Posts Tagged ‘romantic comedy’


The Rom-Com Test

As you may have noticed or guessed, I’m a big fan of romantic comedies, though mostly in movies. I’m a bit pickier in books because I like the way movies do romance and am less fond of the conventions of American romance novels. I tend to prefer what was called “chick lit” back in the day, which is more like rom-com movies than like romance novels, and I like the British rom-com books, which are more chick lit/women’s fiction.

As for whether or not I like a rom-com, book or movie, I have a very simple test: Is it funny, and is it romantic?

Comedy is a fairly personal thing. What’s funny to one person may not be funny to another, and that’s why comedy is so hard and why just about every designated “romantic comedy” line Harlequin tried to start failed. If you promote something as funny and the audience doesn’t find it amusing, the audience sees it as a failure, even if they otherwise enjoyed it. I personally am not fond of humiliation humor, where most of the humor comes from the characters having bad things happen to them — the slipping on the banana peel sort of thing. A character who bumps into things a lot is not funny to me, unless there’s something else going on. I’m also not fond of the related category, what I think of as idiot humor — situations that arise out of a character doing things that anyone with two functioning brain cells would know not to do. One of the main reason I turn off a Christmas rom-com within the first ten minutes is the now-standard scene of the city girl arriving in the small town/rural area and doing a lot of falling down because she’s teetering around on stiletto heels in snow and ice. They have ice and snow in cities, too, and even city people would know that walking on ice in stiletto heels is a bad idea. Maybe someone who’s always lived in LA seeing snow for the first time wouldn’t know better, but I’ve generally found that people going to northern places for the first time are more likely to go overboard with the cold-weather gear. That would be the person who shows up in newly-purchased snow boots while the locals are in sneakers or even flip-flops (because it isn’t “real” snow until it’s up to your knees).

But where romantic comedy stories are more likely to fail for me is in the romance part. I break that down into a couple of tests.

1) Is there any reason why these people might actually like each other, aside from physical attractiveness?
Screenwriting guru Michael Hauge calls this “I love you because we’re in this movie together.” This tends to happen when the writers are so focused on the conflict keeping the couple apart until the happy ending that they forget to establish why they would even want to overcome that conflict. It’s like the story brainstorming is all about how much this couple thrown together in a wacky situation hates each other or how much the couple has to overcome to be together, and they totally forget the part about why they would want to be together. What do they see in each other? Do they have anything in common? What will they talk about and do after they get together? Can you imagine this relationship lasting?

Sometimes there’s outright animosity, where they’re jerks to each other. That’s my problem with the movie Leap Year. It almost squeaks by on an outstanding cast and pretty scenery, but I’m still baffled that this screenplay ever sold because on paper these are horrible, idiotic people who are terrible to each other, sometimes for no good reason, and often in ways that actually hurt themselves. They’re instantly at odds because the script says they have to be (plus a lot of idiot and humiliation humor). The actors manage to sell them falling for each other, but we never really know why they’re falling in love. We don’t know what they have in common, what they would talk about, what they want out of life. They mostly fall in love because they’re the main characters in a rom-com who look like Matthew Goode and Amy Adams.

Not to keep harping on Four Weddings and a Funeral, but the only thing that keeps the main romance there going is the fact that she’s alluring and elusive. For most of the movie he can’t have her (though he kind of does, anyway) because she’s getting married to someone else. Her taste seems to be very different from his. What would they talk about? What would they do outside the bedroom? Would she be that appealing to him if he saw her all the time and there was nothing stopping him from being with her?

Or most of the couples in Love Actually. Aside from the movie stand-ins, who have real conversations and get to know each other, it’s actually a plot point for most of them that they haven’t actually ever talked to each other. Some of them go to extremes to be able to be with this other person they’ve never really talked to and know almost nothing about.

Now I’m trying to think of favorite movies that actually pass this test, and it’s hard. The best I can generally come up with is movies in which the characters seem to get each other, they encourage each other, and make each other laugh. I guess it’s hard to show common interests or what they’d talk about when they’re not in the wacky situation that gives them conflict. I might not like the ending, but I guess Notting Hill works here, where we see their conversations while she’s hiding out at his place, and it’s like getting a glimpse into what their life together might be like. The couple in While You Were Sleeping is mostly having “getting to know you” conversations, but they support each other’s dreams. She urges him to take his furniture-making business full-time and he gives her the snowglobe of Florence to encourage her to finally take that trip and get a stamp in her passport.

As much as I love When Harry Met Sally, I have to admit that I have a hard time imagining that relationship working. It’s mostly about them being total opposites. They’re hanging out because they run into each other again at a time when they’re both at loose ends after ending relationships and they can commiserate. Most of their conversations are about their past relationships and their dating woes. I don’t know what they’d talk about after they’re married, but they do at least make each other laugh and enjoy spending time together.

2) Do I actually want them to end up together?
This one is as personal as what a person considers funny. Sometimes I can see that there’s a reason for the couple to fall in love, and yet I’m still not sure they’re good for each other. That’s where I am on Notting Hill. I can see why they fall for each other, but I’m not sure I like them together, especially given the way the story is resolved. The relationship is too unbalanced and that’s never fixed. I’m not all that sure why he’s into her other than the fact that she’s a beautiful, wealthy movie star. If a more “ordinary” woman treated him the way she does I’m not sure he’d be interested, even if she made him laugh and they both enjoyed secret gardens. And if she weren’t a movie star who enjoys feeling “normal,” would she be into him? But I guess since this is the situation, it does seem to work. I’m just not totally happy with the resolution.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is a lot of fun (both book and movie), but I’m not super keen on the relationship. Bridget and Mark end up together because it’s a rewrite of Pride and Prejudice and that couple ended up together, but Bridget is no Lizzie. She’s kind of an idiot. She’s rather shallow and uninformed, in spite of working in news (not entirely unrealistic — I had to explain the issues around a situation to a TV reporter when I was a college student intern at a TV station) while he’s very keen on global affairs. There’s something a little patronizing about his attraction to her, kind of an “aren’t you adorable, bless your little heart” attitude. Not that I blame him, but I don’t imagine a lot of success for a relationship that’s essentially got a parent/child (or pet owner/goofball cat) dynamic.

One movie that worked out romantically exactly the way I wanted it to was Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The couple in While You Were Sleeping seems good (though I’d have preferred them not to jump so quickly to marriage).

