What Does a Romantic Comedy Do?

Last night, Lucy and I watched The Apartment as the tenth movie in the Popcorn Dialogues historical survey of romantic comedy, and we were . . . bemused. We stumbled through the podcast and then called it a night, and I went straight to bed because I was exhausted, which could also have had an effect on my bemusement, but when I woke up this morning, my head was full of “What happened?” My brain was trying to synthesize the viewing last night with our earlier middle-of-the-night lovefest for Down With Love, and with the Dowd op-ed discussion, and with some things Rox and I were talking about in the comments. What I’ve finally managed to boil it all down to is that when we established our definition of rom com for the purposes of PopD, we only answered one of the questions we needed to which was “What is a romantic comedy?” The second question, and possibly the more important one, is “What does a romantic comedy do?”

My early training in writing was not in fiction, it was in business and tech writing, and I’ve always thought that was a good thing. Fiction writing is so intuitive, there are so many ways to get a good story down on paper, that starting with creative writing would, I think, have left me floundering. With business and tech, there is no floundering. You ask yourself two questions:

What is this piece of writing supposed to accomplish?

Does it accomplish that?

If the piece doesn’t accomplish its goal, you rewrite it until it does.

This approach is, of course, too left-brained and analytical for creating fiction which is why the first draft of any piece of creative writing should be all right-brain, off the top of your frontal lobe, completely free. But at some point, especially if you want to make your story public, you have to consider what your audience needs from the piece you’re writing and, based on that, what their expectation will be.

I run into this over and over again because I try not to write the same book over and over again. This makes me creative but not popular. People who read Bet Me often want my next book to be Bet Me Again. People who like my solo romances are not happy with my collaborative romantic adventure novels. People who like reading about contemporary romance are not happy when magic, ghosts and demons show up. This unhappiness is not caused by narrow-mindedness, it’s caused by need and expectation. If I’m hungry for chocolate ice cream, and I ask for chocolate ice cream, and somebody said, “Sure, I’ll give you some chocolate ice cream,” and then hands me strawberry, even if it’s really good strawberry, even if I like strawberry, I am not going to be happy. Expectation has a huge impact on the experience of the story.

As Lucy pointed out last night, a lot of this is marketing: Put the wrong cover on a book, a cover that promises a different book, and you’re going to have unhappy readers. But a lot of it is also the subjectivity of that expectation; that is, your definition of a Jenny Crusie novel may not be my definition of a Jenny Crusie novel, and while you might think that my definition would be the one that matters since I’m Jenny Crusie, it’s not. It’s the reader’s or viewer’s definition of what the story is that colors how good the story turns out to be for that reader. So it’s not enough to ask, “What’s a Jenny Crusie novel?” you also have to ask “What does a Jenny Crusie novel do for the reader?” What experience does the reader expect to have?

So in the case of The Apartment, after Lucy and I fumbled around in the podcast (which I believe she is editing savagely), we both said, “This isn’t a romantic comedy.” There was a real Emperor’s New Clothes feel to the experience; I went to the AFI site and The Apartment is on all kinds of best lists including “Laughs” and “Passion.” It won an Oscar for best picture and a whole lot of other things. I kept thinking, What’s wrong with me that I don’t find this either romantic or funny? And why do I feel so sad after this?

It was the last one that bugged me. I can see that The Apartment is a good movie on many levels. I can even see why some people think it’s a comedy although I find it unutterably sad. But mostly, I was just disappointed. We’ve seen some really uneven films here, but none of them left me depressed, and it’s not as if The Apartment is a tragedy; it has a happy ending. But it failed for me completely when it didn’t deliver what I need from a romcom: that feeling that the world is a good, even sunny place, and that love is not only possible but exhilarating.

Which is where Down with Love comes in. Is it a picture in a class with The Apartment? No. It’s not savage commentary on the way men use women, it’s not dark and edgy, it doesn’t have a moral carried in by the nice doctor next door. It’s just a romp, a light-hearted farce about the power of love to inspire bestsellers and make a playboy not care about sex anymore. I was expecting it to be terrible, and in many ways it wasn’t good, but it delivered what I need romantic comedy to deliver: the delighted laughter, the lift of spirits, the sense that there is emotional justice in the world. It made me feel good about being human.

And I think that’s what romantic comedy is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you laugh and feel good about love in particular and life in general. If it doesn’t do those things–even if there’s an arced romance at the center of a well-constructed story that makes you laugh a lot (our definition)–then it doesn’t work as a romantic comedy. A story can fit our definition of a romantic comedy and still fail as a romantic comedy because it doesn’t complete the purpose of the romcom story: It doesn’t lift and delight.

So does that mean all romcoms have to be sunny? I don’t think so. I think you can have dark, edgy rom com as long as it leaves you in that good place at the end, with not just a happily-ever-after for the lovers but a happy-right-now for the viewer/reader. In fact, I think that happy-right-now is the important part, subjective though it is, which is why for me, Down with Love is a far better romantic comedy than The Apartment no matter what the AFI says.

Of course, the problem with that as criteria is not only that it’s subjective depending on the viewer or reader, it’s also subjective depending on how the viewer or reader feels when she or he sits down to watch or read. But I would argue that a good romantic comedy overcomes both of those variables because it’s a good romantic comedy, that part of the definition of what makes a good romantic comedy is its ability to charm the hell out of anybody, no matter what her or his disposition or current mood. A truly good romantic comedy wins everybody over.

