Know Your Rom-Coms: 6 Tropes of the Genre’s Golden Age

It’s been 25 years since the birth of the modern romantic comedy. Beginning with When Harry Met Sally… in 1989, the genre has become a launching pad for some actors and a refuge for others. In these movies we find predictable moments, heightened notions of love, and a lot of questionable outfits. And while the genre has morphed over the years, we’re still in love with rom-coms — so we’re celebrating them all week. Welcome to Rom-Com Week.

You know how it begins. There’s a hapless woman. By all standards, civilian and celebrity, she’s very pretty. But for the purpose of this exercise, her exceptional appearance is obscured by unkempt hair, ill-fitting clothes, and the inexorable misfortune of being single. She’s gainfully employed, but not too ambitious. In many cases, she’s a creative type — a copywriter, a journalist, a book editor — though sometimes our girl may have a less glamorous job, like wedding planner or prostitute. It doesn’t really matter as long as she pays her own bills. Her life has order, even if it’s without meaning (a.k.a. love). And then some guy comes along and disrupts that fragile stasis. If you’re familiar with this woman, it’s because she is at the heart of every romantic comedy since When Harry Met Sally… arrived 25 years ago.

The world that the Nora Ephron–Rob Reiner collaboration conjured is a place that may operate outside of our reality, but firmly within its own. You just have to accept that someone as gorgeous as Jennifer Aniston would have a hard time finding a date. An unwritten doctrine of rom-coms has developed since When Harry Met Sally…, crystallizing with each new addition to the canon. Ever since Harry Burns declared that men and women can never be friends, the limits of that supposed truth have been tested over and over, even including what happens when the man in the equation is gay (looking at you, The Object of My Affection). Along the way, related tropes have emerged to define the modern rom-com. Often confused with high school comedies (Clueless, Say Anything…), sports movies (Bull Durham), and bromances (Wedding Crashers), and always evolving with the times, a true rom-com will contain these essential motifs. This is what we’re talking about when we celebrate Rom-Com Week.

JULIA ROBERTS PRETTY WOMAN (1990)

1. The Flawed Protagonist Seeking Salvation

The atom of the rom-com is the protagonist. The bulk of romantic comedies are predicated upon the indisputable charm of an unrefined woman. Perhaps she’s an impassioned lawyer in frumpy clothes (Sandra Bullock in Two Weeks Notice) or a Prince-loving sex worker with a heart of gold who can’t tell her salad fork from her dinner fork (Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman). Beneath that tough facade, you’ll find a vulnerable soul looking for her match, even if she doesn’t know that’s what she needs. Fortunately for Vivian in Pretty Woman, Richard Gere’s character offered romance and money. Love absolves financial snafus.

Winsome hookers aside, rom-com leads are often working in writing-driven professions. Sally Albright was an eager journalist, though her career immediately became irrelevant. Meg Ryan surfaced as a journalist again in Sleepless in Seattle, though this time her job was a necessary plot point. In the pre-Internet days, that occupation gave her the tools to do the stalking that Facebook affords us today. Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, Aniston in Picture Perfect, Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed, Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give are all involved in writing pursuits. Bullock in The Proposal, Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill work with books. In a few of these examples, there’s a reporting assignment that propels the plot forward. But largely, these jobs are all arbitrary. Bullock could be an executive at any company in any industry and The Proposal would be exactly the same. So, is there a secret white paper designating these professions as preapproved for rom-com leads? Is there focus group evidence suggesting that a female writer will appeal to the target female audience while remaining nonthreatening to the men who may watch? It’s hard to tell exactly what these jobs are meant to indicate about the ladies of rom-coms (other than, perhaps, that they’re the creations of vainglorious writers), but the prevalence of a single field has become shorthand for the archetype.

Focusing the story solely on a woman is an early simplification of the When Harry Met Sally… premise — it’d be incorrect to designate only Ryan or only Billy Crystal as the lead. One year later, when Pretty Woman was released, it challenged the dual-sex hierarchy. Gere may be integral to that movie, but he’s not as vital as Roberts. Seminal movies in the genre like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail are outliers — Ryan and Tom Hanks are equally important. Call it a corruption of form. Or just blame Ryan for failing to truly carry a movie.

