Though it seems an odd question for writers taking a course entitled Writing the Romantic Comedy to ask, a query that invariably comes up in the classroom - also debated on various blogs and in the mainstream media, on occasion - is: What is a romantic comedy?
Confusion arises around defining this beast on two fronts: one, many comedies feature strong romantic story lines, so it's sometimes hard to say which conflict is ultimately dominant, and two, many comedies are based in genres that are clearly not "romance," first and foremost, so it may seem strange to define them as "romantic comedies."
For example, some might argue that Bringing Down the House is a romantic comedy, whereas Romancing the Stone is not.
Some would be wrong. On both counts.
Here's why. Genre movies define themselves by the central story question they pose. Horror movies ask: Will the heroine or hero defeat the monster? The monster may be supernatural (Poltergeist), an alien (Aliens) or a malevolent human (Halloween), but beyond such specifics, all a horror movie has to provide in order to be deemed one, is a "horrible" antagonist (i.e. arousing dread, extremely unpleasant), and plenty of scares. The Fright Factor is an important index of the movie's success as a horror genre entry. But finally, any "horror movie" that doesn't make Will the monster be defeated? its primary climactic focus is not truly a horror movie.
When I studied romantic comedies as prep for writing my how-to book, I found that the question such movies asked was: Will these two individuals become a couple? This is either the most important issue in a given comedy, or it isn't. The "two become one?" question reflects the fact that in a romantic comedy, the movie's central conflict is embodied in a romantic relationship. You see this represented in the age-old paradigm for rom-coms: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.
Applying this central question litmus test reveals that Bringing Down the House is a buddy movie with a rom-com subplot. Remove the love story involving Steve Martin's character and his ex-wife (Jean Smart), and the story will still function, answering the question: Will Steve's friendship with Charlene (Queen Latifah) change his life for the better?
Re: Romancing the Stone, let me ask you - How did they get the stone back? Do you even remember where the stone came from and what getting it was all about? Oh, right, there was a kidnapping... something to do with Danny DeVito... No, such a line of questioning is absurd. What you remember about this movie is the romance between Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas. Setting aside the fact that the protagonist played by Turner is a romance novelist, that the entire movie is a knowing satire of romances, and that laughs are its raison d'etre - the most important question answered by the end of Stone is: Does she end up with the guy?
Nonetheless, while Romancing the Stone is a romantic comedy, it's clearly an adventure movie. So why can't it be both?
Well, it can and it is, just as Groundhog Day is both a high concept fantasy and a rom-com (as is What Women Want), while Knocked Up is a slacker/coming-of-age raunch-com and a rom-com (as is Wedding Crashers).
In Writing the Romantic Comedy, I identified a dozen cross-genre hybrids (crime, parental, teen rom-coms, etc.). Hybrids have been with us from the dawn of the romantic comedy era, and for good reason.
While in the heyday of screwball comedy (from 1934's It Happened One Night through 1941's The Lady Eve), the boy meets/loses/gets paradigm was enough to fully equip and power a comedy, the form's familiarity and predictable outcome soon forced imaginative writers to start poaching on other genre turf: The Thin Man (1934) crossed rom-com with detective story, while I Married a Witch (1942) integrated the supernatural. After the ethos-downer of WWII, romantic comedy really had to cross-breed to survive (e.g. the gender-bender I Was a Male War Bride and the sports/rom-com Pat and Mike, et al).
What we see on screens today is a reflection of these two approaches. Your classic chick flick rom-com harkens back to the pure strain of girl-meets-boy screwballs (27 Dresses, Two Weeks Notice), while contemporary mixed-genre rom-coms (Enchanted, Ghost Town) are a breath mint and a candy mint.
It's for this reason that Shaun of the Dead remains one of my favorite romantic comedies of the past decade. Yes, you heard me right. The movie starts with a classic rom-com conflict: Shaun (Simon Pegg) gets dumped by Liz (Kate Ashfield) because he's stuck in a passive rut and he drags his best buddy with him everywhere. Can he get her back? Well, due to a local health crisis, Shaun has to fetch Kate (along with friends and family) and find her a safe haven. He thus proves he can be an active, heroic bloke who's worthy of her trust and love, even leaving the buddy behind to ensure a happy ending with Liz.
How romantic comedy is that! Oh, wait, did I leave something out? Right: there were zombies.
One of the great gags in Shaun arises from this very disjunction: Shaun's so caught up in his romantic drama that he's slow on the uptake, not realizing that while he's hung-up on getting Liz back, all of London is under attack (zombies are feasting on humans and multiplying). Which speaks to my point: the movie's "Will he get the girl?" conflict is primary.
Zombies are the obstacle, and "how the monsters are defeated" is of course important... but remove the romantic relationship from the equation, and - well, you can't: it's the motor that drives the movie. The zombies could be aliens, malevolent tornadoes, whatever, and the story would still function. Take away Liz, however, and you've got a different story: just another zombie horror pic, with buddy protagonists, and you'd have to come up with a new central story line to make it play.
The cross-breed hybrid notion as a way of looking at rom-coms (i.e. they can be "two movies in one") does breed controversy. Is About a Boy a romantic comedy? Tough call, since the cad-and-lad conflict is so central and predominant. I'd have to go with "hybrid" (coming-of-age/rom-com); a similar ambiguity affects genre definition of Juno. And what happens when something that undeniably seems to be a romantic comedy actually sort of... isn't?
This is my bone to pick with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which I plan to expose as a rom-com poseur next week, as we take on the issue: "What is a great romantic comedy?"
I offer you this cinematic tempest in a teapot, as oil poisons the Gulf: sometimes such a diversion really is a quantum of solace.