I need to give my collection another look to see what other films pass my test. There are plenty that are “almosts” but that I still enjoy for other reasons. I think this may be why I’m not super keen on plain romance. If that’s all that’s going on in a book or movie, odds are that I won’t want the couple to get together or don’t like the relationship, and then there’s nothing for me to like. At least in a good comedy I can find it amusing, even if I don’t like the romance part. In a fantasy, mystery, or other crossover there’s a plot and setting that I like, aside from the relationship. In women’s fiction or chick lit, there’s usually some kind of community-building and/or a “get your act together” plot, with the relationship being secondary. In general, I prefer romance as a seasoning/side dish rather than as the main part of the main course.


Infatuation vs. Love

While I was binging romantic comedies in the week after Christmas, I revisited an old favorite, While You Were Sleeping. I hadn’t seen it in ages, and it was particularly interesting right after watching Four Weddings and a Funeral, since it was basically a rebuttal to the kind of relationships Four Weddings depicts. In fact, the whole movie is essentially an exploration of infatuation vs. love.

There will be spoilers, since it’s hard to discuss what makes the story work without giving away some of the twists, and I also want to discuss something that comes up at the end. The movie is currently on Disney+ if you haven’t seen it, and I do recommend it as one of the great rom-coms.

First, a quick summary: Lucy (a very young Sandra Bullock) works at an El station in Chicago and falls in love with Peter (Peter Gallagher), a handsome man she sees every day at the station. On Christmas morning, he gets mugged at the station. She manages to chase away the muggers, but Peter is injured and knocked onto the tracks. She saves him before he’s hit by a train, but he’s unconscious. When she follows the ambulance to the hospital and sighs, “I was going to marry him,” as he’s taken into the emergency room, a nurse gets the wrong idea and introduces Lucy to Peter’s family as his fiancee when they arrive. In all the chaos, she never manages to correct the misunderstanding, then when they invite her to their Christmas dinner, she’s so lonely and depressed that she can’t resist. But then Peter’s younger brother Jack (Bill Pullman) is suspicious because Lucy is not Peter’s type. While Peter’s in a coma, Jack sets out to figure out what’s going on with Lucy, which means spending time together and getting to know each other. That leads to them falling in love, but he thinks she’s engaged to his brother, and she’s afraid if she confesses the truth she’ll lose him and his family. Things get even more complicated when Peter comes out of the coma.

Lucy’s feelings for Peter are pretty much like all the relationships in Four Weddings. She sees him, likes the looks of him, and she considers that to be love. She knows absolutely nothing about him other than that he’s attractive, has a nice smile, and she notices he sometimes gives up his seat on the train. She’s never spoken to him at all. As the movie progresses, we see that Peter would be all wrong for her. She loves his big, loving Irish Catholic family, but he seems to have distanced himself enough from them that they’re not too surprised to learn he was engaged and they didn’t know (and they don’t know about the woman he’s actually engaged to). Lucy is warm and down-to-earth and Peter is cool and superficial. She loves the wooden furniture Jack makes, but Peter’s apartment is all glass and chrome. Late in the movie, we learn that even his slick nice-guy facade is a lie. He’s actually kind of a sleazy jerk, so not only is she wrong to think she’s in love with him, but she’s wrong about the kind of person she thinks he must be. She wouldn’t have been interested in him if she’d actually known him.

In contrast, her relationship with Jack looks more like the foundation for something that could be real love. They have long conversations in which they discuss their backgrounds and families, their current lives, and their hopes, dreams, and plans. They have similar values. They make each other laugh. She meets his family, with whom he’s close, and fits in well with them. They encourage each other to follow their dreams and do the things they’ve always wanted to do. I still think it’s early to consider it love, since they don’t even know each other for two weeks during the course of the movie, but in rom-com time, that’s practically an eternity.

What I find interesting is that the movie never actually comes out and specifically addresses this thesis. It’s all show vs. tell, strictly showing and never telling. The audience sees the interactions between Lucy and Jack and later between Lucy and Peter and we learn about Peter and how wrong about him she was because she knew nothing about him. But no one ever says, “I guess that was just infatuation but this is real love.”

The other thing that’s an interesting contrast to Four Weddings and even more so to Love Actually is the way they deal with falling in love with a person who’s in a committed relationship. Movies so often have this attitude that every thought or feeling must be expressed, so if you’re in love with someone, you have to tell them, even if they’re engaged or even married, or else you’ll regret it. Showing up at someone’s wedding to tell them you love them is perfectly okay — and screenwriters seem to have taken that as the ultimate ticking clock and raised stakes. I think this is terrible. Someone who would dump someone else just because you expressed your interest has all kinds of red flags. If you’re in a relationship and you’d leave that person if you found out that another person was interested and available, then you’re not very committed to the relationship you’re in. A person should stay in or leave a relationship on the merits of that relationship/person, not because of whether or not another person they might like better becomes available.

Besides, it’s a real jerk move to put the moves on someone who’s involved with someone else, especially if they’re involved with your friend or family member. This was something that came up in the Cinema Therapy episode about Love Actually, in which the marriage therapist mentioned that the guy who showed up with the signs to tell his best friend’s wife that he loves her because you’re supposed to tell the truth at Christmas was putting the wife in a terrible position. If she tells her husband about this, then she’s going to put a rift between him and his best friend, but if she doesn’t tell, then it puts a rift between her and her husband because she’s hiding something from him, and if the truth ever comes out then he has reason to feel somewhat betrayed, since he’ll likely have been hanging out with his wife and friend, not knowing that his friend has feelings for his wife that she’s aware of.

In While You Were Sleeping, this kind of situation comes up, and he doesn’t tell her how he feels. Peter comes out of his coma and doesn’t remember being engaged to Lucy, though she is familiar to him, so he thinks he has amnesia. The family friend who knows the truth about Lucy but doesn’t know about Jack and Lucy gets the idea to resolve everything by convincing Peter to propose to Lucy “all over again” and marry her. On the eve of the wedding, Jack asks Lucy if she’s really going to go through with it, and she asks him if there’s a reason she shouldn’t. Clearly, she wants him to tell her not to marry his brother because he loves her, but he doesn’t say anything, leaving her hurt and thinking he doesn’t want her. But, really, that’s a copout on her part. She wants an excuse not to have to marry Peter, but it’s up to her to make that decision based on how she feels about Peter. She shouldn’t be factoring in whether or not Jack wants her. Since by this time Jack has come to believe Peter and Lucy really were engaged, he’d be a jerk to tell her not to marry his brother. And what does happen is that Lucy decides during the ceremony that she can’t go through with it and confesses all. Only then can she have a real relationship with Jack.

