Rom-com movies have evolved. But they still need these 3 simple elements

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There’s a lot of hype surrounding romance on Valentine’s Day, but what is love without laughter?

Romantic comedies — aka rom-coms — have been Hollywood staples for decades, but in recent years they’ve undergone something of a transformation.

So grab that popcorn, find some chocolate, and drink something fizzy, as we delve into the wonderful world of romantic comedies – covering everything from what the definition should be, to why they were great (and sometimes not so great) , and what a modern one looks like.

Our guide is Scott Meslow, who just released his new book, From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of Romantic Comedy.

Meg Ryan has starred in her fair share of romantic comedies. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

So what makes a romantic comedy?

This was one of the first questions Meslow tackled, and so he came up with a simple test that he says anyone can try.

  1. Is the plot centered on a love story?
  2. Does it make you laugh more than it makes you cry?
  3. If you take the love story out of the movie, is there still a movie or does it all fall apart?

“There’s a reason it goes back to Shakespeare,” Meslow said. “There’s something inherently enjoyable and satisfying about the love arc. It’s a story that many, many people can relate to in some way.”

“It’s nice to see people arguing and joking and arguing about what they really want. And when they come together, I mean, it’s as satisfying as it gets.”

Meslow said the genius of his three-point test was its simplicity and ability to correct some misconceptions.

Take Miss Conviviality, for example. Sandra Bullock’s 2000 film is not a romantic comedy, according to Meslow.

“It’s a comedy with a romantic subplot,” he said. “Because it’s a movie about an undercover FBI agent in a beauty pageant, and she falls in love during her mission. You could still make a great movie about it without the story of ‘love.”

On the other hand, Julia Roberts’ 1997 hit, The wedding of my best friend is most definitely a romantic comedy, even if it doesn’t include the guy at the end.

Who knew romantic comedies could be so complex?

When rom-coms really took center stage

For Meslow, the late ’80s through early 2000s was when romantic comedies really hit the mainstream.

Just watch the playlist – When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Four Weddings and a Funeral, I’m Waiting to Expire, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Bridget Jones’s Diary, My Fat Greek Wedding, Really Love, How to Lose a Guy in Ten days.

And in these films, there are now memorable scenes. Like the “men and women can’t be friends” debate in When Harry Met Sally.

The key to whether a rom-com hit the sweet spot, Meslow said, was whether you wanted to see it again. And even. And even. And did the actors involved really sell it.

“Basically all the big stars of the era appeared in romantic comedies,” Meslow said. “From Meg Ryan to Tom Hanks to Julia Roberts, all of these actors who have done a lot of great work in a lot of different genres have appeared in romantic comedies.”

They had their problems, though

After the ’90s rush, Meslow said there was a downturn when rom-coms got a little too contrived; when Hollywood tried to make every movie better than the last. For romantic comedies, Meslow said that meant they were “detached from reality”.

At the same time, some filmmakers tried to modernize the love story, but missed the mark.

“For example, we’re going to get into how kids are dating these days, and it’s going to be those casual encounters,” Meslow said. “But inevitably these movies turn into very traditional romantic comedies. They become stories about how the protagonists got it wrong, they shouldn’t be in casual relationships, they should actually be in a traditional monogamous relationship.”

The public didn’t buy it, Meslow said — they can tell when they’re condescended or flattered.

And then there’s the diversity issue, where the cast of this rom-com series was overwhelmingly white — a problem endemic to Hollywood, Meslow said, but especially notable in rom-coms.

“It’s one of those things where progress stops now,” he said. “And you can see that in a lot of rom-coms coming out now. But I think for those back then, to some degree, it’s still about cowardice. It’s, ‘Meg Ryan’s movie has Well done so who’s the Meg Ryan type Oh great Sandra Bullock is a newcomer let’s put her in while you were sleeping‘. And again and again.”

“It’s to the detriment of the films that were made, and it’s to the detriment of the audiences who would have enjoyed them.”

Meslow said there were exceptions – including Jennifer Lopez, who starred in films like Made in Manhattan and The wedding planner.

“She’s a really fascinating example, because the simple answer is that she loved romantic comedies and really wanted to do them,” Meslow said. “And nobody encouraged her to do romantic comedies. She just wanted to.”

But romantic comedies have evolved

Meslow pointed out boobies rich asian as a sign that the genre was changing and the industry was embracing greater diversity, from filmmakers to stars.

“It’s a very traditionally structured, audience-pleasing romantic comedy,” Meslow said. And the lead actor, Henry Golding, “is as charming and dashing a male lead as you’re going to find in Hollywood anywhere right now.”

And then there are others, like Palm Springs and The happiest season where the relationships seem more realistic, but still feed the thirst for a good romantic comedy.

“[They are] subversive enough that they could have played with form a little more when it came to the ending, there were legitimate reasons the couples in those two movies weren’t together by the end of those movies, and at the ending they both double on the very traditional “and now it’s real love” ending, but I think the audience likes it.”

And audiences that love movies and pay to watch them means Hollywood will keep making them.

Copyright NPR 2022.

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