I loved this piece from Mindy Kaling in The New Yorker on rom-coms.

I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from “Alien” and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.

I also love rom-coms, or want to love them. I love the idea of them. In my mind, there’s this kind of movie in which women are at the centre of the action, and they’re funny and fun, and there’s love too. That’s what a rom-com should be, and could be. Alas, that is not what you usually get from a rom-com if it’s come out of Hollywood.

Bridesmaids comes pretty close – it has lots of funny, and lots of women, and there is also just enough romance to sweeten it, and the implausibility of the romance is leavened by the good-heartedness of it (the guy is Irish, and more or less an adult, and not a jerk). It’s probably no coincidence that the key creative people were women. But this is more com than rom.

The problem that rommy rom-coms have is that they usually deal in some completely bizarre and ridiculous contrivance that makes the whole thing completely stupid – see this v. funny follow-up to Kaling’s piece in The Atlantic for some of the more bizarre offerings from Planet Rom-Com.

While total realism can’t be expected of nearly any genre of film, some romantic comedies feature a special kind of fake: the world inhabited by the film is real, but the plot is driven by some decision from the main character that is so inscrutable that it makes it seem as though the film’s protagonist came from another planet.

Why do romantic comedies have to turn on insane contrivances, often involving deception? Why does the heroine embark on a ludicrous love-oriented quest because her boss told her to, or because she made a promise when she was 12, or because a fortune teller told her to? Why can’t they just – y’know – meet someone?

Comedy often involves mix-ups, confusion and deception, the trying-on of new identities, the testing of new possibilities, throwing out old rules and working towards a new and better state of affairs. It’s about moving through chaos and confusion to a new and better order. It’s about getting from a place of stalemate and dissatisfaction to some new, better state of happiness and satisfaction. Often it’s about getting out of the wrong relationship and into the right one. Sometimes it can be about two people separated by some unreasonable gulf – class, social status, wealth, that sort of thing – finding a way to bridge that gap and come together. Comedy is democratic and unifying. It’s one of the reasons it’s so satisfying.

Unfortunately, many contemporary comedies ask us to watch an inadequate person (usually male, but occasionally female) getting involved with someone who is far more grown-up than they are, offering no reasons why such a grown-up person would want to get involved with a babyish fool, and then trying to convince us that a love story between these entirely incompatible people is satisfying, when it isn’t. Nothing is transformed, not the people, not the world. There might be some pratfalls and some sex jokes. But not that wonderful sense of moving forward into something better, which is what the best comedy delivers.

Here’s my checklist for a satisfying romantic comedy.

1 The lovers must be, or become, emotional equals

The lovers can be very different kinds of people, but they need to bring the same level of emotional intensity to the relationship. If it’s not a meeting between hearts and minds, it’s not going to work. I’m open to the possibility of one partner instituting an emotional education in the other, but there needs to be an actual transformation. Too many man-boy comedies never actually try to effect, or make you believe in, the emotional transformation.

2 A rom-com should be a journey of discovery

About other people, about the world, about the self.

3 Some contrivance is okay

Some of my favourite rom-coms are pretty contrived. The Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies often have fairly contrived situations, but you don’t care, partly because it’s not really the real world, and partly because the story is not the point: the dancing is. I think what I actually mean by this is that I don’t especially mind if the world operates under its own rules, which may not be especially realistic ones, as long as they make a kind of emotional sense. And also, performances with a lot of charm can carry you over the contrivance, no matter how silly it is.

4 The emotional impulse behind the comedy should be something real, not something fake

A rom-com about a bookseller who meets and falls in love with a movie star is unlikely, but arises from something real and possible: two worlds collide. A rom-com which revolves around people pretending to feel something for each other, or not feel something for each other, because they have to write an article for a magazine, does not arise from something real.

5 Being funny helps

The balance between rom and com can be tricky. Too much romance and it gets icky. Too much comedy, and you don’t care about the outcome. But if it’s really funny then it doesn’t entirely matter if the romance feels a bit secondary, because funny is funny.

I could also add some points about avoiding stereotypes about women who are desperate to get married, men who can’t grow up, gay best friends who are full of relationship wisdom, straight best friends who are sassy if female, opinionated but clueless if male, and not resorting to drunken karaoke or singalongs in bars or restaurants with strangers as a way of signalling exuberance – except that all of that should go without saying.

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