The romantic comedy is defined by a set of strict rules—but as has been proved over the years, those rules are made to be stretched and even broken, When you find the theme week you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. Thankfully, The Ringer hereby dubs this week Rom-Com Week, a celebration of one of the most delightful, captivating genres in film. Head to the top of the Empire State Building, order what she’s having, and join us as we dig into everything the rom-com has had to offer over the years. By nature, film defies the strict definitions of genre. Often, tropes exist merely to be challenged and subverted. The romantic comedy is no exception, and it may even be particularly hard to pin down because it relies on a concept so crucial to almost every kind of story: love. Even the darkest thrillers tend to have a good dose of it—Se7en is, among other things, a love story—which makes the line between romantic comedy and other adjacent genres incredibly blurry. Is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the category, or is it just way, way too sad? Is the usually depressed main protagonist of normcore films like Garden State too miserable, and the love interest too quirky, to fit in the box? Perhaps a definitive definition of the romantic comedy isn’t reachable (and doesn’t need to be reached), but it seems that one thing is certain: Unlike most genres, the romantic comedy centers—and celebrates—the mystery of attraction.
When translated for French audiences, most American romantic comedies get a new title containing the words “coup de foudre”—which translates literally to “thunderbolt,” but is also a dramatic way of referring to love at first sight. Coup de foudre à Manhattan (Maid in Manhattan), Coup de foudre à Rhode Island (Dan in Real Life), Coup de foudre à Notting Hill (this one is easy to guess)—these (ridiculously lazy) titles lay bare one of the founding ideas of the genre: When you see the one, you know. There’s no need to think, no need to wait, no need to even actively look for this person. Ralph Fiennes in Maid in Manhattan knows when he randomly lays his eyes on Jennifer Lopez that she is the one for him, and he doesn’t change his mind later when he finds out who she really is. Same for John Cusack in Serendipity, when he’s convinced that Kate Beckinsale is the one for him after only briefly meeting her—and the film proves him right. Yet this concept also reveals the paradoxical core of the romantic comedy: How do you really know? What if you think it’s a coup de foudre, but it turns out to be a mistake—as in While You Were Sleeping, when Sandra Bullock has a strong crush on a man whose life she saves, but ends up falling for his brother instead? What if love takes time to grow, as it did for Harry and Sally? In Serendipity, Beckinsale chooses not to trust that first gut feeling. The romantic comedy has often been decried as toxic, spreading unrealistic ideas about dating, romance, and relationships, yet the very basis of the genre is to propose simplistic tropes and challenge them. The rom-com always questions the mechanisms of romance, and therefore, our own ways of thinking about love.
The coup de foudre is reinvented in Sleepless in Seattle, when Meg Ryan falls for Tom Hanks after hearing only his voice (and his story) over the radio, but the classic template is also present: Time stops for Hanks when he first lays eyes on her, without knowing that Ryan has been daydreaming about him. However, they meet in person only in the film’s very last scene because their sudden attraction is transcontinental. The coup de foudre’s narrative purpose is to bring together people who should have never met because they live too far apart or because they come from different classes—a principle that originated in the works of Shakespeare, whose own Comedy of Errors sees impossible unions due to mistaken identities and jumps to conclusions. The most classic rom-coms rely on this concept, adapting it to our modern times. Notting Hill brings together a movie star (Julia Roberts basically playing herself) and a bookstore owner, with both characters willingly playing with their identities in order to meet up away from the paparazzi. Interestingly, Forgetting Sarah Marshall also features a celebrated actress (Kristen Bell as a crime show heroine) and her schlubby partner, but their relationship breaks down at the beginning of the film—the story turns the trope upside down to celebrate a more genuine kind of attraction, instead of emphasizing the convenience of wealth. Money is often either an explicit element of the rom-com or something to be conveniently ignored. The coup de foudre taps into the idea of the Prince Charming, the oldest story in the book, and in rom-coms, whether they be from the ’80s or more recent (like Crazy Rich Asians), what makes a man a prince is his cash. Pretty Woman is Cinderella in ’90s shoulder pads, following the unlikely romance between a businessman and a sex worker and featuring a classic montage of Julia Roberts going on a shopping spree using Richard Gere’s credit card. As questionable as the film’s morals can be, that scene continues to dazzle audiences and has been copied countless times because it touches upon a fantasy that wealth, instead of separating people, can bring them together. (Trickle-down economics, anyone?) The testing of that very idea is at the basis of You’ve Got Mail: Struggling independent bookshop owner Meg Ryan falls in love online with bookshop-chain magnate Tom Hanks, and the clash of their professional circumstances complicates their romance. In other films, like Nancy Meyers’s Something’s Gotta Give, both protagonists are wealthy enough for money not to be a concern, though complications still arise. Those very complications are key to the rom-com’s optimistic tone and its appeal. The seemingly impossible circumstances that result from a coup de foudre can, paradoxically, feel like more evidence that the relationship was meant to be; the title It’s Complicated could fit any of these films. In The Holiday, also by Meyers, the international house swap between two women means they will eventually have to leave their new boyfriends at the end of their trips, a deadline that adds urgency to their feelings. We never know if the two relationships will last beyond New Year’s Eve, but the wealth of all involved (let’s be real, Kate Winslet’s English cottage must be worth close to the value of Cameron Diaz’s Hollywood villa) suggests they will figure things out. However, this idea that difficulty is a sign of fate doing its work is denied in certain classics: My Best Friend’s Wedding challenges the idea of love at first sight from the beginning; in the film, Julia Roberts is convinced that her best friend getting married to another woman is proof that she should have him. But their romance, in fact, wasn’t meant to be, and at the end of the movie, she finds solace in friendship rather than romance.