I’m still thinking this one through, but I think it definitely belongs in our evaluations from now on. What do you think?

80 thoughts on “What Does a Romantic Comedy Do?

  1. Now this is interesting, because I love, love, love THE APARTMENT. So at the start of your post, I was kind of shaking my head no because it’s written into my genetic code that THE APARTMENT is love and all nay-sayers be damned.

    But, then you made this point: “Itโ€™s supposed to make you laugh and feel good about love in particular and life in general.” Yeah, THE APARTMENT definitely is not that movie. I know the feeling you’re talking about here, and I feel like there’s a name for it on the tip of my brain, but I have had no caffeine yet today so the chances of me having some eureka moment with that word are slim.

    The point is: I totally agree that good romantic comedy needs to leave you uplifted and generally happy and as though there is good in the word (LOVE!). Good romantic comedy should be like a good anti-depressant, I think, and not leave you thinking that the world really IS a steaming pile of turds. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. That feeling you’re talking about? I think I get it when I watch Ever After, A Cinderella Story. It’s more romance than comedy but it feels right on hitting the notes it wanted to hit.

    1. I <3 Ever After. It has that sparkly surge of triumph and hope in its tone that I require of a romcom. This is why, for example, The Ugly Truth left me wanting to jump out a window and I enjoy watching Four Weddings and Funeral but inevitably want to take a hammer to the DVD because hellooooo Fiona is so the one for him! Rank injustice and annoyance should not be part of the romcom formula.

  3. I was surprised to see The Apartment on the list as RomCom from the start because for me it always had a very, very melancholic and sad feeling to it, even though the two lonely ones come together in the end. And the comedy is a rather bitter one, too. Not like Some like it Hot which, too, has a bitter twist – and I still love both.

  4. Well, I hate to comment without having my homework finished, but I was gone last night and will be catching up today. I did want to ask though, would you define The Appartment as a satire perhaps?
    Then, as we did with the farces, we can say “wrong catagory” without resorting to the “I know it when I see it” vagueness.

    1. It’s not satire, it’s too heartfelt, the pain in it is too real. They’re not satirizing love, they’re showing how it’s abused, how devastating it is when you’re deprived of it (the lonely hero sublimating himself in his job, the funny drunk lady who’s husband is in jail in Cuba, the heroine who tries to kill herself). The film does that with a bitter, edgy wit, but I don’t think that makes it a romantic comedy.

      1. Couldn’t real pain be satire? compared to the truly indifferently amused farces? Juvenal seems to me to be in real pain, and also Cervantes.

        1. Well, comedy comes from pain and satire is a form of comedy, so yes. But I think the moment you put real emotional pain on the screen instead of in the subtext, the story becomes real and not satire. Think of “A Modest Proposal.” There’s savage anger and pain under that, but none on the surface which a calm, reasoned proposal that the English should eat Irish babies instead of starving them to death.

  5. I looked at the trailer and reminded myself I’d seen it before and didn’t really care for the story. It wasn’t a decision I made on romance vs. comedy, or lack of either. I just didn’t care for it and decided to wait for the podcast. Good for me that I trusted my instincts. Yay! On the other hand I watched Talledega Nights on Thursday, and laffed my ass off.

  6. I think it needs to belong in your evaluations from now on not because it’s necessary to evaluations in general, but because it’s part of your personal evolution in the way you think about romantic comedy, and therefore should be reflected in the podcasts. And if you change your mind on this (or expand this definition), that needs to be there too. If you don’t show your growth in understanding, or the process to get there, I don’t think you’d be 100% pleased in what you’ve done, no matter how much fun you have with the rest of it.

    1. That is something I’ve been worried about, that we’d end up saying the same damn thing over and over again. So you’re right, it’s good that the definition is evolving.

  7. I think you have hit on something because I have definitely been searching for this feeling this week after having been let down. I was reading a romance which was going along very nicely until the hero was an idiot, which happens and was a bit expected. I wanted to know when he gets it – in a makes the connection sort of way, not has to pay for what he’s done – so I flipped ahead a bit. In the next 200 pages, he doesn’t get it. Mind you, I’m 250 pages in. He doesn’t make the connection that he totally should have gotten just by being observant and not require the help of the times the heroine tried to prompt him to get it, which didn’t actually help. Seriously, he never figures it out in the course of the story. I read the ending. It was in the epilogue that she finally gets him to make the connection through an elaborate effort. I was so pissed that I was grumpy with co-workers the day after this discovery. I still have about 160 pages to read in the book and don’t know if I will. Every time I look at the book, I start to get angry again. So, the next night after being so disappointed and mad at the STUPID hero, I popped in a movie that had potential to be cute and funny and romantic. I was again taking a risk as I hadn’t seen it. The movie was Alex & Emma. I LOVED it. From popd I could see the character arcs, how they grew closer, I laughed. It helped heal my wounds from the book. (I am wondering how this did not make the popd list. I might go back to see if it was even brought up.) Then I watched the apartment for the 1st time. Wow, what a downer. Very dark and serious. About the only thing I laughed at was Lani’s tweets. So, to recover from that, I picked up a Cruise novel. I wasn’t about to risk the recovery and ruin a fine Saturday.

