One of the most useful tools in the romantic comedy screenwriter's shed is the Buddy. The Buddy acts as the lead character’s support and sounding board, and gives us a bigger window into this protagonist’s inner life. Though lesser Buddies exist merely to crack wise and provide exposition, the best of them have a key function in the plot: They help move the story forward. Tom Hank’s buddy (Rob Reiner) in Sleepless in Seattle goads him into dating again, while Meg Ryan’s buddy, played by Rosie O’Donnell, makes Meg realize she’s more into Tom than her actual fiancé, and helps her pursue him.
Seeing how stock and stereotypical a Buddy can be, the alert screenwriter is obliged to come up with intriguing variations. Writer-director Steve Gordon nabbed Sir John Gielgud an Oscar by casting him as an inspired Buddy, the butler Hobson in Arthur. A precocious kid sister (Chloe Mortez) served a buddy function in (500) Days of Summer, and a Russell terrier speaking in subtitles made a distinctive buddy in Beginners.
One popular variation on the archetype that’s also flourished on the small screen is the buddy group. Friends, essentially a serial ensemble romantic comedy, gave all of its characters turns at buddy-ing (more recently, How I Met Your Mother has followed suit), while in Sex and the City, the three supports represented projections of the central protagonist’s personality: pragmatic cynic Miranda (ego), idealistic nice girl Charlotte (super-ego), and sexually avaricious Samantha (pure id) are the isolated and magnified attributes of heroine Carrie Bradshaw, who’s a bit of all these things and more (the neurotic creative type).
But generally, the friends trio or quartet represents an audience surrogate version of company. The movie’s romantic sufferings and joys become a communally shared subject for our various points of view.
Richard Curtis holds the British patent on this Greek chorus-like construction, having launched his international career with the support-centric Four Weddings and a Funeral, developed, according to Curtis, when he noticed that he kept running into his same group of friends at various weddings. At the top of the 21st century, the sixteen-limbed extension of the Buddy was honed by Curtis into a fine-tuned comedic empathy machine.
The best of these clans is found in Notting Hill, where the buddies’ blend of personal discontent and vicarious enjoyment of the hero’s entanglements – it’s Hugh Grant in crinkle-eyed dear-me! mode – is given unusual gravitas by the presence of real, un-mollified pain, exemplified by the sad but brave Bella, a woman unfairly wheelchaired in her prime, and her embittered loving husband, William. Thus the problems of a movie star in love are countered by, as Grant tells Julia Roberts at one key point, "a normal amount of perspective."
Bridget Jones's Diary had another ideal friends quartet: prone-to-crying-jags Jude, the one with the “fuck-wit boyfriend,” foul-mouthed journalist Shazzer (based on the film’s director, Bridget author Helen Fielding’s friend Sharon Maguire), and gay Tom, “Eighties pop icon, who only wrote one hit record, then retired because he found that one record was quite enough to get him laid for the whole of the Nineties.”
You’d like to have Tom as a friend because his limited celeb status is leavened with just-another-bloke ordinariness. The running gag of his being perennially recognized by admiring men in restaurants is paid off when Tom, in a fit of pique, exasperatedly tells a dining couple trying to get his attention that yes, he is That Guy, only to learn that they merely want him to move his chair off the woman’s coat.
It’s hard to tell if the rom-com’s Buddy Group reflects real life humans who prefer to travel in packs, or is an ideal imagined by those of us who feel companion deprived. Meanwhile, I've noticed a more recent trend in the land of Buddies. It may be an outgrowth of bromantic comedy - movies that are tacitly or overtly focused on the de-sexualized love between two heterosexual men (e.g. I Love You, Man) - but a number of rom-com specs submitted to studios these days are splitting the difference in protagonist focus, i.e. Two male or female leads are getting nearly equal story attention.
Movies of this ilk provide us with two romantic comedy story lines for the price of one, while not tipping into total ensemble movie turf. Wedding Crashers comes to mind as rom-com/ bromantic comedy where one's hard-pressed to decide who's the "buddy," and who the ostensible "primary hero" is meant to be. (Commenter Rob has subsequently pointed out that Owen Wilson's character is the hero, in the end.)
Perhaps the Buddy is finally beginning to achieve autonomy. What I find appealing in this trend is the notion that all the characters in a given story can be fully dimensional. And it presents an interesting challenge for any pre-pro screenwriter currently working on a romantic comedy.
Do you want your protagonist to have one sidekick as support, or a posse? What's the purpose and advantage of either option? Might your supposed sidekick have a subplot that's nearly as important as the main event? Before you simply plug in a buddy as the obligatory support for your hero or heroine, give it some extra thought. Making this choice can have a global effect on the very structure and spine of your story.