JAY MOHR & JENNIFER ANISTON PICTURE PERFECT (1997)

2. The Meet-Cute

Now our woman has to meet her future mate. According to The American President, While You Were Sleeping, Jerry Maguire, What Women Want, Miss Congeniality, and quite a few others, your best chance to find love is at work. The work is actually secondary to the dating possibilities. This is a particularly convenient storytelling device — dating coworkers is historically tricky in the real world. The nexus of plausibility and relatability is the perfect point of departure for rom-coms. Maybe there’s an inherent power structure to overcome. Maybe the guy has to go back on his word, thereby submarining both professional and personal connections. Maybe the relationship has to be a secret. Maybe they’re work adversaries who find love in a hopeless place. And all of these possible plots don’t even account for the bait-and-switch in rom-coms where the workplace relationship isn’t even the pairing we’re rooting for. In the case of Aniston’s fine mess, Picture Perfect, Kevin Bacon is the lecherous boss she falls for at first, only to realize he is not The One. The lesson is that the woman’s job will become a footnote in the broader love story she’ll surely tell one day.

Sometimes the meet-cute is even simpler. Sometimes not making sense is the only sensible thing. Notting Hill doesn’t pretend that world-famous movie star Anna Scott would ever spend time on travel bookshop owner Will Thacker were she not actively trying to escape her celebrity. In this case, the improbability of their relationship is highlighted when Will takes Anna to dinner with his inner circle. Each person tries to top the other with depressing stories about whose life is the hardest. Will’s friends have pedestrian problems: divorce, stalled careers, paralysis due to a horrific car accident. But only Anna’s problems as an actor — tabloid coverage, constant dieting, plastic surgery — silence the table. One could argue that being confined to a wheelchair is a greater daily challenge than being followed by paparazzi, but Notting Hill says you are wrong. If her life weren’t so complicated, while his so simple, this love story wouldn’t be so compelling. The meet-cute becomes essential in conveying the impossibility of this couple happening in the first place.

PETER GALLAGHER & SANDRA BULLOCK WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING (1995)

3. The False Start

If the relationship is founded upon an unlikely circumstance, it only follows that there would be at least one moment of dissolution. There’s such a huge gulf to bridge! Ultimately, the couple will find its rhythm two-thirds of the way through the movie. By this point, the best and least predictable elements of the movie are over. The last section is a perfunctory 25- to 35-minute period during which the couple we have already fallen for realize they’ve fallen for each other. By the time Joe Fox visits the newly unemployed Kathleen Kelly at home in You’ve Got Mail, we know they’re going to end up together. (OK, we also knew this before we even began watching the movie.) It’s only a matter of how. When Peter Callaghan wakes up in While You Were Sleeping, we know Lucy will end up with Jack. It’s only a matter of how she will reveal that she has been lying about being engaged to Jack’s brother. More time should probably be dedicated to understanding how these people forgive each other. For example, doesn’t Kathleen need some time to consider if she can excuse the fact that Joe is responsible for the bankruptcy of her family business? And shouldn’t Jack be concerned that not only did Lucy lie to his entire family, she might also have adulterous tendencies? No one would fault these people if they needed some time for reflection.

Occasionally rom-coms will surprise and the OTP couple will not end up together. But when this happens, it’s typically a move into a more qualified romantic comedy category: Unsatisfying Rom-Coms Due to Intrusions of Reality, or URCDIR. The Break-Up falls into this subgenre. We sit through the comedic high jinks of a couple trying to navigate disentanglement, waiting for them to realize they actually love each other and correct course. Vince Vaughn’s character follows through on the implicit rom-com contract, but Aniston’s refuses. Even if the movie leaves a slight possibility for reconciliation, it ends without the requisite favorable outlook. This movie is all false start, without any of the redeeming moments.

Similarly, the criminally overrated Love Actually has too many couples that end up apart for realistic reasons. Realism has no truck here. There’s nothing amusing about Alan Rickman’s character cheating on his wife, played by Emma Thompson. It’s difficult to root for the Mark Feuerstein look-alike to win over Keira Knightley because she is his best friend’s girl, and that best friend happens to be a smiley Chiwetel Ejiofor. No one entering a theater and expecting a rom-com should have to suffer through the depressing and awkward scenes between Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro. Even if the pain of those relationships rings true, there’s no place for it in a movie that features Grant as the prime minister of England.

4. The Grand Epiphany, and the Grand Declaration

After the relationship temporarily stalls when one party makes an idiotic mistake, he or she who commits the error suddenly realizes that they cannot be without the other. As soft pop music plays, the epiphany strikes. This is when the movie’s momentum picks up again. The long autumn of the couple’s separation is coming to an end. We can feel the reconciliation coming. It’s incumbent upon the aggressor to assess his own loneliness, inevitably leading to the realization that he had been mistaking general discontent for a specific void. Finally aware that the void disappeared while the hapless woman was in his life, he has to run out immediately to win back the love of his life. Or, in the case of Jerry Maguire, a concussive blow to the head of wide receiver Rod Tidwell is the reckoning that sends Jerry running through the airport and into Dorothy Boyd’s women’s group. Even in a less orthodox rom-com like About a Boy, Grant’s Will has a transformative moment in which he realizes that his friendship with young Marcus has unlocked his heart (in a non-pederast kind of way). He then literally runs out to save everyone involved in this movie.