    All that to say I agree. Well, and because I was looking for an audience to share my week with who’d understand what I was talking about. Thanks if you read this post.

    1. Oh, I read them all.
      It’s so much in expectation, and I think that where so many romcoms fail, the writers not understanding that two lovers who are funny is not enough, that you need to have that catharsis at the end that leaves you feeling uplifted and laughing and good about the world.
      So basically, you have to know where you’re going to get there. And too many rom com writers don’t understand where they have to go. I think.

  8. Kelly S, I read your post, and I do understand what you’re talking about. It’s amazing how the books we’re reading impact our lives in such a big way, isn’t it?

    This is why I love Jenny’s books so much. No matter what kind of mood I’m in to start with, when I finish a Crusie, I’m smiling, and I have that “feeling that the world is a good, even sunny place, and that love is not only possible but exhilarating.” I call it a warm glow.

    I’d love to see a “warm glow” rating on PopD.

    1. I can support a “warm glow” rating. I think it is actually a great name for what Rox was talking about a day or 2 ago.

  9. Isn’t all literary critique ultimately subjective even when applying a well thought out definition? I know that your “happy right now” for the viewer idea is the one that I use in defining movies and books. When the discussion for the viewing list for Popcorn Dialogues was going on the suggestion of adding “The Apartment” was a surprise to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but my memory of my visceral response was very strong. It gave me that clenched stomach feeling that I don’t associate with romantic comedy. In thinking about it now, I realize that for me romantic comedy has to be a “feel good” movie with a love story. Maybe even without a happily ever after – I’ll have to think about that part.

    I think “The Apartment” is a very good movie – in fact I might argue that the strong memory of my gut level response is an indicator of how well it made its point about unhealthy male / female relationships. In fact, I think that an examination of those relationships is much more the main point of this movie than the Jack Lemmon / Shirley MacLaine romance.

    1. I think the romance is there to underscore the unhealthy male/female relationships in the rest of the movie. Except I’m not sure that’s a healthy one, either. Healthier than anything else in the movie.
      That clenched stomach feeling was exactly what this movie gave me. You’re right, it’s a good movie, but not a feel-good movie.

      1. And if the best relationship in the movie isn’t too healthy, no wonder we are feeling a little sick.
        So if a romantic comedy gives you that warm glow no matter your expectation or mood, then this movie may be the definition of the anti – romantic comedy. No matter your expectations or mood it leaves you cold and lonely.
        Obviously both feelings are part of life. Me, I need the reminder that the ‘feel good’ exists when things are bad more than I need to know the ‘cold and lonely’ is waiting when things are good. So I’m going for the feel good stuff just about every time.

  10. I don’t think THE APARTMENT was intended to be a romantic comedy along the lines of, say, BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE (which has its sad and dark side as well, really–why would the man not be flattered that she wanted to put a love spell on him, for one thing, and why couldn’t he see that their love had turned real by the time she confessed? Because the script says no. But I digress.) I doubt that Billy Wilder would care that the group says this isn’t a rom-com. The film addresses far deeper issues than that, anyway. Originally the Jack Lemmon character feels that he should get ahead, and doesn’t feel he can say to the Fred MacMurray character, “No, you CANNOT use my HOME as your lovenest pad.” He has low enough self-esteem that he lets this continue. He also doesn’t see how sad the Shirley character is about her situation with Mr. Idiot all through the way–she somehow knows what she is doing is wrong, hence the suicide attempt because she feels the need for even MORE punishment. He backs away because he thinks she now has what she wants . . . which is also a sad sacrifice, as he is actually wrong. A different kind of person might have stood up and said, “Hey, don’t I have a chance here?” But the story is about the other kind of person, not about the kind of hero we have in rom-com, who would be the guy at the elevator scene who would walk her home (3/4 point) and tell her that HE is the one for her instead of pretending to have a date (which he doesn’t) so as to get out of the awkwardness. The story is about two people who were darn lucky to find one another, and who have to make a new start after getting shafted by life. It’s just not a rom-com. Perhaps BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE follows the paradigm a lot better. There’s a bad-but-like-it-anyway flick titled DON’T TELL HER IT’S ME that also follows the paradigm of rom-com somewhat. I’ve always liked it despite its many minor flaws.

    THE APARTMENT is what I would call a piece of art rather than a piece of commercial fiction meant solely to entertain. I wouldn’t have put it on a comedy list. I would say the same for BIG, Laverne Fazio’s take on what would happen if some people got what they thought they wanted, and a bittersweet (to me, all the way through) comment on what happens to people whose childhoods are stolen from them. It is also not a comedy for me, although there are funny scenes. It is a quest movie. But people think it is a comedy . . . hmm. This is one way I know I don’t think like the others.

    1. I agree that The Apartment is not a rom com, but I balk at the idea that rom coms can’t be deep or that they can’t be art. I would give you Moonstruck as an example, and I’m sure there’s more. I think the assumption that comedy isn’t deep is common, but it’s wrong; comedy is based on pain, so it’s often deeper (that is, with a deeper and more serious subtext) than tragedy which can coast on the universal “My God, This Is So Sad” knee jerk reaction (Beaches is shallow tragedy, Shadowlands had depth upon depth to its tragedy).

