The Appeal of Romantic Comedies / by Keith LaFountaine

I, like many other people throughout the world, love a good romantic comedy. I can't quite describe why, to be honest -- I know that many of them are poor, in terms of quality, and they don't offer anything substantive (generally) when it comes to conversations about relationships, love, and the like. In fact, the films that really manage to delve deep into these topics -- pulling philosophical questions, and sometimes answers, from the deep well of their narrative -- are generally not funny. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the perfect example, or even Richard Linklater's Before trilogy. Sometimes these films are heartbreaking, like the 2013 masterpiece, Blue is the Warmest Color

So, again, why do I like romantic comedies when they don't really offer me much in terms of substance?

I guess it is important to mention that I, like everyone else, can appreciate a film that is just dumb entertainment. I love watching cerebral films as much as the next person, and I thrive on being able to analyze difficult films. Sometimes, though, I want to turn my brain off (as much as is possible; I'm always analyzing the films I watch) and watch a fun film.

Romantic comedies are light. Unlike an action film, they are centered around people, conversation, and cups of coffee (or shots of whiskey, as the case may be). They are light, heartwarming, and -- for lack of better terms -- funny.

So automatically there are some key benefits that make them fun to watch. But it goes deeper than that, in my opinion.

I recently re-watched one of my favorite romantic comedies -- Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I have seen it numerous times, and I would consider it one of my favorite, if not my favorite, romantic comedies of all time. The film has everything -- comedy, heart, great direction, solid writing, an affable cast, and some great (albeit conventional) cinematography. It fires on all cylinders for the majority of its runtime, and for those reasons I consider it a great film, not just a great romantic comedy. However, it still has the same narrative that every other romantic comedy has (I'll put a spoiler warning here but I think you know where I'm going): man meets woman, man and woman fall for each other, man and woman break up, man and woman get back together).

There's nothing inherently wrong with this string of plot points. The issue is that this is such a conventional storyline, that it has become tired -- almost boring. And, more importantly, a lot of romantic comedies use these plot points poorly.

A perfect example of this is the 2016 film, How to Be Single. Put simply, I was not a fan of this film because of how poorly it handled characterization, its narrative, and its underlying message. If you would like to read more extended thoughts on the film, you can check out my review of it on Letterboxd.

This is not the only film that fumbles its attempts -- in fact, most romantic comedies are like that. Romantic comedies that work -- like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or, more recently, Michael Showalter's film The Big Sick, written by, and starring, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiana -- are rare, and often are only successful because of the talent behind them. The narrative of the romantic comedy that the vast majority of filmmakers swear by (which was mentioned above) doesn't make or break a film  -- it's the talent (or lack thereof) in front of, and behind, the camera that counts.

A still from  The Big Sick  (2017)

A still from The Big Sick (2017)

However, none of this is to say that these films can't be entertaining. That is their ultimate benefit and that is why I will always watch romantic comedies (beyond my desire to watch all films, bad or good).

It's also important to mention that romantic comedies are not trying to be anything more profound. The ones that do use the genre to their benefit -- like The Big Sick, which explores both a true story, and the subject of religious differences in relationships -- are often highly praised for their efforts, as long as said efforts produce a strong film. But even the films that are poor, like How to Be Single, still are important to analyze and understand. And, at the very least, they can still be very entertaining regardless of their overall quality.