Given that supposedly, the romantic comedy is dead and yet inexplicably, they're still being made and people are still going to see them, the question for pre-pro and pro screenwriters alike is: How does one craft a romantic comedy that appeals to the contemporary audience - an audience that's tired of traditional romantic comedies?
Based on the evidence of some recent movies in release, and the projects I see being developed by the major studios, here’s the first in a series of “rules” (i.e. fervent suggestions) for (in want of a catchier term) Neo-Rom-Coms.
#1: Make it relevant.
I know, kind of a no-brainer thought on its surface, but you’d be surprised by how many spec scripts one reads that have written their way right past this obvious truism: We respond to movies that we feel are about us.
Thus, as this recent New York Times piece pointed out, the current plethora of “isolated people fighting for survival” movies (Gravity, Captain Phillips, All is Lost): they speak to a prevalent feeling of peculiarly modern anxiety. As A.O. Scott puts it, born of a sense that the world is both too much with us and too unresponsive to us, today’s most popular nightmare is “to be invisible in your distress, unheard in your terror.” The protagonists in these movies ultimately fulfill the fantasy of being seen and heard.
Love stories are generally universal, sure, but the ones that really strike a chord with the culture are the ones that speak to something that’s going on like, now. Many have theorized, for example, that the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray’s “mommy porn” is that it speaks to contemporary women’s desire – in fantasy – to relinquish the very control that feminism has gained them. Vicariously identifying with Gray’s heroine, so the theory goes, enables the modern woman who’d like a respite from all her responsibilities, to – with the illicit thrill of knowing this is wrong – be willfully irresponsible.
Which brings me to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon. I liked and admired it more than loved it, but it’s stayed with me, and I think that’s due to a primary factor in why the movie got made and has performed decently. Yes, actor-writer-director Gordon-Levitt had the necessary clout, yes, Scarlett Johansson being cast was a plus, but the core sell was the script’s concept: that a guy could be sleeping with Scarlett Johansson, and still need to get off on pornography.
No other American romantic comedy I can think of has so directly, explicitly taken on this topic: how porn has affected (i.e. corrupted) male sexual fantasies, and ironically, how romantic comedies themselves have had a similar effect on female romantic fantasies. Don Jon’s Jon and Barbara are perfectly ill-matched; each of them wants to sleep with someone who doesn’t exist: a perfect sex object like the women in online porn, and a perfect Harlequin hero like the leads in so many rom-coms.
I’d argue that the movie hasn’t been more successful, conversely, both because it unearths some truths that may make the date night audience uncomfortable, and because the movie itself is a bit too didactic, never quite transcending its social issue concerns in the end, but no matter. The movie got made because the movie is about something, its “something” being an issue that says hello to men and women living in 2013.
Take for example, this familiar story: Two friends, a man and woman, each wondering why they’ve never been able to sustain a successful romantic relationship, decide to date each other, analytically experimenting with romance. Will they actually fall in love?
Oh, yeah – it’s another When Harry Met Sally, Friends With Benefits kind of rom-com, so what’s the real hook? I had a similar reaction when I heard that studios were circling the 40 Days of Dating website, and yet Warner Brothers recently bought the rights to it. Why? Because website designers Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman found a very-2013 approach to their story, by having exhaustively charted their romance’s progress (with fun graphics) on a daily basis, online.
Thus this rather mundane story gains a hook that’s specific to Where We Are Now. It’s a movie about what we might call the Selfie Culture: even as each date becomes a narcissistic exploration of what the event means to the two daters, it’s instantly disseminated to all their online peers, inviting commentary and advice. What’s a romance like, when it’s enacted as an experiment in a cyber-fishbowl? The resulting movie could be a Social Network of romantic comedies… i.e. relevant to today.
Personally, I think the 40 Days movie, being exceedingly execution-dependent, will be a tough nut to crack, but in pitch, it does address the necessary questions.What makes your romantic comedy story idea resonate with what’s presently going on in the culture? Do your two leads represent concerns that your contemporaries are having? How does their romance reflect an issue that many of us are grappling with in the here and now?
The forthcoming Spike Jonze film Her is a rom-com/dramedy about a guy who falls in love with his newly purchased computer operating system. Whether that sounds sad to you, or funny, or both, you can’t deny that it is, as Webster’s online dictionary defines it, “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.”
Figure out what makes your story speak to something that presently matters to us. That’s the first rule of writing a Neo-Rom-Com.