    2. We might think of comedy as just being about laughter, but it’s such a huge genre, it has room to be many many things, including deep, meaningful, ground-breaking, brilliantly written/directed, etc. — all the various elements that might make it cross that mysterious line to being “art.” Same with romantic comedies.

  11. Kelly S, now I am curious to know what book you were reading. I also get annoyed when a main character takes the entire book to get it.

    1. Potent Pleasures by Eloisa James. It was her first book. She writes really well, and I loved her most recent series, but this is one of those things that if she had just had the hero figure it out on his own and ideally much earlier, it would have been a lovely story. Kind of like the discussion on if in the movie, His Girl Friday, had ended where she wanted to do the story and he wanted to go on the honeymoon, the movie would’ve been 100% better.

      1. Oh. Some of her first books are, um, not good. The heroes are abusive, even. For that reason, I really don’t like them – I have most of her books and I couldn’t keep those first 2 or 3.

  12. I remember watching this movie years ago and how sad I felt all through the movie. The fact that Jack Lemon’s character would allow himself to be used and abused by the other businessmen was very depressing. Business was booming at that time in America-why not move to another business? -was my thought. And Shirley’s character was a perfect example of how powerful men use their power to use and abuse women. I totally agree with you Jenny that this is not a rom-com but a sad commentary on that time in American life and business.

  13. Great post today.

    I don’t expect the same kinds of books from authors. I get bored if each book is exactly like the last one. That’s one of the reasons I love your books. Give me a Crusie novel, and it doesn’t matter if the book is a romance, mystery, or paranormal, I know it’s going to be good. There will be characters I care about. There will be witty, snarky dialouge. There will be a sense of community that makes me want to live in the book. It will end on a happy, hopeful note. The bad guys will get what’s coming to them. The women will be stronger at the end. No babies or puppies will die.

    I admire writers who can cross genres and keep their voice. And you are the master.

    1. You mentioned babies. I’m thinking but cannot come up with any Crusie character being joyously pregnant at the end of the book or as part of the plot. Jenny, I’m so grateful for this! Thank you!!

      1. Two are pregnant: Mare in The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes (but I can’t remember if I put that in the book) and Mab in Wild Ride, who is not thrilled about it but whose transformation is in part caused by it, so it becomes part of the plot and character arc. I really liked both of those pregnancies, they felt right to me. Everybody else was just starting a new life with the man she loved, why the hell would she want a baby right away?

      2. What the Lady Wants has an epilogue where the heroine talks about ovulating and the hero is about to take her on the desk to knock her up. But she’s not actually pregnant. Yet.

        Actually, that epilogue kind of threw me off. It seemed very un-Crusie.

        1. Yeah, that was odd of me. Well, it was a long time ago (fifteen years?). Not sure what I was doing there, especially since it’s a freaking EPILOGUE. I’ve matured.

        2. And in the last chapter of Bet Me there’s a wonderful remark about there main couple NOT having babies which at the time was just sooo soothing to a reader who just didn’t know if she wanted kids or not. In all the other romantic books I read at the time (not that many obviously) they were getting pregnant in heaps (sounds strange, doesn’t it), so a couple deciding to NOT go that road was a big suprise. And I can remember the Cherries had a lively discussion about that. Thank you belatedly for that!!

          1. You’re welcome. But really, they were so not the kind of people to have kids. Plus they had Harry. They could play with him and then send him home.

    2. Smooch.
      That’s pretty much one of the things I feel that I have to do in my fiction (and my alone, your fiction may differ) is deliver that sense of emotional justice and community so that the heroine isn’t just happy at the end, she’s also stable and secure. And the reader feels wonderful about it. The trick is that it has to grow organically from the story, you can’t just slap a happy ending on there and go home.

    3. Ah, and her heroes are just the sort of guy one would be lucky enough to catch in real life (well, at least the heroes at the end of the books when they’ve had their arc and evolved) ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. It’s been years since I’ve seen “The Apartment” and I remember it being just a tragedy about how badly people can treat one another, especially men in relation to women. I didn’t even remember that it has a “happy” ending. I just remember thinking how sad it was that someone could attempt suicide and the main reaction of everyone around her is that they don’t want to deal with the nuisance of it all.

  15. “This unhappiness is not caused by narrow-mindedness, it’s caused by need and expectation.” Expectation … “It is suppose to make you laugh and feel good about love in particular and life in general.”

    I am expecting the “feel good” and the “all is well in the world” happy feeling after a day of life. Life happens. I do not like to shut a book in disgust and throw it in the garbage so no unsuspecting person will pick it up, anticipating the fix for the feeling. This also applies to movies. The world stinks on ice most days, well, except for slow news days. I work hard and I want “happy, feel good,” in the end. If not, I pull out my old faithfuls to read a chapter or two.

    1. Maybe that sounded harsh. Yes, it is the expectation and I get it with your books, even if there are ghosts, paranormal, or demons. Writers evolve, that is a good thing.

  16. I think Agnes and the Hit Man was the first Crusie (Crusie/Mayer) I read. No wait it was Don’t Look Down. Agnes was second. So maybe because I read those first and then your solo novels I never had that feeling of being let down. I’ve loved them all. And actually Bet Me was my least favorite. My favorites being WTT and Faking It.

