Yeah, yeah -- you've heard enough about Wall-E, and you don't need yet another blogger, critic, or moviegoing civilian (though it would be nice to hear from the android community) to tell you how wonderful it is. Hardened hearts have been warmed, grown men have wept, etc. But amidst all the Ultimate Family Summer Fun! and Best Sci-Fi Since ET! kudos, you may not have gotten the inside line particular to our purview: to date, Pixar's latest animated feature is also the best romantic comedy of the year.
I heard this sentiment first expressed in an e-mail from a student only weeks out of my most recent "Writing the Romantic Comedy" course (either I'm a first-rate brainwasher, or the things I've been saying in there actually do make sense to people). I'll let Dana Carsley tell it: "Sure, Wall-E helps us save the planet but what this movie is REALLY about is Wall-E's love for Eve and how he overcomes all the hurdles that take them from cute meet to joyful defeat."
That is correct, Grasshopper, and I thoroughly support what she went on to say: "[The movie] has endearing and engaging made-for-each other leads, the highest of stakes, sincerity of emotion, and very visual storytelling. And it successfully conveys all this without much dialogue!"
Kind of like Chaplin and Keaton's best rom-com work, and this leads me to ask (with steam blowing out my ears): how is it that Chaplin's City Lights just made the top of AFI's recent Best Romantic Comedies list, and yet, bizarrely, Sydney Pollack's Tootsie didn't rate at all?
My answer? Many people who ought to know better wouldn't recognize a romantic comedy if it ran to the airport and stopped them from getting on a plane to declare how much it loved them.
Perception is the problem. According to AFI, a romantic comedy is defined as "a genre in which the development of a romance leads to comic situations." That's not so bad so far as it goes, but let's note for the record that oh, EIGHT out of AFI's Top Ten begin their stories as comedies, with comic situations aplenty unfolding in full guffaw gear, before the movie's central romance develops (I'll grudgingly concede that Adam's Rib and Philadelphia Story have their romances established before the laughs start).
I define a romantic comedy as 1) a comedy whose central plot is embodied in a romantic relationship, and 2) is driven by the central question: Will these two people become a couple?
Given this thesis, many a movie is a breath mint and a candy mint -- many a romantic comedy is also a musical (High School Musical), an action thriller (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), a teen coming-of-age pic (Juno). Such hybrids are the coin of the realm by now. But when the climax of a comedic story is determined by what happens between its two romantic leads, even if it's a high concept, device-driven movie, it's fundamentally a romantic comedy.
Groundhog Day's log line starts off as "A TV weatherman gets stuck living through the same February 2nd forever, until..." Until what? "...Until he falls for his producer, and by learning what love really means, finally escapes his peculiar fate."
Thus, Wall-E (story about the last robot left on Earth...) is a romantic comedy. Tootsie (story about a guy who dresses up as a woman...) is a romantic comedy. Enchanted (story about an animated fairy-tale princess who gets thrown into the real world...)? Romantic comedy. Zelig, Prizzi's Honor, Princess Bride: None of the above may have been pitched, sold and advertised as rom-coms, but that is what they are.
The pervasive industry narrow-mindedness about what a romantic comedy can be is largely what's led us to the plethora of mediocre-to-awful formulaic "guy and a girl on a date"-centric rom-coms of the past decade, where it's all about the romance -- they talk, they walk, they kiss, they talk -- giving our genre the reputation of being little more than cinematic Ambien.
No, you can have a big-screen, big action movie that's a rom-com, too. And this is why I'm constantly telling students of the form: if you want to write a good romantic comedy, you don't have to write a "romantic comedy." Write a story where love is the transformative power that changes everything. It can be about be about gun-runners, it can be about golf), it can take place hundreds of years in post-apocalyptic future Earth and outer space, starring robots instead of humans.
Hey, don't just take my word for it -- this neat compendium of robot love stories shows Wall-E is in a grand tradition, and better yet, here's Wall-E writer/director Andrew Stanton, who in a fab interview, has this to say about his movie:
Somewhere halfway I realized what the theme is... the point I was trying to push with these two programmed robots was the desire for them to try and figure out what the point of living was. It took these really irrational acts of love to sort of discover them against how they were built. I said, "That's it! That's my theme: Irrational love defeats life's programming." I realized that that's a perfect metaphor for real life. We all fall into our habits, our routines and our ruts, consciously or unconsciously to avoid living. To avoid having to do the messy part. To avoid having relationships with other people, of dealing with the person next to us. That's why we can all get on our cellphones and not have to deal with one another. I thought, "That's a perfect amplification of the whole point of the movie."