Don’t get me wrong; I love romantic comedy as much as the next girl. It’s like entering a sugary alternate reality where hot movie stars try to be clumsy, cute, and relatable human beings; even a “loser” can get the girl/guy; the bad guy gets his comeuppance, or at least spends the rest of his life miserable and alone; and happily ever after always wraps up nicely for two souls who were bound to be together.
It’s an alternate reality where everything is how it should be.
Romcoms are a fantasy. Not the type that invokes images of grand adventure, dragons, and wizards, but in its own right, it involves just as much suspension of disbelief. It’s a type that deals with idealism and simplicity. It’s definitely got a charm to it, but sometimes people take issue, whether it’s because it’s not a fantasy they personally subscribe to, or because all fantasies give unrealistic expectations for the complicated world we actually live in.
Sometimes we need a break from the unshakeable truth: “Life isn’t fair.”
So while I’d be a snob and a hypocrite to act like I’m above all the cotton-candy clouds and sparkly fairy dust, I maintain that romcoms are, consistently, the least challenging, most pandering genre, next to robot/monster beat-em-ups. It is emotional “porn” for women (though some men enjoy it as well), and there are a couple of common tropes and trends constantly being used and abused that I take particular umbrage with.
1# Lack of Humility/Subtlety in the Writing
A lot of films (besides just romcoms) have a tendency of “breaking the fourth wall.” For those of you who have never heard this expression before, look at your T.V. or computer and image the show you are watching exists in its own separate reality, not connected to yours. “Breaking the fourth wall” is, in essence, transcending beyond the screen, the wall that separates you from them. It’s when the characters implicitly or explicitly refer to the audience. One common example is talking or “winking” to them.
If you still don’t quite get what I mean, think of the side glances into the camera you see on Looney Tunes, or comments like “gruesome, isn’t it?”. Look at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where the titular character isn’t narrating so much as thinking out loud in the moment, all the while smiling and looking right at you, like he knows you’re there. Games do it too. Without spoiling too much, the cult classic Conker’s Bad Fur Day‘s ending pretty much obliterates any semblance of fourth wall left standing at that point.
This is often, if not almost exclusively used for comedy.
Sometimes, writers use a subset of this to poke fun at themselves via the trope Who Would Want To Watch Us? Other times, they like to verge on fourth wall breaking with something called Lampshade Hanging, or “spotlighting.” That is when you take a problem or an unbelievable element within your own work and drag it into the spotlight within said work, so that everyone can see it. It can’t be ignored because the creator is addressing it. They knew it was there, even before you did.
Some writers do it because they think it’s really funny, or self-mocking. Others treat it like critic repellent.
I don’t mind Lampshade Hanging here and there. I love self-referential and self-debasing humor. But it irritates me when films sneer down their nose at common cliches and tropes, only to then use them later down the line in the same work. As if somehow that makes the overdone original again. I find it pretentious, cheap, and lazy.
Here is one example:
In the movie Pitch Perfect, Jesse, the love interest, (who is downright adorkable, by the way) tries to get Beca, the snarky sound-mixer protagonist, interested in movies. She totally gets the appeal of music, but movies just bore her. Jesse insists that the endings are the best part, but Beca gives a little speech about how they are so formulaic and predictable. Why would you want to watch something when you know how it will end?
Guess what happens:
Jesse and Beca hook up in the end. The guy gets the girl. That is as predictable as the sun rising in the morning. But wasn’t that snarky little speech just so enriching and innovative?
Allow me to quote a new favorite critic of mine, TheMysteriousMrEnter, from several of his reviews:
“Pointing out your problems does not make them go away.”
This can also work out badly in the inverse. If the writers are actually doing something unique or interesting, but feel the need to bash us over the head with it as much as possible. That’s obnoxious too.
For that example, look at Disney’s self parody, Enchanted. It turns out Princess Giselle has to save her damsel-in-distress boyfriend from a giant dragon. Instead of just letting the scene play out on its own, the evil queen/dragon has to make dry remarks every few minutes about how interesting and flipped the situation is.
I THINK WE GET IT.
As with many things in life, balance is key. Also, don’t pee on your audience and tell them it’s raining.
2# I Hate You, I Love You
Chicks love seeing relationships where there are none. Whether characters are just friends, bitter rivals, or hated enemies, odds are that you will find a fandom for every possible couple. I think romcom writers recognize this, because they seem to get a lot of mileage the “will-they-or-won’t-they” trope, particularly when it involves open hostility.
The Ugly Truth. The Proposal. Leap Year. And those are just some of the more recent ones, to name a few. The couple starts out with one or both parties hating the other, only to find out in the end that – surprise! – they actually love each other.
In some cases, the parties may even go back and forth.
I’m aware that there is a thin line between love and hate, and both require a level of passion and devotion, but used as often as it is, this trend quickly becomes annoying. Either put a new spin on it, or let it sleep for a while.
Also, can we do something about the awkward love triangle? You know, where the woman has a hot nice guy and a rude, obnoxious but also hot other guy, and she never fails to go for the jerk? Blah blah blah bad boys are cute. Blah blah blah nice guys finish last. How do we know life isn’t mimicking “art,” and not the other way around?
3# Obligatory Third-Act Misunderstanding
This is an epidemic. Not just in romcoms, but in movies as a whole. It needs to be destroyed, preferably with fire and salt.
Some stupid, contrived thing must break up the characters, all because the writers can’t figure out how to write a full story without cramming one in for pointless drama. It seriously just drags out the inevitable for another 20 or so minutes.
