Romantic comedy king Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride) is back with Valentine’s Day, in which several LA couples endure various romantic trials and tribulations on the big day itself.
The film is filled to the brim with romantic comedy veterans, like Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Alba, Bradley Cooper and Ashton Kutcher. It’s essentially several romantic comedies for the price of one — perfect for the YouTube generation.
By its nature, the romantic comedy is one of the most formulaic genres of film, if not the most. You want to care about the central couple, you want to be amused. You want it to be predictable, but not too predictable. Here we identify the conventions of a Hollywood romantic comedy, most of which you’ll find in spades in Valentines Day.
The Meet Cute is a romantic comedy staple, often the catalyst for around 90 minutes of “will they/won’t they” wondering. In Sleepless in Seattle, Sam (Tom Hanks) and Annie (Meg Ryan) Meet Cute thanks to Sam’s son Jonah’s impassioned plea on the radio, leading Annie to write a winning letter that sets things in motion for the memorable Empire State Building actual meet-up. In Serendipity, Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale) Meet Cute when they try to buy the same pair of gloves at a department store, which spurs a series of fateful near-misses.
Hate at First Sight
Even when people Meet Cute, this can still result in Hate at First Sight. But not to worry, because usually, the more hate there is to start off with, the more love we end up with later on. In The Proposal, Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) despises boss-from-hell Margaret (Sandra Bullock), but after engaging in a major Deception (see below), he sees her softer side and little love hearts start appearing around both of them. Kat (Julia Stiles) hate 10 Things about Patrick (Heath Ledger), but most of all, she hates that she doesn’t hate him at all.
What’s a prize you don’t have to fight for? The Romantic Rival is often flashier and nastier than the romantic hero/heroine, a villain that is keeping the true lovers apart, as in She’s All That and The Wedding Singer. If the Romantic Rival is actually rather nice, like Patrick Dempsey in Sweet Home Alabama or Idina Menzel in Enchanted, then he or she will be rewarded by a more suitable lover at the end of the film. There’s enough love for everyone, as long as you’re a good guy.
Without mates, a lovesick protagonist would come across as a creepy stalker. Think Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver or Alex in Fatal Attraction. The romantic heroine’s Friend is usually kooky and/or ethnic, or a gay man. The romantic hero typically has a lothario Friend and/or a happily coupled-off Friend, situating him comfortably in the middle of the two extremes, and/or a gal pal to confide in. The Friend for both genders could also be a child wise beyond his or her years. Sometimes the Friend (when not a child) is the One in disguise, as in 13 Going on 30. The romantic hero/heroine will usually have an Epiphany (see below) that the Friend is the One once the Friend meets someone else (a Romantic Rival) or threatens to Relocate (see below).
Whether it’s a 20-something Drew Barrymore pretending to be a high-schooler as she’s Never Been Kissed, Kate Hudson deliberately acting like a crazy lady so she can lose a guy in 10 days, or Sandra Bullock lying about being engaged (a recurring pattern for her) to a comatose man (While You Were Sleeping), many romantic comedies have a deceitful conceit at their heart. If you’re feeling generous, you can think of them as “secrets”. This gives the flick a unique hook and/or powers the plot along, allowing for humorous moments — and well as a dramatic denouement when the truth finally comes out. As it always will. In Hollywood, liars — or at least liars that don’t fess up — don’t deserve true love.
This one dates all the way back to Romeo and Juliet, and often comes into play in tandem with Deception. In romantic comedies, people are always mishearing or misinterpreting things, and then acting upon them rashly, which leads to more Obstacles (see below). In The Holiday, Amanda (Cameron Diaz) thinks Graham (Jude Law) has another lover, but really he’s talking to his daughters (who also act as his Friends).
Hate at First Sight, the Romantic Rival, Deception and Miscommunication all create Obstacles, but failing those (or in addition to those), there will be another barrier entirely, usually social or supernatural. In Notting Hill, it was Anna’s (Julia Robert) super-stardom. In Just Like Heaven, it was the small matter of Elizabeth’s (Reese Witherspoon) ghostly status. In 17 Again, Zac Efron was a 30-something trapped in a 17-year-old’s body, which made the chemistry between him and his ex-wife very inappropriate (although not as awkward as his daughter trying to crack onto him). In Kate and Leopold, the titular pair are from different centuries. The list goes on — all you need to know is that if it’s True Love, it will conquer all, even time, space and relentless paparazzi.
Just when everything seems lost — or the film only has around 10 minutes left — the romantic hero/heroine (or the object of their affection) will suddenly realize something they never did before — that they’re ready to commit, that their True Love has been in front of them all along. The Epiphany either immediately dissolves whatever Obstacles kept them apart before, or gives the romantic hero/heroine the impetus to leapfrog over these into the arms of their sweetheart. This applies to pretty much every romantic comedy, ever.
To add further drama — and a time limit — to the lovers’ situation, Relocation often looms. Usually this happens just after an Epiphany, which often leads to a fraught Airport Scene (or variant thereof), as the romantic hero/heroine races to prevent the One from slipping through their fingers forever, as in The Wedding Singer. Sometimes, the supposed Relocator will reveal that they weren’t really going anywhere at all, or that they were only going there for a little while, as in Bridget Jones’ Diary, when Mark Darcy leaves after reading the infamous diary. But it will have the desired effect, which is all that matters.
Love doesn’t just conquer all, it also often changes all. At the beginning of Pretty Woman, Julia Robert’ s Vivian was a tacky prostitute and Richard Gere’s Edward was a heartless businessman. By the film’s end, Vivian has fashionable clothes and plans to go back to school, while Edward makes a fairytale-esque romantic gesture, arriving as a knight in a white limousine to sweep his lady off her feet. In 27 Dresses, thanks to Kevin (James Marsden), the uptight, always-a-bridesmaid Jane (Katherine Heigl) learns to loosen up, and in doing so, earns a 28th dress — this time for her own wedding.