One thing I’ve always been impressed by with this movie is the way they make a fairly outrageous situation work. A general writing rule is that the more extreme an action you want a character to take, the stronger the motivation must be. You have to get the audience to the point of thinking they’d do the same thing in similar circumstances, or at least that they understand why the character did that thing. Pretending to be engaged to a total stranger in a coma is a pretty extreme action, and I think they do a good job of setting it up. It helps that the deception isn’t her idea. It’s a misunderstanding rather than a deliberate lie, and she does try to correct it, but no one listens to her, and then she quits trying to say anything when the grandmother has a heart episode. She’s planning to just slip away after leaving the hospital and not further the deception, but she’s so incredibly lonely, having recently lost her father and having no other family, that she can’t resist the thought of being part of a family Christmas. She’s not continuing the deception for any kind of gain. She just doesn’t want to be alone at Christmas, and she’s never had this kind of big family celebration. There’s a shot of her wistfully watching the family interact that totally sells it (and there’s definitely some future Oscar winner potential there — just thinking about the look on her face brings tears to my eyes). The neighbor/godfather/family friend knows about the deception, lets her know he knows, but endorses it as long as she doesn’t take advantage of the family. And it helps that Lucy is played by Sandra Bullock, in full “girl next door” mode, so you can’t help but like her and feel for her.

While You Were Sleeping passes my rom-com tests in that it has some genuinely funny moments and I actually like the couple and think they might be able to make it work. You can see why they like each other. You’d think that would be a bare minimum for a romantic comedy, but it’s surprising how many don’t meet this very low bar. More on that in the next post.


Sticking the Landing, Part 2

In my previous post, I discussed my issues with Four Weddings and a Funeral. Because I was in the mood for that sort of thing and curious about some patterns I was noticing, I rewatched Notting Hill, by the same screenwriter and with the same leading man. In case you’re not familiar with all the late 90s romantic comedies, that’s the one in which Hugh Grant plays a bookstore owner whose life gets turned upside down when Hollywood’s hottest star (Julia Roberts) comes into his bookstore.

I don’t remember whether or not I saw this one at the theater. I have no specific memory of the event of seeing it in a theater, though it’s the sort of thing I would have gone to a theater to see. The time I do remember seeing it was on an airplane. I was on a business trip to Washington, D.C. (a trip full of stories that I won’t get into here), and as soon as the plane for the return trip pushed away from the gate at the airport, the FAA shut down everything because of bad storms, so we sat on the tarmac to wait out the storm. They passed out food and headsets and started showing movies. This was before you got to choose from an entertainment menu. You watched what they showed you, and this was the first movie up.

For the most part, it corrects a lot of the issues with Four Weddings (which is why it’s so odd that the writer went right back to shallow and superficial in Love Actually a few years later). You can actually see why these people might like each other beyond physical attraction. Just the fact that she comes to shop in his niche specialty bookstore is a good sign that they have something in common. He makes her laugh, and they share a similar sense of humor. She meets his wacky friends (who actually do seem like real friends) and enjoys getting to feel like a normal person rather than a celebrity when she’s with him and his friends. They have long conversations about their pasts and about how they see the world. The main conflict giving them trouble is her celebrity. She can’t do anything without it getting plastered all over the tabloids, so she’s guarded and a little paranoid. One thing she enjoys about him is that he makes her feel normal, so she doesn’t want to bring him into the celebrity part of her life, but that also means she shuts him out of a huge chunk of her life, which makes him feel like he doesn’t matter to her.

All that’s great. It’s got room for romantic drama and comedy. But it falls flat for me in the way it’s resolved. Spoilers ahead, since you can’t talk about the ending without giving away the ending.

To sum it up briefly, though the whole movie, Hugh Grant’s character, William, has had to jump through hoops to be with Julia Roberts’s character, Anna. He has to use a code word to get put through to her when he calls her hotel, and when he shows up at her invitation, he gets stuck in the press junket and having to pretend to be a reporter interviewing her just to talk to her — and then has to go on and interview everyone else involved in the movie. After they’ve gone on a few dates, they come back to her hotel to find the movie star boyfriend he didn’t know she had, and he has to pretend to be a room service waiter and clear dirty dishes to cover for her. She vanishes for a while before suddenly showing up at his place when she needs refuge from a media hellstorm, but then after they spend a wonderful day and night together, really connecting, she finds the media camped out in front of his house, blames him and storms off, and has no contact with him for months. He finds out she’s shooting a movie in London, shows up on set, and she invites him to stick around and watch, but he hears her describing him as “nobody” to a castmate and leaves. On her last day in town, she shows up at his shop and gives the “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” speech that became somewhat iconic, but he says he can’t just go on with the rollercoaster of not knowing what’s going on with her and turns her down — and then he’s the one who realizes the error of his ways, does the Rom Com Run to rush to her press event before she leaves town, has to pose as a reporter again, and has to do the public apology and declaration of his feelings before they get their happy ending.

And that last part is what has me going “Seriously?” I might even have said that out loud on the airplane when I saw it (fortunately, everyone else, including my boss sitting a couple of rows ahead of me, had on headsets and the rain was hitting the plane really hard, so no one heard me).

I think I’ve finally figured out why that seemed so wrong to me, and it comes back to a concept I got from a college course on interpersonal communication and relationships that’s also key to romance writing: the balance of relationship power. Basically, the person who can most easily walk away from a relationship is the person who has the power in the relationship. That can include things like money and home, status within the community, perceived attractiveness/ability to find another partner, or caring. The person who will be less brokenhearted if the relationship ends has some power over the person who will be hurt more, as does the person whose status and security won’t be harmed. A relationship that’s not balanced seems wrong to us as an audience. When you’re in a relationship like that, it’s uncomfortable. At worst, a big power imbalance can lead to abuse — the person with power may feel free to abuse the person with less power, or a person who feels like they have less power may abuse or gaslight the other person as a way of gaining more power.

