Friday, January 3, 2020

World of the Romantic Comedy

As with any other genre or piece of art there is no singular way to measure the quality of a Romantic Comedy. But that doesn't mean there aren't motifs, or certain qualities that come up to shine regularly in the best of them. I mean, there are my personal hallmarks of great Romantic Comedies, like how many tears fall from my eyes in the last third of the movie, or how often my wife and I are willing to watch the same movie over and over, or how many times while watching the movie I think "I need to write a blog post about this!" But there are slightly more objective measurements as well; how fresh the writing is despite all the deeply entrenched and must-be-observed structures, how charismatic the lead actors are, and the one we're going to briefly explore today, how manifold and rich are the side characters.

What the best Romantic Comedies do, aside from the given of having rounded, engaging leads, and teaching that love is the answer, is they populate the world with a society of quirky, complex, amusing, and delightfully authentic associates, friends, relatives and bystanders. The charming Isn't It Romantic, starring Rebel Wilson, which (mostly) cleverly lampoons the tropes of the Romantic Comedy (on the way to being one) suggests that the quirky side characters exist to serve the main characters, like the gay best friend who positively lives in the joy and excitement of helping, egging on, and heartening the heroine of the movie. And while there is an underlining truth to this, in the best Romantic Comedies something quite the opposite takes place with these characters as well; they build a world.

World building is something more familiarly discussed in regards to Fantasy novels, but Romantic Comedies, while generally set in our own specifically real world, take enough liberties with that world that they become slightly fantastical worlds in their own right. They take sufficient dark edges off the world as it is, they are leavened enough, that they become lightly fantastical worlds in their own right. Just Like Heaven, with Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo, has on the one hand the specifically fantastical element of a ghost-like materialization of a woman in a coma (an essential and main feature of the plot), but it also includes as a key feature of the story an apartment, affordable apparently to both a medical student and to a depressed, unemployed landscape designer, that, in looking up a roughly comparable rental on my little computer here, would go for $8,000 a month. This, as Isn't It Romantic well knows, is its own particular kind of fantastic. It's a fantastic that needs a little weight so that it doesn't drift away. It needs a population of characters who suggest whole universes of themselves, that can tether the movie to earth.

I like Just Like Heaven. I did not come here to use it as an example though. A good, but not great Romantic Comedy, it is buoyed by terrific leads. It has a nice story. And it contains, for modest proof of my exegesis, precisely one very quirky and eminently engaging side character, Jon Heder, an occult bookstore clerk and/or an expert in the field of extra sensory phenomena.

But compare this to two masterpieces of the genre, one acclaimed (though not enough),  and one (I suppose justly) a bit less so. 

I went to look at the cast of Moonstruck, the greatest of all Romantic Comedies. I was trying to come up with a number of eccentric, strangely appealing, and entirely gravitational side characters who swirl around the epic performances of our romantic leads, Nicholas Cage and Cher. I found it impossible. Aside from the obviously brilliant supporting role masterwork by Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia (the parents), John Mahoney (a side character who interacts mainly with the mother) and Danny Aiello (the fiance), there are a series of side characters rendered with exquisite and increasingly brief brushstrokes; the expressive aunt and uncle, the old man (that's actually his character name! He is Cher's grandfather in the movie), Bobo the waiter, the undertaker who is a genius, Chrissy the bakery counter staff who loves Ronny, but he could never love again since he lost his girl and his hand, and on and on until we've descended to roles like the almost incidental arguing and making up married couple with a liquor store, an unseen priest at confessional, the fiance's dying mother who has naught but a few gestures in the distance, or the hairdresser taking out the grey in Cher's hair, each of them tinily rendered with an economical charm. Moonstruck is an enormous confection, but one so lavishly and relentlessly decorated with purpose that the weight of its Italian New York is as ridiculously grounded and real as any two hour movie of any genre could ever be.

Originally I conceived of some vague version of this post in the glow of watching Music and Lyrics with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. It's successes are surely more modest in comparison to Moonstruck, what wouldn't be? Nevertheless the same richness of side character is what gives the movie its level of power and conviction and places it among the best of Romantic Comedy. The eccentric yet grounded elan with which the roles of the agent, Brad Garrett, and the sister played by Kristen Johnston, are perfectly done, but like with Moonstruck the quality of the characters does not diminish as we run down into smaller and smaller parts; Cora, the at once over drawn and convincing pop star, the brother in law, all the way to the charming apartment desk clerk who is tone deaf but listens to the leads' songs, and to Derek, the guy who provides steamy and sticky beats. All of them are engagingly rendered. The romance of the main characters does not set the rules of the universe on its own, nor does it exist precisely in our own world, but it does fit perfectly into the ever so slightly daft, swirling world of the defined and colorful characters that thickly populate and even create the film they live in.

Like I said, there are no hard rules. One could even, somehow, put together a good Romantic Comedy on the strength of the excellence of just one of the leads, if, for instance, it's John Cusack in Say Anything. The nutty, almost garbage plot of When in Rome can be charmed into quality by the sheer vim and conviction of its brilliant cast. And surely one could come up with a very fine Romantic Comedy with simply two wonderful leads and a thinly rendered supporting cast, but I have had no particular luck in my search for an example of that so far. But to be honest, I'm not that interested in finding it. After all, I don't see why I should be responsible for watering down my main point. So let's just let it stand.


  1. I will have to try Music and Lyrics. I am in the mood for something I haven't seen and something that will make me laugh and possibly cry.

    Have you seen Defending Your Life with Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks. That's one of my favorites!

    1. I have seen Defending Your Life, but not for awhile. Historically you have brought it up on occasion when the subject of Romantic Comedies has reared its mighty sappy head around here! But it's been awhile since I've seen it. Maybe I should try again. I'm not sure if I'm entirely happy with Albert Brooks as a romantic lead in a Romantic Comedy but I should... check.


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