This past Sunday's NY Times profile on screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna catches the screenwriter saying what writers who haven't tried writing rom-coms won't cop to:
McKenna came to realize that writing a straight romantic comedy — or at least writing an interesting straight romantic comedy — is very, very hard. “Thin people who want to be in love and their concerns about their love life — that’s not a very dynamic want,” McKenna said over lunch near her Hollywood office. “There’s that, and then there’s the nuclear briefcase. There’s a spectrum of urgency, and wanting to find someone is a not-very-directed goal. Whereas, ‘I need to get through this year and then get promoted,’ or ‘If we don’t get the ratings up the show will close down’ — there’s an urgency.”
That urgency - particularly, the stakes and jeopardy that come alive when a given script hones in on its protagonist's professional life (as opposed to her romantic difficulties) - is the big asset that comes with what McKenna has carved out as her own niche turf:
What feels modern about McKenna’s version of the romantic comedy is that, as she explains it, “the women have goals that are not strictly speaking romantic.” When a young news producer in McKenna’s “Morning Glory” is transformed by a stunning dress, it is for a job interview, not a date. “The Devil Wears Prada” concludes with a reconciliation between the heroine and her boyfriend, but it is almost besides the point: the happy ending is delivered by a better job.
“I Don’t Know How She Does It,” which comes out in September, could be considered the third in a trilogy of McKenna work-love movies — a grouping that McKenna refers to as “the BlackBerry 3” because the women in them are forever clutching their phones or chucking them or eyeing them longingly or putting them in the freezer (the relationship maybe be put on ice, but only temporarily).
McKenna can also do straight relationship-centric stuff well, as her effective 27 Dresses of a few years back has proven (while kicking off what's become a full-fledged Katherine Heigl backlash). Meanwhile, what resonates for me in her success story is a question it poses for romantic comedy scribes: Does your protagonist have a job that really matters? And is your movie really about a woman and her work (or a man and his) in a way that reflects the importance of a livelihood in real life?
As the McKenna profile points out, female protagonists still seem to be stuck in the sterotype of "job versus romance" - the trope of a woman who can only have a successful career if she's sacrificed her romantic ideals on the altar of commerce. Meanwhile, given that we're living in a particularly precarious job market moment (one that isn't likely to end anytime soon), the whole question of character employment for either gender has more resonance now than ever.
Nonetheless, I can't tell you how many rom-com specs I read on a weekly basis where "job" is code for "obligatory subplot." All too often the "what the character does for a living" in a given romantic comedy serves as filler - it's something thrown in to open up the movie a bit, to add a little extra action and conflict. What's missing is that urgency that McKenna has honed in on as her ostensible subject: the idea that the gig defines the character, and that the stakes in one's livelihood are actually the most important stakes in the story.
In real life, how you feel about the work that you do is a hugely significant indicator of your level of personal happiness. Our work does define us - even if it's in our thinking that what we do every day is nothing but a way to pay the rent.
Character-driven rom-coms that put their protagonist's livelihoods front-and-center (even broad farces like The Proposal) are grounded in worlds that audiences find relatable and credible. And rom-com screenplays that place their characters in an intriguing but believable workplace (see the McKenna oeuvre) benefit from the kind of real-life intensity that can connect an audience to that most primal of moviegoing experiences: the sense that those dream people up on the screen are actually up against the kind of quotidian concerns that occupy our own every waking hour.
Does your character have a real job? How much does it matter to your story? The more it does, the more your movie is likely to matter to us.