    I know you’ve said in the past that your books aren’t actually romantic comedy, but they leave me with that good feeling – same as a romcom movie that works. Even though everyone has issues they are working on the laughs are there and the feel good. The stuff I’m looking for in my own work.

    Except maybe the thing I’m working on now. I’m not sure exactly what it is.

    All this to say I agree. A romantic comedy should leave you feeling that all is well and love is good. And good things come to those who wait and persevere.

    I’m not keeping up with popd. I’d like to, but Friday night is our family movie night and I’m just too dang busy most of the time to watch a movie by myself. Can I have some cheese to go with my whine,please.

    1. Bet Me is my least favorite too. It’s my first Crusie, and it was a book on tape (that was abridged). I think if I’d actually read the book instead of listening to the book, I would have enjoyed it more.

      Crazy for You was the Crusie that hooked me. HOOKED. (Anyone else imagine Luke Danes as Nick???) Since then, there have been the breezy Crusies and the Crusies that have found me unable to sleep until I get to the end.

      This whole discussion is fascinating, by the way.

    2. Have some nice butterkase.
      I hesitate to call my books romantic comedies any more because the romance is less and less the center of the plot. Bet Me is a romantic comedy, for sure. Everything after that, I think, is women’s fiction with romance and comedy in it. But I could be wrong.

  17. For me, if theres not a point in the story when I’m on the edge of my seat thinking “Kiss her. Kiss HER!”, I don’t connect with the romance. If there isn’t that “flutter” moment, then I’m not that interested.

    It’s not really a romantic comedy, but one of my favorite romances is between George Bailey and Mary Hatch in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. That scene on the phone before their first kiss gets me every time.

    1. Me too. And I love that there is no kiss in the haystack seen in “It Happened One Night,” because it’s a killer moment.

  18. Itโ€™s supposed to make you laugh and feel good about love in particular and life in general.

    That’s a really great way to put it. So often there’s talk about catharsis at the end of a story, but I’ve never seen it defined so well before.

    I tend to seek my romance in books rather than films, but I have 3 go-to films for when I need a quick catharsis fix: Galaxy Quest, A Knight’s Tale, and Speed (I take a lot of flak on that last one ;)). There are plenty of movies I think are funnier or just in general better but those movies don’t give me the grins at the end like these do.

    My first and all-time favorite Crusie was/is Fast Women which totally blew me away. And I laughed my ass off, loudly to the irritation of those around me. Before I read it I had no idea romances could be that damn funny and heartbreaking at the same time.

    1. Thank you, Bonnie. And you’re not alone in loving Speed. Although they dragged that ending out way too long and did it backwards. Dummies.
      And then there’s Galaxy Quest. “Never give up. And never surrender.” Also don’t quit. Can’t hear that enough.

      1. Those three are in my top ten. I think I’ve seen Galaxy Quest about 15 times. Speed closer to 20. A Knight’s Tale is dragging behind, about 10.

        Galaxy Quest is one of those movies that no matter how many times you’ve seen it, if it comes on, or you pop on the TV and it’s somewhere in the middle, you’ll end up watching all the way to the end. That movie has some of the best lines, ever. (My favorite is the rant about the big choppy things and how the writers should be fired.)

          1. “By Grabthar’s Hammer, you shall be avenged.”

            Brilliant. GQ snuck up on me, I didn’t even want to go see it in the first place bc I’m not a Trek fan, but it’s one of those movies that just *gets it* – it’s campy and hilarious and sweet and heartbreaking. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the casting, but the writers, like Jenny said above, knew where they were going and what they wanted to accomplish. Hmmm… maybe I should go pop it in right now. ๐Ÿ˜€

          2. I love the part where they rescue Tim Allen from the planet and Alan Rickman’s all like, “You just had to figure out a way to get your shirt off, didn’t you?!”

            Plus, the running gag about Guy being a red-shirt and dying in some horrible way.

            So good.

  19. Jenny said:
    People who like my solo romances are not happy with my collaborative romantic adventure novels. People who like reading about contemporary romance are not happy when magic, ghosts and demons show up.

    Not true! I’ve read them all, more than once, and recommend them to everyone.

  20. I agree with you that the good “all’s-right-with-the-world” is a wonderful part of the best romances, comedic or not. But I don’t think it’s all just about the happy ending thing, because you can put some really boring people through some really boring challenges (think The Bachelorette for example), announce at the end that they’re all happy and everything, and … Thud. You’re just left with this feeling of “I don’t really care.”

    I have a theory about the warm glow thing, and it’s based on psychological defenses. For me, Pride & Prejudice is the ultimate & best example of a (literary) romcom, and it’s because it explores the main characters and their defense patterns. And does it in a way that both threatens them with the thing they most fear and shakes them out of their defense patterns vis-a-vis another person. At the end of the book both have arced (in Crusie terms) because they don’t have to keep those defenses up with one another any more. There’s some way they can really be themselves with one another without having to be so spiky and defended, or phony and defended, or repressed and defended.

