There are 3 categories of romantic-comedies: 1. the great ones, 2. the mediocre but likable ones, and 3. the awful ones. The great ones manage to have moments of real human emotion mixed into the romance and often unrealistic situations of the film. The mediocre ones strike just enough good notes to work, although overall are a little schmaltzy. The awful ones try to be cute, but fail to set up characters that the audience cares about.
To demonstrate the 3 types of romcoms, I'm using appropriately holiday themed films: 1. Love Actually, 2. While You Were Sleeping, and 3. The Holiday. I'm just highlighting the things that I think qualify these movies in their respective categories. I recommend watching the first two to get a full plot. The third one is never necessary to watch.
1. Love Actually (2003) has several things that will initially bring enjoyment: Hugh Grant, British accents, small children, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant dancing. Those alone could make a passable movie, but what helps Love Actually reach Great status is its genuine humor and emotion. There are several story lines going on at once featuring an "all-star cast." Seriously, everyone is charming in this movie.
What I appreciate most about this movie is that it doesn't ignore the fact that people exist within a family and social unit. Too many movies (like The Holiday) make me question who the character's parents are (who raised these inept people) or why their family is completely uninvolved. Some of the stories in Love Actually highlight family relationships more than others, but all take place within a context. With the exception of the libido-driven young man on a quest to hook up with as many American women as possible and his porn directing friend, most of the characters seem to have consciences or at least an awareness that their actions may have consequences. Romance just for romance's sake usually fall short. The same could be said about comedy. To be truly romantic or comedic, there must be a solid context, even if it's just a family.
The most impressive thing about this film is the good screenplay and brilliant editing. This movie could have quickly become disastrous and confusing with so many plot lines (I'm looking at you Pirate of the Caribbean 2 and 3), but we get just enough of each story for affection to build up and characters to develop and reach resolution. Some of the stories get more time, and some stories are more typical than others, but each goes along with the theme of the film: love actually is everywhere. Also well done, but not pounded in, is the fact that each storyline intertwines in some way with the others, whether it's through friendship, family, marriage, or work. The relationships aren't pointed out by bad exposition, but implied. Anything that makes people feel somewhat intelligent is always welcome, even in a fairly fluffy genre.
To summarize: Love Actually has a context, is truly romantic, and handles its many stories well. Its genius is in the fact that different stories will appeal to different people (much like the members of The Backstreet Boys). There are some story lines that connect with you, and some that are just amusing, but all will entertain.
2. While You Were Sleeping (1995) is one of my all-time favorite movies. I'm clearly biased. I've seen this so many times that my viewing has passed initial plot and quality analysis to just enjoying the performances. However, I know several people who really can't handle this movie, mostly because of the ridiculous plot (coma, anyone?), thus making it fall short of great, making it just Mediocre but Likable.
The performances make this movie. Sandra Bullock is endearing and kind of messy in it and I love her for it. She brings humor and a real loneliness to the role giving the viewer something to connect with. Bill Pullman reminds me why the 90s were a great time for hair. Peter Gallagher had (and still has) those amazing eyebrows and manages to pull off some adorable qualities by the end. But the best performances are by the supporting cast that plays the family: Peter Boyle pre-Everybody Loves Raymond and less obnoxious, and Jack Warden as the Jewish godfather are my favorite. Everybody just brings all sorts of quirks to their roles and I love them.
This movie truly excels in its ensemble scenes, most notably the dinner scene. Nothing says family like ridiculous conversations about Cesar Romero being tall, mashed potatoes being creamy, and who everyone's "type" is. This scene never fails to make me laugh with its overlapping dialogue that seems so real.
To Summarize: While You Were Sleeping is endearing and adorable and full of Christmas cheer. The performances make up for the coma plot line, and even the most ridiculous character, Joe Jr., manages to just make the film that much funnier. Really, it comes down to celebrating the holidays with family, but manges to do it without the abrasive ABC Family cheese.
3. The Holiday (2006) is why people hate romantic-comedies, and possibly Americans. It's Awful. It never rises above its plot devices with its mediocre performances, and more specifically the horrible performance by Cameron Diaz. I'm just going to list the things that ruin this movie:
- Cameron Diaz trying to be funny
- Outdated "fantasy"/hallucination sequences
- Sex before a relationship, therefore ruining any hopes of sexual tension, which is really the only thing that holds most romantic comedies together. (Think Grey's Anatomy and how much is sucked from the beginning thanks to absolutely no tension.)
- And side note, sexual tension is why old screwball comedies worked--they couldn't show anything, so they were creative and had to come up with ways to build suspense to keep people engaged. At least old Hollywood had that.
- The whole concept of house swapping--who does that?
- The fact that Kate Winslet is in this (I like her, and she does not deserve this).
- Cameron Diaz acting like a dumb girl.
- This is supposed to be about female empowerment, but really makes me wonder what kind of women society has created.
- Way too long for such a vapid story.
So if I'm going to leave you with anything, I'll say this: choose your romantic-comedies wisely. There are good ones out there, you just have to look. And watch out for Cameron Diaz.