This dynamic is the main reason behind the Rom Com Run, when one of the characters runs through the streets/airport/train station and then makes the big public declaration of love and commitment. Usually, that’s the person who’s at least pretended to care less than the other person, but then that person realizes that trying to hold on to power by acting like they don’t care is going to make them lose someone they do care about, so they give up their power by making the grand gesture that shows how much they care. That’s the sort of ending we needed for Four Weddings, to show that the commitmentphobe is willing to publicly commit, but it needed to go with a better relationship and a person who deserved the commitment.

In this movie, Anna has all the power throughout. She’s incredibly wealthy and popular and could have any man she wants. She has all the agency. He can’t even contact her to communicate with her unless she gives him the code word for the hotel, so all their communication and interaction is on her terms. He’s the one who has to make huge efforts to see her, like having to pretend to be a journalist just to set a date. The power needs to be rebalanced, and yet he’s the one giving up even more power by being the one to do the Rom Com Run and make the grand gesture. She does give up some power when she shows up at his shop and asks him to love her, but when he rejects her, it’s not because he doesn’t care. It’s because he does care so much that he can’t risk letting her hurt him again. This is when she needs to show how she cares. She needs to go through some of what he’s gone through. She’s been trying to hide him and deny him in order to protect herself, but she needs to show him she’s willing to risk being hurt for his sake.

I’ve been trying to figure out a mental rewrite. It would be weird if she did some big chase through the streets after he turned her down, but maybe she could say something in an interview about how she ruined her best relationship and hurt someone she cared about by trying to protect herself without thinking about how it would make him feel. Or she could have made that “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy” speech in public after she’d done something to chase him down.

I think what the writer was going for was that William was in the wrong for turning her down because he was trying to protect himself, and therefore he had to apologize to her, but he’d been quite open to her up to that point. He only shut her down after she’d ditched him several times. Hmm, come to think of it, to get all Biblical about it, she denied him three times, so she should have had to affirm him three times. Or, to get more cynical about it, the writer figured that women would be the core audience, so the man always has to be wrong and the one to apologize, that the female audience wouldn’t want the woman to be the one to have to make the effort. I did have romance writer friends who took that view on this movie, so maybe it would have been a flop if they’d made an ending I’d like.

Still, it’s lacking in symmetry. The Rom Com Run is usually effective because it’s the person who would never do such a thing who has to drop all their barriers and pretenses to do it. It’s less effective if that person has spent the whole movie having to do that sort of thing. He’s already had to pretend to be a journalist for Horse and Hound in order to talk to her, so there’s no big moment of surprise or shock when he does it again at the end. We know he can/will do it because he has.

I do enjoy much of this movie. I love the relationship among the friends. I like the press junket bit, though it does frustrate me that she could have just told her staff who he was and got him out of it once he’d talked to her. I even like the interaction between the two main characters and much of their relationship. I can imagine that they would be happy together. I just need to fast-forward past the Rom Com Run and get to the ending montage.

Next up, I revisit a romcom that gets most things right. It’s almost a response to the kind of relationships shown in Four Weddings.


Sticking the Landing, Part 1

I noticed that Four Weddings and a Funeral was leaving Prime at the end of last month and decided to watch it, since I hadn’t seen it in forever, and that led to me rewatching Notting Hill, and both of these movies made me think about how important it is to stick the landing and have a satisfying ending to a story. I enjoy both of these movies, but then the endings fall flat for me and leave me with an unfavorable impression of the whole movie. Since I have a lot more experience as a writer than I had the last time I saw these films, I thought I’d dig into why these endings don’t work for me. In order to discuss the ending, I have to give away the ending, so spoilers.

Four Weddings came out at just the right time for me, when I was in a phase in which most of my social life revolved around wedding-related events. It seemed like every other weekend I was either at a wedding, at a bridal shower, or at an engagement party (a couple of times I was actually at an engagement, as the guy set it up to have all the friends around as a big surprise). A movie about running into people at weddings pretty much reflected my life (though these mostly weren’t big, fancy weddings, and I never got to wear a stunning hat). And then we hit the ending, and I left the theater going, “What?” I think a lot of that was because I was writing category romances at the time, and it was a pretty clear rule that if a character was a commitmentphobe in the beginning of the story, he had to make a big, public commitment at the end. The Notting Hill ending would be more apt for this movie (and more on that in the next post, since just dealing with Four Weddings requires a long post). Having the couple just agree not to marry each other but still be in a relationship made things just sort of fizzle out. I also wasn’t crazy about Charles ending up with Carrie after she essentially strung him along through the whole movie. The more usual romance would have had him learning the error of his ways from seeing the way Carrie acted and then finding real love with someone else, like maybe the friend who’d been in love with him all along. But as it was, no one learned anything. There was no sense of anyone growing, no character arc, and a romcom without a character arc is just a story with funny lines and some kissing.

But I think there’s more to the issues I have with the ending, and watching the Cinema Therapy guys’ take on Love Actually just before Christmas helped me realize it, since there are threads in Love Actually that show up in this movie, too. Mostly, both of these films have a pretty shallow take on love. It’s all about the thunderbolt at first meeting, not about getting to know each other and developing anything deeper. It’s even a plot point that most of these people haven’t actually talked much to each other. They can’t possibly be in love, since they don’t actually know each other. Both films involve someone confessing their love to someone who’s in a committed relationship, though at least in this case the person isn’t married to their best friend. Here, he’s slept with her twice, but the only conversations we’ve seen between them are about how sexually forward she is. Both movies also involve someone who learns a new language to be able to communicate with someone they’re attracted to, though in this case it happens early in the movie and presumably they communicate with each other a bit before we see them getting married in the epilogue montage rather than them getting engaged in their first conversation in which they can understand each other. Still, she decides to learn sign language to communicate with him purely based on his looks, with no idea whatsoever of what kind of person he is (though I guess she needs the sign language to learn what kind of person he is).

Really, though, all the relationships are pretty shallow. I love the group of friends, but we don’t actually see much of them together acting like friends (I’d have preferred to follow the group to the castle rather than following Charles to chase after Carrie). They tell us the gay couple has a true, deeply committed relationship that’s essentially a marriage (in the time before that was legal), but we don’t see any of that beyond one domestic moment during the opening credits and the depth of emotion at the funeral. They tell us that Fiona has always been in love with Charles, but we never see her acting like she cares about him at all.