    It Happened One Night, I think, is a great movie because it stays right there with the defenses throughout the movie — are you a Rich Girl or a real woman? Are you a Tough Reporter or a nice guy? They both move outside their socially defended class positions and discover a real person over there in that other class, which is unsettling for each of them in a different way. I don’t think either Clark Gable’s character or Claudette Colbert’s has many authentic relationships in the set of people they’re supposed to hang out with, making the connection that much more precious. And the wonderful symbol of that blanket Wall of Jericho just says it all.

    My favorite Crusie is Faking It, for much the same reason. The hero is defending himself with the “Cool Scam Artist, I’m Outta Here” defenses, and the heroine is defending her whole family against detection in shady doings to the point where she’s all closed up and locked up and a little bit cold and controlling. They meet in closets. They have locked basements & bank accounts. They each have a kind of secret identity thing, and keeping it up takes a lot of effort. He doesn’t melt until he realizes she’s been scamming him (in a way) all along, and she doesn’t melt until she realizes she doesn’t have to keep any more secrets from him, and through him, from the public.

    To me it’s that lightness of being that you get when you don’t have to hold the heavy defenses up, mixed with the delight of finding somebody else you can stay that way with, that creates the warm glow thing.

    And in a Crusie novel, the banter and the witty back-and-forth stuff almost always has an element of truthtelling in it, which is central to that process of breaking down defenses. As do the dogs. They’re always being just the way they are in that emotionally authentic way most dogs have, and it’s an absolute giveaway that the characters who don’t connect with the dog in a Crusie novel are the characters you aren’t going to like, and the heroine isn’t going to end up with. The dog knows and accepts & loves the heroine just the way she really is, without all the sham or armor, and eventually the hero does too, and THAT is the thing that makes you feel that the world is a little bit better than you were afraid it might be.

  21. As for the expectation of readers (fans) thing, years ago I read an interview with Bob Dylan. He talked about when he went from accoustical guitar to electric guitar and the outcry and all the fans he lost because of it. Myself, I didn’t notice. I mean maybe I noticed the music was different but I still loved it.
    On the other hand, when Joni Mitchell went from folk singer to her jazzy stuff, she lost me. I didn’t feel angry with her though because I recognized, she’s an artist. She has to go where her art takes her. I just don’t necessarily have to follow.
    I love all Crusies but Bet Me is my least favorite, also. I loved all the Mayer collab books. Agnes was the first one I read. WTT and FI are favorites also. Who am I kidding? I just love them all.

    1. Rick Nelson said that same thing; that’s why he wrote Garden Party. Happens all the time, it’s the Catch 22 of creativity: you want people to love your stuff, and then they do and they insist that you do the same stuff from then on. It’s understandable–hell, I didn’t want Dick Francis writing about anything but horses–but as a writer or musician or artist, you have to keep making that choice.

      1. Neil Gaiman says it’s like dolphins and otters. Dolphin does a neat trick, you give it a fish, it keeps doing the same trick over and over. Otters, on the other hand, they do a neat trick, you give them a fish, they just keep coming up with different tricks to do to get the fish.

        So, you’re an otter, not a dolphin. ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. I was half-watching the last half of Random Action Movie on tv tonight, and I was watching the usual desperate-last-minute-rescue-of-lady-holding-child, and it reminded me of this discussion. I think a good action movie has to end well, with maybe some heroes dying, and mostly just baddies, and a general sort of feel-goodness. But once you kill off too many people, let the child-and-woman get crushed by the falling building, or leave the ending feeling uneasy, you’ve probably crossed into the Horror genre. All this to say, the ending/the expectations do make a difference.

    And I agree re. The Apartment–I watched the first 20 minutes many years ago, and decided it was too somber for what I was in the mood for that day. So I was surprised it was on the romcom list, thought maybe I hadn’t watched enough of it!

  23. I don’t care what you call your books, Jenny, I love them anyway. I know that I will love the characters, laugh at the snarky comments, and sigh with satisfaction at the end.
    Sometimes life just sucks pond water and a book (or movie) that makes you smile is a lifesaver. Your books do it every time. Thanks.

  24. I like ALL the Crusie books and am never disappointed–but that may be in part because what I expect from a Crusie book is simply excellent, smart writing, clever and likable characters, and funny. I don’t care if it is a romcom, a woman’s fiction, or has elements of paranormal. As long as it is a Crusie, it goes on my shelf.

    But I understand the disappointment issue. I get really angry when I pick up a movied that is listed as comedy, has a comedy blurb on the back, and yet turns out to be dark and tragic.

  25. Standing in front of a shelf of Crusie books is like standing in front of the Ben & Jerry’s case. So much to choose from, all of it well done–and some of it will be more to my liking than others.

    And I DON’T want to read the same book over and over. If I did, I would have done that. I bought a new one to read a different book.

    I also vote for including this new criterion in your movie evaluation. Has it been at work all along in all the movies you’ve seen? Or is there a historical shift in that era that causes it to figure more prominently as a criterion? Was it there for It Happened One Night because contemporary viewers also wanted/needed that “yahoo” and by The Apartment, that need was lessened? (Context matters.)

    It is q subjective question, probably moreso than the criteria that analyze plot and arc and funny, but there are workarounds to that. When the answer is something like “Yes, because…” or “No, because…” then it adds to the discussion.

