[Scott Myers over at Go Into the Story is doing a great week-long study of rom-com "meet-cutes" - do check it out - and he asked me for my two cents on the topic...]
The variety of meet-cutes (or cute meets) in romantic comedy is as vast as the multitude of ways in which any human being can first encounter a prospective mate. This essential beat can be as mundane as the common “Whoops!” moment (e.g. a street corner collision w/spilled beverage, technically the second meet-cute in Notting Hill) and as fantastical as “He was an item on my scavenger hunt list” (My Man Godfrey). Asked to come up with a short list of favorites, I find myself, as always, trying to make order out of chaos. Do these meets come in categories?
Well, yuh-huh: I do see one kind of underlying organization here, and inventing terms on the fly, I’ll posit that the basic division could be seen as Conscious and Unconscious. There are meets which, if not actually strategized and planned, are in some key way intended by at least one of the two characters involved, and those that are unforeseen by either character.
The Unconscious Meet is guided by fate alone. A classic of this kind is found in Bringing Up Baby, wherein confusion over a golf ball (Cary Grant claims it’s his, and Katherine Hepburn just knows it’s hers) collides two perfectly mismatched well-to-do folks on a country club golf course. The glory of this meet arises from its absurd escalation – it moves from Hepburn claiming ownership of the golf ball to ownership of Grant’s car – and our swift realization that poor Cary (“I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!”) has met his match and, under protest, already been undone by her.
Unconscious Meets are fairly common. When they’re good, they encapsulate, or at least offer us a glimpse of, the essential dynamic of the relationship-to-be, e.g. Grant’s stubborn, increasingly crazed attempts to make a stand for rationality in the face of Hepburn, who transcends (or simply avoids) any kind of rationality known to man. When such meets are bad, they’re just lazy screenwriting.
The Conscious Meet, in the hands of a canny writer, can be a tour de farce. A later pinnacle of the screwball genre, Sturges’ The Lady Eve, delineates how a skilled hustler played by Barbara Stanwyck uses her hand-mirror to size up her prey, temporarily at large in their cruise liner’s dining room. Stanwyck watches the unwitting-bordering-on-dim-witted millionaire played by Henry Fonda try to ignore the fact that nearly every woman in the place is throwing herself at him, and then, just as the hapless Henry is escaping, trips the poor sap – so that he not only ends up apologizing to her but is swiftly coerced into leaving with this triumphant con-woman on his arm, as the other outsmarted women look on in alarm.
The original Arthur (1981) provides us with a reversal: The millionaire played by Dudley Moore notices working-class Liza Minnelli shoplift a tie from an upscale department store, enjoys the spectacle of her trying to brazen her way out of it when she’s caught, and then gallantly swoops in to her rescue, pretending to the flummoxed security guy that he’s Liza’s boyfriend, who expected him to pay for it. Since both characters are in on the gag (as opposed to in Baby’s Unconscious Meet), much fun arises here from our realizing – as Minnelli’s character instantly goes along with Moore’s charade – that Arthur has truly met his match in wit and moxie; we’re going to spend the rest of the movie reveling in the ability of each like sensibility-attuned character to give as good as they get.
More recently screenwriter Tess Morris presented us with a kind of Unconscious-Conscious Meet Cute Combo Platter, in her Man Up: Here, the leading lady played by Lake Bell has picked up the book left behind by the woman she was chatting with on their train, hoping to find her in the station and return it – and is thus standing, unwittingly, beneath the clock where said train companion was due to meet blind date Simon Pegg, with the very book that was meant to be their “how you’ll recognize me” signal clutched to her chest. So Simon mistakes Lake for his blind date, and Lake – in a moment of inspired “Why not?” goes along with his mistake.
This clever Unconscious, then Conscious meet-cute points up a general principle for either and all categories: The more organic your meet, the better, and the best of these can seed an entire plot. In other words, Man Up’s meet isn’t simply an arbitrary, random bit of funny business that makes its characters’ meeting memorable. It’s the linchpin of the entire story: because these two met in this unique fashion, what happened there (i.e. Lake pretending to be someone else) determines pretty much every high jink that ensues between them.
The “chance or not so chance encounter that leads to romance” of it all is particularly fun when what’s conscious yields complications that even the most conscious person involved can’t foresee. In Spike Jonze’s Her, the very with-it tech-savvy character played by Joaquin Phoenix consciously brings OS One, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system into his living room, and we (if not he) realize in their first conversation who’s ultimately going to have the upper hand, when the OS One tells Phoenix that her name is Samantha. “Really? Where did you get that name?” he asks. “I gave it to myself,” she informs him, and there, in a line, is the movie.
Some of the most intriguing cute meets come ingeniously disguised (see, for a quintessential example, Sleepless in Seattle’s “I met him on the radio”), but that’s an exploration for another day. For now, I’ll leave you rom-com screenwriters with this challenge: How cute can your meeting be, depending on who knows – or doesn’t – that they’re meant to be meeting?