The more typical rom-com formula probably would have had Charles realizing that while he’s been looking for the thunderbolt to shock him out of his fear of commitment, someone who really loves him has been there all along and his fear has kept him from seeing her. I get the urge to upend the formula, to not have him realize that pining after Carrie has given him an excuse not to commit and not have him realize that his close friend was right for him all along, but if you’re going to upend a trope, what you come up with has to be better and more satisfying than the trope would have been, and two commitmentphobes choosing to not get married (but be together) was somewhat less than satisfying.

There was a lot said at the time this movie came out about Hugh Grant’s floppy-haired British charm, but his character is actually kind of a jerk in this movie when I rewatch it during Hugh Grant’s jerk/villain phase (I rewatched Honor Among Thieves last weekend). He’s shown sympathetically, but this is someone who can’t be bothered to be on time with the rings for a wedding where he’s the best man. He ditches his friends for a woman he’s just met. He ditches plans with his brother to chase after a woman. He mocks his ex-girlfriends to his current girlfriend, then mocks her to the next girlfriend. He sleeps with an engaged woman. He jilts a woman at the altar. This isn’t really a romantic hero.

I still enjoy the movie. I just wish it could take the ingredients of a brilliant cast and witty dialogue and do something better with them. As it is, it’s a really shallow view of love and relationships, and the shallow characters don’t really gain any depth or grow during the movie.

Richard Curtis does improve in Notting Hill, but he still doesn’t stick the landing. More on that next time.


The Road Trip Romance

A couple of years ago, I got somewhat fixated on the subgenre I called “romantic fantasy road trip.” That was a story about people on some kind of journey or quest, and along the way they fall in love. I realized this was a thing I liked when I started watching a cheesy fantasy movie on Amazon and paused it to go make popcorn because I could tell from the setup that this was going to be something I wanted to revel in. The gold standard of this would be Stardust (both movie and book, but they have different structures), but you also find it in Disney movies like Tangled. Frozen fits it pretty well, if you look at Anna’s side of the story. It struck me that a story idea I came up with decades ago fits, too, but I couldn’t find any examples pre-dating me coming up with that idea, so I have no idea where it came from. I looked up some things I thought might fit, but it turns out they didn’t really.

I believe I’ve now figured out what I must have been modeling it on: the road trip rom-com. The gold standard of this, and probably the first example, would be It Happened One Night. These movies follow the same sort of structure I identified, just without the magic.

There’s the Bargain — the hero and heroine agree to travel together, with both of them usually getting something out of the deal. In It Happened One Night, he’s a journalist who needs a story to get his job back and she needs to reach her new husband in New York after running away from her father but is clueless about traveling alone and has lost her bag and her money. So, he agrees to help her in exchange for getting the exclusive on her story. It’s not quite a quest or bringing a fallen star to the woman he loves, but it still fits.

They do a lot of Bickering, with a clash of backgrounds and worldviews. Because this is a Depression-era screwball comedy, she’s an heiress and he’s a down-on-his-luck working man.

Then they come under Attack — detectives hired by her father find them, and they work together to throw the detectives off the trail by pretending to be a low-class long-married couple.

Thanks to the effects of the Attack, they Bond, working together from that point on (though still with lots of banter and personality clashes).

Then there’s an interesting two-part braiding of the Departure and Return sequence — he leaves her sleeping (like Stardust) to go to New York to sell the story after she confesses her love for him, planning to be back with the money they need for the rest of the journey before she wakes, but the landlady at the motel notices the car gone before then and throws her out. Thinking she’s been abandoned and hearing that her father has relented on accepting her marriage, she calls her father to come get her. Meanwhile, our hero sees her motorcade leaving just as he returns and he thinks she was kidding him. But he does another Return when he shows up to ask her father to reimburse him for the travel expenses—but refuses to take the reward money. When she learns about this at the wedding ceremony to formalize her unconsummated courthouse wedding, she flees the ceremony and runs to him. So they both Depart and Return, which is fitting because I think they’re fairly equal protagonists. The story mostly seems to be from his perspective, but we see the setup for her story first.

The one part of the pattern that’s missing is that there’s no dancing. In almost all of these stories, there’s some dancing involved in the Bonding sequence, and that’s when the feelings get romantic. In this movie, they do join a singalong on the bus earlier in the movie, and I guess the part where he takes off his shoes, rolls up his trouser legs, and carries her across the creek while she playfully uses his shoes to kick him in the rear might count.

The more modern (and significantly lesser) take on this kind of story, Leap Year, also fits the pattern. I honestly don’t know how that movie got made. With all the scripts that go nowhere, there have to have been dozens better than this. About the only things that make it work are the cast and the scenery, but on paper it had to have been a stinker. The premise—a woman making a desperate trip to and around Ireland so she can propose to her boyfriend on Leap Day, according to an old Irish custom—might have worked in the 30s or maybe even the 50s, but in the 21st century it’s hard to imagine someone going to that kind of desperate effort and expense when there’s nothing stopping her from just asking him to marry her at any time. Then there’s the fact that both of them need each other’s help, but they’re both unnecessarily obnoxious to each other. And then there are all the dumb slapstick and too stupid to live moments. I utterly adore Amy Adams, and she almost salvages her character, but this woman must have been utterly vile in the script without the subtle depth Adams manages to give her.

Still, this movie hits all the road trip romance beats I identified. There’s just no magic. I’m sure there were a ton of romance novels that fit this pattern, as well, especially the historical romances that included adventures and often involved a couple forced to travel together and falling in love along the way.

Interestingly, even though there’s no travel, the Disney Beauty and the Beast also fits, but I’ll discuss this in my next post.

It makes sense that I would have taken a kind of story I liked and added magic to it, given that this is essentially what I did with the Enchanted, Inc. series, which is a rom-com or chick lit with magic added.

In watching my two example movies last weekend, I’ve added something else to my pattern. I realized that a reason for the Departure/Return sequence, in which one character leaves the other (usually to go back to a significant other/would be significant other) only to realize he/she is in love with the traveling companion, is that this shows how the journey has changed them. They have to try to go back to the old life, then realize they’ve changed enough that they no longer want them same things, before they can finalize the relationship with the traveling companion.