    1. That’s a good question about the Not a Romantic Comedy being at work all along. I think Bringing Up Baby and Born Yesterday were meant to be romantic comedies and just lost their way, BUB in the farce and BY in its heavy morality. So I think everything up to The Apartment was intended to be a romantic comedy. I find it hard to believe that Billy Wilder thought this was a traditional romantic comedy, if only because he did a fabulous traditional (well, kind of traditional) romantic comedy in Avanti.

      Lucy and I are still struggling with whether context matters. To a certain extent you have to take the time into consideration, but I don’t think the time period changes the basic dynamic of a romantic relationship, that mix of respect and trust and loyalty and truth. How the lovers get to that stable, sure relationship is affected by time, but the emotional components of it are universal: This is what makes a stable, healthy, rewarding partnership.

      1. I think context and modern vs contemporary sensibilities have to play into things to a certain extent. I wondered when we watched His Girl Friday if the ending was the way it was because its contemporary audience would have been satisfied with it, whereas 70 years later we have a different definition on HEA and so it falls flat for us in an otherwise perfect film.

      2. But wouldn’t context also address the question of what the movie is trying to be? Stable/healthy/rewarding perhaps looked different at different times.

        Of course I can’t think of an example. Well, reading Jane Austen’s letters gave me a better appreciation for the life Elizabeth Bennet risked leading by refusing Mr. Collins–the Austen women were dependent on others’ convenience. And Jane “Reader, I married him” Eyre, which I know, not a RomCom.

        This is what I get for not actually watching the movies. Yet.

        1. I think context affects things that aren’t part of the universal human condition. But I think love is part of the universal human condition, that real love is the same across cultures and centuries. The methods of demonstrating that love certainly change, but the underlying emotions of trust and respect and admiration, the need to protect the loved one even if it means sacrifice and danger for oneself, finding happiness in the happiness of the loved one instead of insisting the loved one provide happiness for oneself, I think those things are universal. I also think they’re rare, which is where the power of the love story comes into play.

  26. Oh, I am grateful to you for clarifying why I felt so squirmy during The Apartment. I had expected and hoped for something happy, and it was actually kind of grim, to the extent that I didn’t think the kids would like it and I sent it back before they watched it.

  27. I’m going out on a limb here because I disagreed with the original defination of a romcom and couldn’t articulate it well enough to say why, but I’m going to take a stab at it now. And please take all of this with a boulder of salt because I know that movie opinions especially are YMMV.

    Always at least ROMcom.
    Not romCOM.
    Sometimes ROMCOM.

    The sticking points for me were Pretty Woman which you didn’t think was funny enough to be a romcom, The Apartment which left a really bad taste in my mouth when I saw it a long time ago, and Moonstruck which I disliked because Nickolas Cage in anything pre-1990 movies makes my teeth hurt.

    After studying my shelves, my own romcom defination seems to be, before anything else, a romance I can believe, that has to make me feel good, and that makes me laugh at least once and while. They can be and sometimes are really funny, but not at the expense of a romance that meets my defination.

    Pretty Woman and Ever After define the ROMcom end of the romcom genre for me.

    1. You know, it could be that after watching PW again and EA for the first time, we’d agree with you. (I’ve never seen Ever After.) We definitely changed our minds on Bringing Up Baby and Down with Love.
      But the problem with your three ranks is that they don’t tell you anything about what makes a romantic comedy work, which is why Lucy and I are doing this. The point of Popcorn Dialogues is to discover what makes romantic comedy great, not to rate romantic comedies. We use the ratings to help determine where a movie fell down, not to categorize or give grades. We were talking last night and Lucy said, “I had no idea I’d learn this much doing this,” and I feel the same way. My thinking about writing romantic comedy is now so much clearer, and I think my ability to write romantic comedy is now stronger, definitely my ability to teach it. I don’t care what rating a movie gets, I want to know why it get that rating.

      Last night’s American Dreamer was a good example of that. I love that movie but it’s seriously flawed. Lucy watched it for the first time and loved it but thought it was seriously flawed. So when we rated it, we gave it a five for romance, a four for comedy, and a one for structure. Which came out to a four rating which is a flawed romcom that you should watch anyway because it’s good. Which is American Dreamer. I’m happy with that. But I’m really happy that I can tell you why it doesn’t get a five even though the romance is great, and why even the fact that the structure is incoherent can’t keep the movie from getting a four.

      I think Rox’s point bears repeating: If we give a movie a low rating, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie (Bringing Up Baby is a great movie), it just means it doesn’t work as a great romcom. We’re good with that.

  28. OMG, I got all the DVDs lined up for a month, and guess what? The month has disappeared! How the heck did it become mid-August already?? I’m going to scramble for Father Goose . . . hope I can find it.

    As for the Apartment. I thought it was an important movie to watch, and like many of the “not really romcoms” it helps define what a romcom is by saying what it is not.

    Jack Lemmon is a comedian. Shirley MacLaine is often a comedian. So, maybe that’s how it got into the comedy subset. I have only been happy with I think one of the romantic endings in these movies (where my needs are: they are going to be happier with each other than without) — possibly two. The Desk Set, and It Happened One Night.