Yes, people can be dishonest and keep secrets. Yes, sometimes there is a liar, and he/she gets the mask pulled off at the wrong time. Stuff like this can happen in real life. But often this trope is, as I’ve mentioned, stupid and contrived.
Maybe the guy waffles around, debating when is the best time to tell his girlfriend that he was dating her only because of a bet. Or maybe he vehemently denies his growing feelings, only to have her accidentally overhear.
Or maybe he just can’t admit his feelings to her face because he’s stubborn (a man, basically) or awkward, and she’s had enough waiting.
Maybe Hugh Grant is Hugh Grant-ing it up, and the woman identifies him as an a-hole.
Take your pick, or fill in more blanks with your personal favorites. You know what I’m talking about.
And this isn’t just about nitpicking, or not acknowledging that sometimes avoidable, asinine things can happen in real life. Because they do. This is wondering why no one ever calls the police or arms themselves in a horror movie. This is wondering why they always run upstairs when a maniac is chasing them. The reasons for this trope are so idiotic; things that could easily be solved by something in the real world that we call “open communication.” Or having two working brain cells to rub together.
But then again, an open, healthy relationship is boring. And normal.
How about we put these misunderstandings in the first act and then get past them? How about that? That isn’t too overdone…yet…
4# The Woman is Always Right
Most romcoms, usually as a result of the totally necessary use of #3 above, end with someone (most often the woman) storming off. It is almost always up to the man to figure out what went wrong and fix it.
Okay, I’m a woman. I get other women. We’re emotional beings that don’t always recognize logic. I admit this. But we’re not stupid and crazy and hormonal all the time.
Half the time when I see this contrived bs, I am yelling at the woman to use her Cosmo-clouded brain.
“Confront the man, and I don’t mean like a closed-off idiot!” “Be honest and tell him what in holy hell is bothering you!” “THINK!”
Sure, the men do stupid things too. They can make mistakes and not recognize them. But romcoms like to make this a big thing that happens all the time. No one likes being wrong, and certainly not the women inserting themselves in the protagonist’s place.
This is not a romcom so much as a family comedy, but look at the Lindsay Lohan movie Parent Trap. Elizabeth (the mother) up and left Nick (the father), effectively splitting up their twins for life and content to never inform them of each other’s existence, and then she got upset that he didn’t come after her. He, on the other hand, figured that was what she wanted.
(note: I loved that movie as a kid, but I find the parents stupid, impossible to relate to, and damn near despicable)
As another example, look at Bride Wars. Emma’s boyfriend Fletcher calls her out for being crazy and catty (and stupid), and Emma and the movie frame him as the a-hole who just doesn’t understand. Sure, he isn’t gentle with his words, but he told her what none of her other girlfriends would, and he had every right to question why the woman he was marrying seemingly changed overnight into a childish, vindictive, passive-aggressive jerk. In the end, the two girls (Emma and Liv) who fought stupidly the whole movie over the “ideal wedding” become bestest friends again like nothing ever happened, and Fletcher is told off and leaves the movie entirely. Even though he was technically right, he’s wrong.
Women win, even when the conclusion makes no sense or is terribly skewed. As much as I dislike Leap Year, at least the confusion is on Anna, and she goes after Declan and proposes to him. Even Pitch Perfect tried it, with Beca driving Jesse away, only to win him back.
Contrivance and cliché can have some flavor with a little mixing up every now and then.
5# Woman as Lonely Cat Lady/Loser.
She’s insecure. Don’t know what fer. She turnin heads when she fix herself up mo-o-ore.
…Sorry. Just thought I could sum this one up while simultaneously mocking One Direction.
The woman in the movie is supposed to be you. Yes, you, lonely girls and aging women. She’s just like you, but hotter. She just doesn’t know it/own it yet. Again, they can insert themselves into the place of the lead woman and get a sense of catharsis from it.
Maybe she’s clumsy and awkward. Maybe she doesn’t know how to pick clothes or styles that flatter her, and just stumbles around in a baggy t-shirt and loose jeans. Maybe she has – gasp! – glasses!
Regardless of how it happened, it must be fixed. Usually with the introduction of a love interest. I guess that when I get right down to it, that’s the gist of what bothers me.
It is at its most egregious state in The Ugly Truth. But I can’t even talk about it, because it is seriously one of my most hated movies ever. Right up there with Identity Thief. That disgusting piece of trash thoroughly insults both genders, and the pig-headed man is always portrayed as being “in the right.”
My favorite romcom of all time, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is also guilty of this one, but I don’t mind it so much there. I thought it was used effectively. Sure, Toula sees a man and feels bad about herself, but I don’t think that is really the impetus for her fixing herself up and going to college. She didn’t need a man so much as a fulfilling purpose in life, and the backbone to put her foot down sometimes with her wacky family. The man came later, when she was much happier and more confident with herself.
The problem with mirroring real life so closely is that, at times, it tends to highlight our grievances with the real world, rather than let us temporarily forget them. Why aren’t all men dashing princes, ready to sweep you away to their castles astride gallant white stallions? Why don’t nice women with wonderful personalities and quirks always find Mr. Right at the opportune time, or sometimes ever? (ask the same question for the fellas)
I wouldn’t mind a little less simplicity, a little more variety, or at least changing things up more often. The world is complex, full of plenty of unique, possible scenarios, but here the writers are, sticking to what is familiar. Comfortable. Routine.
And so are we.
Even fantasies have become standard and predictable, when they were meant to excite and stir the imagination. So what does that tell us?
Disclaimer: Photos and gifs belong to their various owners, not me. Keep in mind that this is my list, and I’m not insulting you if you like any of the movies/things I referred to negatively. I’m also not saying that said films don’t have an original bone in their body.