SPOILER ALERT! What follows does not just apply to one film, but to an entire genre: that lovely couple do get together in the end. I’m talking, of course, about the romantic comedy, cinema’s most predictable movie subset. Unlike a romantic drama, which can be tragic and end in divorce or terminal illness (think of the definitive-sounding Love Story), the romantic comedy can only end happily, otherwise – let’s face it – it would be a horror film or a social-realist documentary.
Genre films tend towards certain strictures and standbys. Who wants to see a western without a punch-up in a saloon, or a thriller without a car chase? But most do thrive on surprise.
Not the romantic comedy, which must by law end up in a happy place, even if it’s raining, as in Breakfast at Tiffany’s when George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn kiss after finding her cat. This is why we pay our money.
When Clark Gable’s reporter and Claudette Colbert’s heiress meet by chance in It Happened One Night, they’re on a bus bound for New York. As they strike up a mutually advantageous deal by which he delivers her to her intended in exchange for a story, we know they’ll end up together. It’s not the arrival but the getting there that provides the intrigue, thrills and comedy.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
As if to underline the unlikelihood of them getting it on, Gable says to her, “If you’re nursing any silly notion that I’m interested in you, forget it – you’re just a headline to me.” The signals are clear as crystal to the seasoned viewer.
There’s something about journalists in these films. Drew Barrymore’s a copy editor in Never Been Kissed (Thursday Film4), Hugh Grant poses as a showbiz correspondent in Notting Hill, and in Runaway Bride Richard Gere’s reporter is researching an article on Julia Roberts’s serial jilter of fiancés. (He’s writing about her forthcoming marriage to a football coach; of course, it’s no surprise when it’s he and Julia who end the film cavorting romantically in the snow.)
Some critics consider the romantic comedy a tad conservative, in that it promotes marriage and monogamy. But the preordained outcome doesn’t necessarily mean a schematic movie, even when it lays its wedding invitations out on the table from the start.
Richard Curtis made plain the narrative usefulness of marriage in his Four Weddings and a Funeral (Sunday Sky Hits). Committed bachelor Hugh Grant eventually does a Julia Roberts and jilts Anna Chancellor at the altar, freeing himself to propose to visiting American Andie MacDowell (in one of cinema’s most photogenic rainstorms), the woman with whom he missed his chance of romance earlier on.
They slept together but somehow the relationship stopped there, a very modern obstacle to true love and one that would have been unthinkable in 1934 when Gable and Colbert had to erect the “walls of Jericho” – or a sheet to you and me – between them in a motel room.
Fate and circumstance will constantly throw obstacles in the way of the romantic comedy couple, or couple-to-be. In When Harry Met Sally… (Tuesday Sky Comedy), students Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan spend the best part of their road trip to New York – an echo of Gable and Colbert – arguing about whether or not men and women can be friends “because the sex part always gets in the way”.
In their case, it doesn’t – at first – and then it does, as it has to. The declaration of love can’t be far behind, even if it does take ten years.
Many film-makers have attempted to subvert the genre. Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (Friday ITV2) makes antagonists of Seth Rogen’s layabout and Katherine Heigl’s high-flyer; when he gets her pregnant, she opts to keep the baby, and he tries to behave like a responsible adult. Their pre-natal separation and subsequent reunion makes this a textbook romantic comedy, despite its gross-out moments and puerile gags.
Another subversion that ends up back within the bounds of convention is Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s high-school comedy in which Alicia Silverstone’s modern version of Jane Austen’s Emma ends up with her stepbrother (Paul Rudd), the equivalent of Emma’s Mr Knightley. It’s no coincidence that Austen should crop up, as she did pretty much invent the genre; her novels are all about people picking the wrong suitor and ending up with the right one after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with parasols.
In brief, if the relationship is based on a contract – such as Richard Gere’s hiring of Julia Roberts’s prostitute to be his “girlfriend” for a week in Pretty Woman – it’s going to thaw into romance. And if the relationship is initially based on an accident – such as Hugh Grant spilling orange juice on Julia Roberts in Notting Hill – they’re going to end up pregnant, with him reading to her on a park bench. Either way, Julia Roberts is involved.
If only real life could be like that.