    For TA, the two ended on a hopeful note . . . however, if you think about it, what is this guy going to do with the woman who dates married men, and thinks suicide is viable on the list of things to do with life? And is she really in love? She likes him . . . he’s better than any of the other creeps. But does he really make her heart sing as well as being a Good Guy? She’s been a thrill-seeker, and I think we need a little more indication that she’s sick of thrills, and sick of the drama, and is really ready to settle down to be assured that this is a HEA.

    Fred MacMurray was just evil in this, wasn’t he? It was a little jarring to see the dad from My Three Sons act like every Bad Alpha Male . . . .

    BTW, I think this was a literary trend (not sure if it reflected real life more or less then than now). Dorothy Parker’s short stories often had this sadness and loneliness to them . . . in particular, I’m thinking of the one where the girl gets pregnant, has an abortion, and the guy congratulates himself for getting off . . . only to find the kids have brought home a pregnant dog and he gets rid of it, too. Life before reliable birth control was really more of a roulette wheel, I think. Even though pregnancy doesn’t play a part in this story.

    (-: OK, I guess I’m just rambling, now. Will try to comment when I have my head together.

    1. Parker’s stuff was before The Apartment. Most of her fiction was in the forties; in the sixties she did mostly unproduced work in Hollywood and died in ’67. (The Apartment is 1960.) Her bleak view came from the narrow romantic options for women, something that the films that we watched from her period glossed over by making the women so strong. I think her stories are savagely brilliant, but I don’t think The Apartment is part of that mindset, I think it’s more about the mind-numbing conformity of the fifties, the need to get ahead while fitting in, while Parker’s work concentrates on the incredible loneliness and hopelessness of making a connection with men. They’re just unutterably sad. Many of them are funny as hell, but Jesus they’re sad. I used to teach “The Waltz” and make student read it first for the story, then for the subtext, and then for the language (it’s short). By the time they’d read it the third time, they could see the tragedy under the comedy. Full disclosure: Dorothy Parker is probably the writer I most identify with; if I have a literary mother, it’s Parker. I’ll never be that good, but she’s a kindred spirit.

      1. I love her too. I think I can see why she couldn’t write a novel, though. Can you imagine living with that stuff in your head for a year or more?? She had the talent of being able to include those little, 15-seconds-of-screen-time stuff that made the whole story bloom wide open.

        I think the Apartment is kind of the flip side of the Parker coin. The men had to be mindless robots, or buddy-boys who were as disposable as tissues. The women also were disposable, out for a good time (no DVD players?) and a dinner to supplement the salary (Big Blonde), and everyone was ground, ground, ground into the ground. Although, we didn’t really get into Miss Kubelik’s viewpoint as well as we did Baxter’s.

        It had a romance. It had moments of comedy. But, it lacked the warm, fuzzy, depression-bashing will-to-live feelings that a romcom(TM) is supposed to deliver.

  29. I agree. Both about the expectations and about what a rom com needs to do. (BTW, if you haven’t seen “Killers”, it charmed me out of a bad mood. As did “How to Train your Dragon”, and of course “Up” after the emotional start. “Love Actually” does this as well, and it’s probably one of the reasons I keep going back to both that and “Notting Hill”. And “Firefly”.

    I’ve been reading “How We Decide” by J. Lehrer, and the first bit is all about how our brains are wired to
    (a) set expectation
    (b) evaluate experiences agains expectation
    (c) revise expectation for next round of experience.

    This sequense is utterly essential to us, so it makes a lot of sense that controlling the expectation affects the perception. Kind of like how, if you tell someone you’ll finish their task in 12 hours but deliver in 10, they’re happy, but if you tell them you’ll finish in 8 hours and deliver in 10, they aren’t. Same outcome, different expectation.

    I deliberately try not to have expectations above “entertain me” when I go to movies. When I get super hyped up for them, they nearly always fall flat. Also sometimes that happens with books, but I think my expectations are more of what kind of experience I’ll have, rather than expecting “the best book ever”.

  30. Wow this thread was busy!

    I just watched “Bewitched” with Will Ferrell, Nicole Kidman, Michaels Caine and Shirleye MacLaine. I still have to aquire “Amercian Dreamer,” but I have to think that “Betwitched” would fall into the category of a rom-com. I think it could be defined a romance with funny moments (which I have to say, definately applies to “Pretty Woman;” I still don’t think there is any way to define that as rom-com), but I think the intent may have been to make “Bewitched” a rom-com. Much of the humor does derive from the problems as their relationship develops.

  31. I agree with most of your comments about what a romcom does, and what it is supposed to do. For me personally, it’s all about emotion. Feeling something. I think we often go through our days feeling a just a little bit flat, and the desire to actually feel something, to feel properly alive becomes quite strong. Midlife crisis anyone? It’s life – we all need a bit of escapism sometimes.

    My favourite Crusie is Anyone But You, I think it must have been the dog jumping down the fire escape that got me. There is however one book I love more than that, it is Jane Eyre. I would say it is in some parts a romantic comedy, I certainly laugh a lot throughout parts of the book, the dialogue is absolutely genius (your books come a close second Jenny, I swear!). Obviously one could not classify it as a comedy, but it does make me question how funny something has to be before it can be classified as a romantic comedy.

    I love Moonstruck by the way, also a story that is funny in parts, but not really classifiable as a romcom.


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