This realization has been a big help in the book I’m revising, since it helps me figure out how to work out a fiddly bit near the end.


The Rom-Com Film Festival

For the past couple of weeks, I took a break from my fantasy and Star Wars viewing and watched a bunch of romantic comedies. There were the Christmas/holiday movies, and then there were a bunch of movies leaving Prime at the end of December that I wanted to watch, most of which were rom-coms, so that was what I did between Christmas and the new year. Here’s a quick rundown of the ones that were good enough to be memorable.

Something from Tiffany’s (Amazon Prime original) — I’d put this into a similar category as The Holiday or While You Were Sleeping, since it’s a movie set during the holiday season rather than really being a “Christmas movie,” and most of it takes place between Christmas and New Year’s Day. There’s just enough holiday to give it a festive vibe, but not so much that you would feel weird watching it at any other time of year.

One man is buying an engagement ring to propose to his girlfriend at Tiffany’s while another man is buying a small pair of earrings for his girlfriend, and when there’s an accident just outside the store, the bags get swapped, so the girlfriend of the guy just buying earrings opens her present to find an engagement ring, while the one expecting an engagement ring gets earrings. The mix-up leads both couples to reconsider things. I thought this one was a lot of fun. The cast is very engaging and there’s a good energy to it. I think it might even have worked as a big-screen release, if they still made rom-coms for the big screen.

Sleepless in Seattle — this is a classic, and I’d been planning to rewatch it ever since reading a biography of Nora Ephron earlier in the year. I think I’ve only seen it once, so it was like seeing a new movie. I was supposed to see it on a date — the guy asked me out specifically to see this movie but he hadn’t checked the listings, so he didn’t know where or when it was showing. When we finished dinner, he suggested we drive by the nearby theater to see if it was playing there. It had started about half an hour earlier. I wasn’t having enough fun to want to drive around to other theaters (this was in the days before smart phones allowed you to look up things like movie times) or hang out to wait for the next showing, so I didn’t end up seeing the movie until about a year later when I rented it while I was recovering from knee surgery. I remembered some parts of the movie, but the whole middle was new to me and some of the mental images I remembered weren’t in the movie, so I might have zoned out while on painkillers for part of the movie and dreamed something. I liked it more this time than I recall liking it then. I was hanging out with a lot of romance authors at that time, and they hated it because it wasn’t really a romance to them. I think if it were published as a book it would be more of a “chick lit” sort of thing. It is a little creepy how she basically stalks him while she’s engaged to someone else, but I still like the characters and the idea of not settling.

The Cutting Edge — another classic. I hadn’t realized this was written by Tony Gilroy, who’s the showrunner and one of the writers for Andor. I’d seen this one over and over because my friends and I often rented it for movie nights during the 90s but hadn’t watched it in a long time, and I think it holds up well. I love figure skating and rom-coms, so win! The day after I watched it, I found the DVD on the clearance shelf at the used bookstore, so now I have a copy.

The Proposal — I’d never actually seen this one, in which a Devil Wears Prada-type book editor forces her assistant to marry her so she can stay in the country, only to find herself falling for him and his family. I’m not sure anyone but Sandra Bullock could have pulled this role off and managed to make that character vulnerable and charming under the bitchy exterior. It’s funny how closely it parallels While You Were Sleeping, in spite of it being a very different story and polar opposite character. I have to give Sandra Bullock huge props for gender flipping the usual Hollywood age difference and getting much younger men as her romantic leading men in both this and The Lost City.

About Fate — Another Prime original new this year. It’s hard to describe this one without giving away some twists, and I don’t think the description on their site is very good or at all accurate, so here goes my blurb: A man and woman have to consider the role of fate when their eerily parallel lives intersect on New Year’s Eve.

This is another one that could have been released for the big screen. I liked the characters and actually wanted them to get together. It was sweet and romantic and funny. Apparently, it’s a remake of an old Soviet movie that’s a major tradition in Russia. It’s shown on TV every New Year’s Eve, and just about everyone has it memorized. The reviews from people familiar with the original are very negative, so now I’m curious if there’s a subtitled version of the original out there, but I liked this one a lot. It even inspired a couple of story ideas I want to play with.

I noticed while watching all of these that the romance is seldom my favorite part of a romantic comedy. I tend to like the other relationships — the family and friends. Or I like the relationship between the hero and heroine before things get romantic. My favorite part of most of these movies, though, is the character growth, seeing the transformation of the characters. That may be why I don’t mind that the hero and heroine in Sleepless in Seattle don’t meet until the end. It’s not really about the romance, it’s about her figuring out who she is and what she really wants.

This could explain why I was wildly unsuccessful as a romance novelist. I managed to fake it long enough to sell a few books, but I couldn’t sustain it. I’m better off writing things that are about something else but that have romantic possibilities.

movies, Books

New Perspectives on an Old Favorite

I recently revisited an old favorite book and finally saw the movie based on it, and it’s been an interesting experience that’s going to be difficult to talk about without spoilers, so I’m going to do this post in layers.

The book The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird feels like it was written just for me because it parallels my life in a lot of ways (in fact, the inscription in the autographed copy I have mentions the parallel lives, since it turns out I have a lot in common with the author, including having the same editor for a while, which is how I got the autographed book and why she knew about the parallel lives). It takes place in Austin in the 80s, which is when I lived in Austin while I was in college. During one summer, I stayed in Austin to work at a small newspaper, and the heroine works for a small newspaper. She lives in the neighborhood I lived on the edge of for that summer, so I walked around a lot of the places mentioned in the book. When the heroine goes to the library or post office, it’s the library and post office I went to. And during the course of the book, the heroine goes to a romance writers’ conference and starts writing a category romance novel. It was after I lived in Austin, but I’ve been to a lot of romance writers’ conferences and used to write category romance novels.

I was thinking about this book recently because it takes place during a bad heat wave, and we’ve been having a bad heat wave this summer, so I was planning to reread it. And then I saw that the movie based on it was on Amazon Prime. I’d started to watch it when it was on TV years ago but noped out at the beginning when I saw that it was set in Charleston, S.C., not Austin. Since the Austin setting was a big reason I loved the book, that turned me off of the movie. But I thought I’d give it a try again. It wasn’t as bad as I feared, but it may have to win some kind of award for being the worst adaptation of a book in which the screenplay was written by the author of the original novel. I’m sure a lot of the changes were dictated by Hollywood—like they probably got some filming incentives to shoot where they did, which meant the location change. Other changes were required by the change in medium. You couldn’t film the book as it’s written because of the structure. While the movie is your basic false identity rom-com, the book is actually more about the contrast between real-life love and romantic fantasy.

