Lloyd Dobbler said it best: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. I just want to be with your daughter, Sir.“
There are mugs and t-shirts with that line on them, and if you’ve ever seen the movie Say Anything, you know why. Great romantic comedies are memorable.
Why? Because we connect to them emotionally. And we connect emotionally because the characters are unashamed and unafraid to love. In a charming, humble way, of course.
Lloyd Dobbler (John Cusak) in Say Anything, was the unassuming but caring “Key Master” at the film’s open, making sure no one drives drunk. He was there for his friend Corey, brilliantly played by Lili Taylor, who can’t stop writing dramatic songs about her ex. “Joe Lies. Joe Lies. Joe Lies… when he cries.”
Lloyd Dobbler (have to say the whole name, no one knows him as just “Lloyd”) is in love with Diane. He’s not afraid to say it (to her father over dinner when asked about his future – see quote above) or show it (holding a boom box high over his head under her window, playing “In Your Eyes”, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet at the balcony.)
He’s not lurky, or aggressive, or argumentative, he’s not sarcastic, he’s not hedging, or confusing, or desperate. He’s just clear. Even his stance with that boom box is grounded, like his love for her.
Memorable romantic comedy characters are not afraid to say how they feel, and they feel all kinds of things, fully. Samantha, (Molly Ringwald) in 16 Candles, is as fully insecure as she is in love with Jake Ryan (Michael Shoeffling). Andy, (Steve Carrell) in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, is lovable in his innocence, kindness, and inability to fit in. Smooth-talking Hitch (Will Smith) in Hitch is all-together and smooth until he meets Sara (Eva Mendes) and can’t help but show vulnerability, honesty, and flaws (allergic reaction swollen face anyone?).
In a satisfying Rom-Com it’s more than a romance where we just want to see the couple end up together. In great romantic comedies we want to see the character win because there’s more than just love of the other at stake.
We want them to overcome whatever their own challenge is. We want them to know themselves.
In Pretty in Pink, love-lorn Duckie (Jon Cryer) is in love with poor-with-single-dad Andie (Molly Ringwald), but she wants sweet and rich Blane (Andrew McCarthy). Andie has to overcome the economic-class difference (in this case High School clique difference) for herself and be okay with who she is. She makes her own prom dress (not unlike Maria in The Sound of Music when she cuts up the curtains) symbolically accepting her uniqueness.
It’s satisfying that she ends up with Blane – and not Duckie – because Blane never had a problem with her being poor, she did. The story was less about her ending up with whoever had a crush on her (sorry, Duckie) and more about her accepting, and loving, herself.
In the out-of-high-school When Harry Met Sally, they both figure out what real love is because they emotionally grow and value the little things in each other. Harry professes loving Sally because of her quirks, not despite them.
In legendary Dirty Dancing, “No one puts Baby in a corner“, and Baby (Jennifer Grey) has a full-on coming of age that summer. She helps Johnny Castle (Patrick Swazye) grow to see he’s more than he is and that he can have hope for his own dreams. He helps her to literally and figuratively fly as we see him triumphantly lift her over his head in a dance move she couldn’t conquer before – before she learned to see the world (and Johnny Castle!) in ways she never knew before.
“I’ll have what she’s having.” That was director Rob Reiner’s mother who improvised that line in When Harry Met Sally. In Dirty Dancing so many of us remember when Baby blurts out fearful but courageously, “Me? I’m scared of everything. I’m scared of what I saw, of what I did, of who I am. And most of all, I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you.”
We’re invested in the honesty, the bravery, the clarity.
In Think Like a Man, what I love is that rather than the relationships changing them, they change first. When the characters can see who they are, their relationships transform. It’s because of their understanding of themselves that they create love on a deeper level. Lauren (Taraji P. Henson) goes from intellectual standards to vulnerability and an open heart. Kristen (Gabrielle Union), goes from people pleasing to setting limits. That empowers them both to fall in love on a deeper level, having learned about themselves.
In great romantic comedies, there’s more than attraction between characters. There’s growth.
I think what hurt the romantic comedy genre (besides violent comic-book movies sacrificing story and making tons of money) is that they started inaccurately being called “chick flicks”. People fell for the rhyme simply because it’s catchy to say. (There’s a theory that ending a joke with ‘chicken’ will always get a laugh just because of the sound. Chicken.)
“Chick Flick” seeped into our cultural psychology as if romantic comedies had to include heels and exclude men. But that’s not the case with the greats.
Everything I just wrote was from memory (minus a few character names and checking the quotes), as I imagine it is for many others, chick or not. In fact, the most talked about Super Bowl commercial this year had the Dirty Dancing theme song as two NFL players did the Johnny and Baby triumphant flying dance move. That moment resonated for a great number of us. It meant something on an emotional level, and emotions are for everyone.
Other qualities of great romantic comedies that are not exclusive to any gender or type of person:
1. Authentic humor.
There has to be laughs, even if they’re on the inside. There has to be personal recognition. “Romances” do not apply. There has to be com in the rom.
Ps. The soundtrack can’t be precious.
2. Warmth is a major ingredient.
Kindness never hurt anyone in a rom-com and their gestures for someone else only make us more invested.
3. Characters have integrity.
Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) in Beverly Hills Cop pops to mind. Not a Rom-Com exactly, but at a time when movie characters had integrity that made them memorable. (Bonus points if Herbie Hancock’s “Axel F” is playing in your mind right now.)
Great rom-coms make us feel good. They aren’t melancholy, or violent, or wishy washy. At the end of the movie, there’s personal triumph, even if quiet triumph. We feel hopeful.
The characters find their way and everyone’s story concludes emotionally, even if they don’t end up with someone (sorry again, Duckie). Although not rom-coms, The Karate Kid, Shawshank Redemption, Beverly Hills Cop, and The Matrix are examples if you forgot what a satisfying movie feels like. Even in Annie Hall, seeing Alvy (Woody Allen) directing actors playing himself and Annie in a play is funny and satisfying.
Great rom-coms have lovable, memorable characters with character. They care about people. They stand for something. They’re vulnerable to us, the audience, and, of course, their best friend, and eventually to the love of their life.
Great rom-coms explore a concept about love and take us on a journey that we can understand emotionally.
8. They celebrate love.
It is so important to celebrate love. With all of the violent, oppositional content out there where people have to shout at each other to make a point, how are people going to know how to love – and laugh a little while we’re at it? When you watch a movie, you’re experiencing the emotional ride for yourself, maybe feeling things you want to feel again in real life. Maybe the experience inspires you to grow.
In fact, celebrating love is the mission of the first ever Rom-Com Film Festival in Los Angeles that I’m honored to be a part of as a juror in the shorts category. (If you’re in LA, the Rom-Com Fest (with movies, events, and talks!) is June 20-23rd. www.romcomfest.com.)
In the end, Lloyd Dobbler becomes valuable as he helps Diane, someone who seemed un-getable as Valedictorian but learned her future wasn’t what she thought it would be. (Amazing performance by John Mahoney as her dad!) Lloyd Dobbler isn’t just love-sick now, he’s a dimensional person on equal ground.
The title Say Anything exemplifies one more Crucially Vital Extremely Indispensable Important thing about Romantic Comedies. Like in real life, love is about knowing and loving yourself just as much as it is about loving someone else. And as I write about all the time, it’s about expressing ourselves with clarity, respect, authenticity, and some humor if ya got it. So, doesn’t have to be anything that you say, but when you love someone, like Baby, Lloyd Dobbler, Samantha, Harry and Hitch, go ahead and say something.
(Not in a text!)