternal Sunshine was included – that film was not a rom com.

    I am finding pickings are getting slimmer these days as there’s just a cynical, pre-packaged edge to many so-called romcoms. Always on the lookout for something I can watch and rewatch again.

  2. S.S.Sassy said

    Hello Paula Jane,

    Wondering if you know of any decent Rom-Coms specifically for young teenage girls?

    Sassy
    PS: Looking forward to your next review!

    • Paula Jane said

      Hi, Sassy!

      Right off the bat, I would recommend “Enchanted.” Even if the young teenage girls aren’t girly princessy types, this is very clever and funny and hard not to like. My daughter has watched it many times with me. Another movie I would recommend for a young teenage girl is the 1998 version of “The Parent Trap” starring little sweet Lindsay Lohan. The movie would probably be listed more on the comedy side, but there is a very definite romantic comedy element between Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson that I love. This is one of my favourite movies to watch with my daughter also! (And, Sassy, did you know that it’s directed by our absolute favourite Nancy Meyers?)

      Paula

  3. Funbobby said

    Hey PJ,

    I just wanted to drop a note to let you know I was here poking around. You have already listed the RC of RC’s with When Harry Met Sally. I have a soft spot for Ever After. Am I the only one that likes this movie? I am a Drew fan so Never Been Kissed and 50 First Dates are up there also. It shouldn’t take you long to fill up some space here. There are tons of good ones to write about!

  4. S.S.Sassy said

    Funny, imaginative, articulate Paula Jane …

    I have been all over this blog and love it! I am a rom-com nut … a die-hard romantic … one craving a gut-wrenching laugh –and cry, while experiencing the joys and tragedies of the big screen’s heroines.

    I am wondering if you have any comment about “Leap Year”? Aside from the shocking (yet laughable) – shameless display of senior citizens necking across the diner table, I quite enjoyed every moment of the film.

    I believe I enjoy Nancy Meyers’ work most! When I see her name, I run to the screen. I love her sophisticated humour and story lines. I agree with you – she does indeed take me places I dream of…the big beautiful houses, laughter, diner parties with pasta in beautiful dinerware, fun atmospheres, farmers’ markets ….sigh…. .

    I look forward to more reviews and follow up specialties!

    • Paula Jane said

      Ahoy, S.S.Sassy! Thank you for the kind words. I liked “Leap Year” too and I am going to do a little write up on it soon. I’ll time it with its DVD release which is May 4. As for Nancy Meyers, she’s brilliant. Yes–the houses, the dinner parties, the markets, the Keanu Reeves. She gives it all to us! : )

      If you have any other rom-com favourites you think I might like, don’t be shy to make a suggestion or two. Next up for me on the blog will be “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

      Paula Jane

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