But the changes mean that you can’t really talk about the movie without spoiling the book because the movie flips the perspective and centers on the book’s big twist.

So, first the book. I’ve referred to it as “proto chick-lit” because it was published in the late 80s, long before Bridget Jones came along, but it has a lot of the same elements — it’s got the first-person narrator heroine who’s a bit of a mess and trying to navigate her life, friendships, career, and relationships, and not necessarily doing a great job at any of them. There’s a romantic plot, but the focus is on her personal growth and figuring things out.

The story’s about a photographer for a small newspaper who gets assigned to cover a romance writers’ conference, where she goes in with some preconceived notions but gets taken under the wings of a couple of pro writers, who teach her a thing or two and encourage her to try writing her own book. She insists that real women wouldn’t actually be interested in romance heroes. Women don’t want dark, dangerous men. They want nice guys. But then she recoils at a setup with the nerdy brother of one of the writers, and just as she’s struggling to write the romantic parts of her romance novel, she meets a mysterious biker she can’t resist, so she may have to eat her words.

I don’t know how much my fondness for this book comes from the parallel lives thing, since I’ve never gone for the dangerous rogue type. Then again, I also would have rejected the nerdy guy (those scenes made me cringe because just about every guy I’ve been set up with has been a lot like that, personality-wise). What I’d prefer is somewhere in the middle. So, I don’t really relate to that part of the plot. I guess I just enjoy reliving the summer I spent in Austin and the time when I was first getting into serious writing and going to conferences.

The book is now available as a pretty inexpensive e-book and it’s on Kindle Unlimited, so if it sounds interesting, check it out. The rest of this post will address the movie, which means it will have spoilers for the book.

So, the movie …

They changed the setting and the heroine’s name. She’s a writer, not a photographer, and they skip the part where she’s trying to write a romance novel. She just interviews the writer. But the focus of the movie is more on the guy. Here’s where the book spoilers start.

The movie is about a guy who falls hard for the woman his romance writer sister sets him up with, but when she rejects him, his sister sets out to turn him into a romance hero the woman won’t be able to resist, in spite of her protestations about real women not being interested in men like the heroes in romance novels.

That’s the twist in the book, that the mysterious biker is the nerdy guy. The biker doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the book, and we don’t find out who he is until near the end. It really does feel like a twist. I remember being surprised the first time I read it. I was pretty sure she was being set up, but I didn’t guess that it was the same guy rather than something like an actor hired to prove a point. But I can see how you couldn’t pull that off in a movie. In the book, it’s all from the heroine’s perspective, then she finds out who the guy is and he gives her his journals to explain himself, so then there’s a section where we see what’s been happening from his perspective. You couldn’t do that in a movie.

And I don’t think you’d be able to make his identity be a surprise in a movie. In the book, you can believe it because of how it’s set up. The guy has just finished cancer treatment, so his hair hasn’t come back yet, he’s been on steroids, so his face is still puffy, and his body is still skinny. There’s a three-month gap, during which time his hair grows back, his face goes back to normal, he starts exercising and builds muscles, and he gets colored contact lenses. But in the movie, as good of a makeup job as they do on him, he’s still recognizably Steve Guttenberg at the beginning, so you know who he is when he shows up as a stud. I think it might actually work in real life that you wouldn’t recognize someone you’d barely met if you ran into him again after he went through a lot of changes, but it won’t work with a known actor. Maybe with an unknown and no opening credits it might have worked, but trying to hide that twist would be hard in a movie. In real life, you encounter a lot of random people who aren’t necessarily connected, but when you’re watching a movie, you know that everyone you see is probably important, so you look at them differently.

Focusing on the guy’s story means the movie loses a lot of the things I love about the book, but I noticed in some of the Amazon reviews of the book that there are people who like the movie more because they like the straightforward rom-com. They don’t like that the heroine is such a mess or that the ending is a bit ambiguous. I still think the movie should have been better than it was, and there were things from the book that could still have made it to the screen. The casting, aside from the heroine (who’s too pretty for the way the book character was described), is pretty good. It’s on Amazon Prime, and it’s short, so if you want an 80s rom-com that’s a bit different, check it out.

And now I’m going to spoil the book even more.

There’s something that’s always bugged me about the book and the way it works out that I finally have the right vocabulary for: It basically reinforces the “nice guy” myth, the whole “women don’t really like nice guys, they just go for jerks who treat them badly” thing that you tend to hear from the incel crowd. That’s something guys who proclaim themselves as “nice” like to say, and I’ve found that the self-proclaimed “nice” guys are seldom as nice as they think they are. A lot of the time, they don’t actually make a move on the woman and then act like they’ve been rejected for being nice when she doesn’t go for them. Or the niceness is purely transactional, so he’s supposed to be rewarded for being nice and he pouts if he isn’t. Or he has his own definition of “nice” which is on his terms, not what she wants. Or he seems to think that just being “nice” should be enough, without him working on anything else.

For the most part, the guy in this book isn’t entirely like that — up until the end. She understandably feels betrayed by his deception, even after she reads his journal. She’s understanding about the cancer thing, and he doesn’t start out planning the deception. That was something his sister came up with, and he only panicked when this woman met him, so he went with it rather than admitting who he was. What she can’t get over is the fact that the role he was playing in the deception was created based on what she was writing in her book, which his sister was critiquing for her. It was designed purely to fulfill her fantasies. And yet he’s the one acting hurt because she fell for this character when she wouldn’t give him the time of day. I keep wanting the heroine to point out to him that he was just in love with an imaginary person. His journal talks about falling in love with her at first sight, but the person he thinks he’s in love with has nothing to do with who she really is. The real woman is basically an avatar for his fantasy woman. At least when she fell for a fictional guy, it was a deliberate deception designed to fool her. He made up a fantasy woman on his own, without her doing anything to encourage it. It seems pretty clear from the contrast between what we saw from her side of the story and the way he sees her in his journal, but no one in the book ever addresses it, and it’s not even mentioned in the reading group guide in the back of one of the copies I have, aside from a question about whether you believe in love at first sight the way he does.

