Romantic comedies have certainly evolved over the course of the genre’s existence. What was once defined by the likes of It Happened One Night, The Apartment and Bringing Up Baby has transitioned into movies such as Knocked Up, (500) Days of Summer, and Silver Linings Playbook.
One constant for the genre is that studios have tried to find ways to eliminate the “chick-flick” label and bring all audiences into the fold. While sex jokes, nudity and cameos all made their way into the most popular films of the genre, none of those have been the lone factor for their success. Those most successful at appealing to both sexes have been those that focus on the relationships rather than a single character’s journey.
Sleeping with Other People, which opens this week (Sept. 11), is the latest romantic comedy that, based on the trailer, takes on this inenviable task. Whether the movie starring Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis succeeds remains to be seen. But if it follows the paths set by some of the films listed below, then the genre will continue to move in the right direction. To successfully attract both men and women, these movies have to meet the below specific criteria:
1) The relationship(s) has to be the center of the story. I love Jerry Maguire but like Summer, it’s about Jerry’s (Tom Cruise) rebirth. His relationship with Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) is a part of that, but his changing the way he conducts his work is as much a part of that, if not greater. There can be other plotlines for both of the characters — usually involving their careers — but they can’t be more than a B-Plot.
2) The main couples both need a distinct arc that involves the way they experience romantic relationships. There’s a place for movies that focus specifically on one character or the other, but the best of the genre have character arcs for both participants. (500) Days of Summer may be one of the best romantic comedies in recent history, but the story focuses almost entirely on Tom’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) journey. Of course, the movie can use one character to start the story, but there needs to be scenes where each person is seen separately, outside of the relationship.
3) If there are multiple relationships in the film, they have to highlight a different aspect or phase of relationships. When the main couple’s friends get together, it doesn’t add anything to the story if the primary relationship is in the same phase. See the recent No Strings Attached — which has plenty of other problems — as a prime example of this.
Here are three romantic comedies that spring to mind which meet this criteria and, coincidentally, are widely appreciated by audiences from all walks of life.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
This is the one that started the “typical” romantic comedies we think of today. Before Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) met Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) for a post-college drive from Chicago to New York, the romantic comedies usually fell into what we now refer to as “screwball comedies” or comedies of errors, including My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, and His Girl Friday.
When Harry Met Sally is an excellent example of focusing on the couple rather than one character, thanks to director Rob Reiner collaborating with writer Nora Ephron to shape the two characters. Furthermore, the movie incorporates a “B-plot” that would be used as an “A-plot” today in the relationship between Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher). Granted, they don’t meet until halfway through the film, but they’re the only ones we see move in together and marry.
While this started many of the clichés we groan at today (i.e., running after someone for a big speech; two people who despise each other upon meeting, only to fall in love; phone call scenes; quirky best friends and “game nights” gone bad), the film was one of those that established them first and, more importantly, did them right.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
This adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew is part of the high-concept teen romantic comedies of the 90s. They often involved makeovers, deals, bets or some challenge of the high school caste system. 10 Things I Hate About You has those elements, but it also falls well into the aforementioned criteria.
The movie is definitely about “new love” amongst high schoolers, including sisters Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) and Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) and their suitors (Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Andrew Keegan) which is primarily the emotion of high school. Each couple’s story is different though, with Kat and Patrick’s (Ledger) relationship appearing deeper than Bianca and Cameron’s, giving them the same sense of variety as those in When Harry Met Sally. Amidst the relationships, each character learns to incorporate the other’s personality to grow, trying different personalities the same way they try different clothes.
Knocked Up (2007)
Romantic comedies are often accused of simply adding sex jokes to bring in a male audience or adding romantic plotlines to a sex comedy to bring in the girlfriends. Knocked Up can’t be pinned down to either category, which speaks to the intricacy in making a movie that appeals to both audiences. More than that, the movie hits all of the points seen in the other films listed here.
The main characters, Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), each go through their own evolution. Ben sheds his adolescent behavior, while Alison reacts and adapts to her life plans. They each have their own character-defining scenes, notably in separate interactions with Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann).
Finally, the movie is very much about Ben and Alison’s relationship. Yes, it’s driven by an unexpected pregnancy, but that is really just the throughline, used as a reason to keep the pair together in good and bad situations. The relationship between Pete and Debbie, which serves as a cautionary tale for the main couple, is simply icing on the cake.
There you have it. These aren’t the only three films that meet the above criteria — the underrated Going the Distance comes to mind — but don’t aren’t necessarily great. Excellent films like Annie Hall or (500) Days of Summer are outstanding but fail to meet these criteria, thus eliminating them from contention. As of writing this, I have yet to see Sleeping with Other People so whether or not it fulfills such requirements remains to be seen. But if it does and the jokes land, as well as the insights, the movie will join a sub-group of a crowded, but select genre that many love.