The grand epiphany is essential because it gives way to the final act: the grand declaration, arguably the apex of all rom-coms and the greater world of cinema. The elite rom-coms include a monologue a 14-year-old girl will want to memorize with the hope that something similar may be uttered to her one day, or that she’ll have the chance to deliver such a soliloquy. Here are some quintessential Declarations.

When Harry Met Sally…: Crystal delivers the “When you realize that you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to begin as soon as possible” speech.

Notting Hill: Roberts tells Grant, “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

10 Things I Hate About You: Julia Stiles recites epic poetry worthy of her movie’s Shakespearean roots.

Jerry Maguire: And, of course, Tom Cruise breaks into the women’s group to tell his wife, “You complete me.”

This contrived moment is essential to the form. Lest you exit the movie wondering if what you’ve been watching is an accurate depiction of anything from real life, this monologue of typically no less than 60 seconds will remind you that this is romance on steroids.

5. The Supporting Cast of Friends

In the traditional rom-com world, a relationship involves more than two people. Man, woman, and a coterie of best friends are elemental to the formula. The best friends fall into three groups.

First, there are the Confidants, the friends who function as a sounding board for the primary couple. In When Harry Met Sally…, it is Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher). They primarily exist to allow Harry and Sally to talk about each other and their relationship. These friends are tools of exposition.

Second, there are the Colleagues. The colleague friend illustrates what most of the lead woman’s relationships are like. Judy Greer has elevated this role to great heights, particularly with her performance as Jennifer Lopez’s assistant, Penny, in The Wedding Planner. Without Penny, we’d have no way of knowing how harsh and difficult Mary can be.

Third, there are the Indulgent Friends Who Are Fully Aware the Lead May Be Single Forever (IFWAFALMBSF). Heather Burns, who pops up in You’ve Got Mail, Two Weeks Notice, and both Miss Congeniality installments, is never as hysterical as the Greer character — the Burns type is in on the joke from the start. Even as prude Cheryl in Miss Congeniality, she knows that Bullock’s character is hopeless until she undergoes a full makeover, inside and out.

The rom-com friend composite was typified by Rosie O’Donnell in Sleepless in Seattle. In one performance, she covers all three categories: (1) She’s available by phone at all times to allow Annie to talk it out, and she helps advance the plot by mailing Annie’s letter. (2) They work together at the Baltimore Sun, where she demonstrates that Annie is somewhat scattered, readily taking advice from her friends and family whenever it’s given. (3) She engages with Annie’s obsession from a sardonic perch, aware of how manic she seems. It’s an inspiring performance that deserves some recognition from the rom-com board of directors.

6. The City As a Character

In all the greats, there is a silent participant: the city in which the movie is set. It’s usually New York, though sometimes it’s London or Los Angeles. Chicago makes a handful of appearances. Grand, unlikely comedic love is more compelling when you surround the couple with millions of people who are decidedly not right. The couple becomes like two jigsaw puzzle pieces in a set of 1,000, shuffling around in the box for the first 30 minutes, wrong fits everywhere. These cities offer dreamy skylines and well-known landmarks that add a feeling of familiarity and exceptionalism. There’s a sense of possibility right at home.

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These rules are not hard and fast. In spite of all of these persistent tropes, a few rom-coms seem to defy all structure. Sleepless in Seattle is undeniably canon even though the two leads only speak in the final scene. If they never meet, there can’t be a big fight that derails their progress. They’re off the track from the start, and yet Sleepless in Seattle meets the other requirements — it’s impossible to dispute its status. It fits because a rom-com is just like the relationships it depicts: Sometimes you just know. Gone wrong, predictability is the enemy. But for all of the simplistic notions about men and women, romantic comedies remain eminently watchable because they enjoyably flow from one predictable beat to the next, with occasional insight you never think is possible. That’s what the great ones do, anyway. At best, these movies slightly disrupt the structure without defiling it. They need a little pixie dust. Then that soft, melodic music rises and the credits begin to roll, and you begin to wonder how long it will be before you can feel that feeling again.

Filed Under: Rom-Com Week, Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts, meg ryan, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, Tom Hanks, meet-cute, tropes

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Juliet Litman works on the Grantland Quarterly.

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