Blogger friend MaryAn is struggling with a romantic comedy screenplay, seeking to understand what makes the damn things tick, or rather, kick. Her recent blog post posits a conclusion that I wholeheartedly support, which is that the rom-coms that seem to "work" best are those that serve up more than just love and laughs on their plate. They feature protagonists who have wants, purposes or goals that create their own conflicts, having nothing to do with the pursuit of true romance.
Tootsie, for example, is about an actor who's dying to get an acting job worthy of his talents. Heaven Can Wait is about a mistakenly killed athlete who needs to find a new body to come back to life with. That Working Girl from Jersey wants to work in the upper echelons of high finance; Shakespeare in Love concerns a certain playwright who's desperate to overcome writer's block.
In all these cases, love isn't what the leading lad or lady's after. Love is the complication that makes achieving his or her goal all the more problematic. This is true even in romantic comedies that are set in the realm of sex and romance -- last year's biggest rom-com hits, the male POV (macho chick flicks, I call 'em) Wedding Crashers and 40 Year-Old Virgin both feature protagonists whose primary goal is to get laid, period. To them, the falling-in-love part is initially an unexpected distraction (Virgin) and a buzz-killer (Crashers).
It stands to reason that in a genre where the audience comes in knowing the beginning, middle and end (meets, loses, gets) you'd have to bring in plot elements that can supply more tension and suspense. That's why I focus a lot of attention on "cross-genre" romantic comedies in my book, noting that teen rom-coms, crime rom-coms and supernaturals, et al, find the story hooks for their romances in other genre material. If you set your romance inside of another milieu (e.g. political: The American President, sports: Bull Durham) you've got plot aplenty to play with -- and your audience expands.
Alrighty, then -- most rom-coms that work well utilize a canny combo of conflicts romantic and non. But what's got me musing now is a larger issue MaryAn brought up as a comment here: Why do some Rom Coms withstand the test of time and others not?
Great question: what makes a romantic comedy endure? Many a combo platter rom-com has tanked, despite double-loading its plot (e.g. the political rom-com Speechless, the body-switch rom-com Prelude to a Kiss), so clearly that's not all there is to it. What, then, is the secret, the magic ingredient that makes one rom-com memorable and another one who's-seen-it?
In my search for evidence of the ineffable, like any sports fan, I go to the videotape. Let's look at a moment from a movie which by popular consensus is still as good now as it was when first released, and maybe some answers will emerge.
Snap out of it!
You've probably seen this clip countless times, but it's always fun. Moonstruck's Loretta (Cher) and Ronny (Nick Cage) have just slept together for the first time -- but she's engaged to his brother Johnny and she insists she's gonna marry him anyway. Here's the next beat, from John Patrick Shanley's screenplay:
Loretta: Last night never happened, and you and I are gonna take this to our coffins!
Ronny: I can't do that.
Loretta: Why not?
Ronny: I'm in love with you!
(Loretta stares at him in alarm, slaps his face, then studies his face to see the effect of the slap. She is dissatisfied and slaps him again.)
Loretta: Snap out of it!
Two observations spring to mind. One, Loretta is a fantastic character. Another woman might slap the guy... once. But only this woman would add the second slap, for reasons Shanley supplies, and only she -- Brooklyn Italian to the bone -- would come up with that line.
Brilliant enough, funny enough to be distinctive. But I think the charge that comes from her action-plus-dialogue arises from the comedic shock of a defeated expectation. What makes Loretta and Ronny's moment truly memorable is what I'll call the Same But Different principle.
Ronny's cry ("I'm in love with you!") is a genre norm. It's an obligatory beat -- it's just what we'd expect from this kind of a scene at this juncture in the story. What makes the next beat electrifying is how Shanley flies in the face (literally) of that convention, by having pragmatic Loretta -- passionately, desperately practical Loretta -- essentially say screw you to the very essence of the romantic ethos. He's the romance, she's the comedy, as she torques the expected direction of his high-flown declaration of love, batting it down to the ground.
In this, Shanley (and director Jewison and cast and crew, since the execution is superb, and who can forget that wide-eyed look on Cher's face?) is giving us what we want (The Same) and topping it with what we didn't know we wanted (...But Different). It's an exchange that delivers the essence of what an audience enjoys at the movies: a dramatic situation familiar, universal, easy to identify with (we've all been there...), that's tweaked by a specificity in character that makes it wholly unique (...but never before with these people, in this particular way).
This, I'll posit, is the romantic comedy writer's primary job: to make the known new. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, yeah-yeah-yeah... but this "lose?" Never seen it done like that, till now.
Clearly what's key, then, in creating a rom-com moment that endures, is making it happen via the creation of memorable, compelling characters. Say Tootsie and you see her (him), think of Annie Hall and you think of Annie (and Alvy). But the subtext of moments that withstand the test of time, I believe, is a conscious effort on the screenwriter's part to do it a little differently -- if you're going to steal an old routine, you pay it back with interest; if you're going to hit "that kind of moment," then your duty is to wack it from an unexpected angle.
This is what so many of the romantic comedies that endure do in their very concepts. Sleepless in Seattle was the first one to do "boy meets girl in the last five minutes of the movie." Defending Your Life gave us "boy meets girl after they're both already dead." Groundhog Day delivered "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy loses girl, boy loses girl... ad infinitum."
These distinctive high concepts get mirrored, microcosmically, in their execution of standard genre beats. Sleepless has that hoariest of genre conventions, the cute meet -- but due to its inspired conceptual hook, boy meets girl with girl in a car in one city, listening to boy talking on a radio station in a city thousands of miles away. It's a meet where she's meeting a romanticized, disembodied abstraction... and he doesn't even know he's been met.
So I'm going to slap It's the same but different on the board as one prerequisite for creating a romantic comedy moment that'll withstand the test of time. I have a hunch about another, which I'll get to in my next post. In the meantime, I'm totally open to suggestion and truly curious. You tell me: what do you think makes a romantic comedy endure?