Not to mention, the guy is stalking her the whole time. He follows her home from work and drives by her house all the time. He even looks in the windows sometimes. He’s supposed to be a nice guy who couldn’t get any attention until he changed, but he’s rather creepy. He claims to be following her because he’s worried about her coming home from work in a shady part of town late at night, but if she doesn’t know he’s there and never asked for this help, him following her like that isn’t cool.

I may be a bit overly sensitive about this because I’ve found that the “nice guys” tend to do that avatar thing, where they act like they’re really into me, but it becomes clear that the person they like has very little to do with me. I’m like the actress who plays the character they’re in love with. For me to buy the possibility of a happy ending, I’d need for this to be addressed. The ending of the book is ambiguous, so I guess in my head they’ll have this conversation before anything else happens. It’s always left me with an unsettled feeling, but in recent years the “nice guy” has been discussed a lot on the Internet, which has made me realize what unsettled me so much. I still like the book, but now I know why it bothers me. I don’t know if you could publish this book or make this movie today. Would we see it differently?

writing, movies

Much Ado About Tropes

A couple of weeks ago, I rewatched the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing. That’s my favorite adaptation of that play. Branagh does a lovely job of making it so real and vital, and the cast manages to make the Shakespearean language sound perfectly natural. It takes maybe one scene to tune your ear, and then you just get caught up in the story and forget that it’s Shakespeare. Emma Thompson is particularly good, able to spit out all those zingers while still showing humanity and vulnerability.

I realized while watching that this play contains one of my least-favorite romantic comedy tropes and one of my favorites.

The least favorite is the old “see something involving the other member of the couple out of context, leap to the worst possible conclusion, flounce on the relationship without even discussing it with the other person, then realize they’re wrong, but then everything’s okay and the other person doesn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that someone who supposedly loved them was willing to jump to the worst possible conclusion about them.”

You’d think this would have died out long ago, since it’s more than 400 years old for Shakespeare, and it comes from an even older work that Shakespeare based his play on, but it’s still a staple of rom-coms and Hallmark movies. Shakespeare actually does a somewhat better job with this trope than many of the modern stories do. It’s a deliberate set-up, for one thing, intended to give Claudio the wrong impression. He’s brought to a particular place just in time to see something being staged for his benefit, with Hero’s name being said, and what he sees is unambiguous. Someone he highly respects sees the same thing and comes to the same conclusion. It’s not like the “dark moment” in the Hallmark movies when the heroine sees the hero hugging another woman and decides to flounce back to the city and let the ornament factory close because she thinks he’s involved with another woman.

Then once Claudio learns the truth and realizes he wronged Hero, he does penance even though he’s not the one truly at fault. And in their society, even though she’s been proven blameless, her reputation might have remained damaged if the one who accused her hadn’t taken her back, so of course she’s glad he still wants her. I don’t cut the modern characters as much slack. If she assumed he was cheating on her and didn’t even discuss it with him, then after she realizes that was his sister he was hugging and she goes back to him, I don’t get why he would be so willing to take her back. Why would he want to be with someone who’s that irrationally jealous and who thinks the worst of him?

I have seen one movie in which the woman visited the man’s workplace and saw a wedding photo of him, assumed he was married and she was the “other woman,” so she refused to speak to him again, and after she learned that he was a widower she apologized, but he wasn’t ready to take her back. It took some big gestures on her part, a lot of apologies, and some strings being pulled by his friends for them to move past it and get back together. That worked a bit better, but I’m ready for that misunderstanding trope to be given a rest or at least a twist. Maybe have that happen at the beginning of the story, and that’s why the character is single and maybe a bit bitter when the story’s real love interest comes along. They wouldn’t take back the person who dumped them in a fit of misplaced jealousy, or else they’re the one who screwed up. There could even be a second-chance thing, where this is backstory, and they meet again after this happened.

But the play also contains one of my favorite tropes, which is the people who act like they dislike each other to cover for the fact that they do like each other but are too afraid to let on, for fear that the other one actually does dislike them and would use the knowledge of their feelings as a weapon against them. Benedick and Beatrice bicker and shoot zingers at each other, but they’re ridiculously easy to trick into confessing their feelings. The moment each of them “overhears” (thanks to a scheme by their friends) that the other likes them, they’re delighted and go all-in. There is one speech by Beatrice early in the play that suggests they have a past. It hints that maybe they had a relationship before that ended badly. In the “Shakespeare Uncovered” episode on this play, actors who’ve played these roles said they read it as them having had a romance that went wrong, and both of them see themselves as the wounded party, so they’ve been bickering, but they never got over each other. They’re just both too proud and too wounded to lower the barriers and let their feelings show. It takes other people intervening to make them feel safe to express their feelings.

This isn’t really an “enemies to lovers” thing because they’re basically on the same side. They just pretend not to get along. It’s sort of a second-chance thing. Whatever it is, it can be a lot of fun if it’s done very well, with good dialogue and sizzling subtext. But I suspect it would be very tricky to pull off in a novel that allows you to get inside the characters’ head. It works in the play/movie because they can have fun with the subtext (especially with actors on the level of Branagh and Thompson). It would lose something if you got into their heads and knew how they really felt. I’ve been trying to think of how to make it work in a novel. I’m not sure it could work in third-person narration, where you get to eavesdrop on their thoughts. It might work in first-person narration, with the narrator not being privy to the other character’s thoughts and editing her own thoughts so that she’s not telling the whole story or being entirely honest either with herself or the reader. Or it could be told from some other character’s perspective, say, if the couple were members of a team and the viewpoint character is someone else on the team being amused by how dense those two can be. That was kind of what happened in the Harry Potter books with the relationship between Ron and Hermione, which was seen entirely from Harry’s perspective, except he wasn’t even amused by them. He was as dense about what was going on as they were, and the reader had to figure out what was going on from the subtext and realize that although they bickered a lot, their feelings regarding each other were quite strong.

Now, of course, I’m trying to figure out if I could make the mistaken assumption story work in a way that I like, and I’m mentally scanning my story ideas to see if there’s a place for a “Beatrice and Benedick” relationship. Because I need more story ideas. (Not! I don’t have time to write all the ideas I currently have.)