Dani’s List of 5 Great Modern Rom-Coms

So my schedule for the coming fall quarter is in a fair bit of flux at the moment, but as of now I am signed up for a film class about Romantic Comedies. It sounds like a pretty cool class, and I hope it works out and fits in my schedule.

Though this question should really no longer surprise me (it happens on the first day of every RTVF class) I’m always momentarily stymied because I don’t have an answer prepared. The question is: What is your favorite movie?

Now, I don’t believe any film major could actually answer so broad a question with a single movie, there are too many excellent choices across a wide variety of genres. At some point it becomes an exercise in comparing apples and oranges. Titanic and Ghostbusters are two excellent films, but they’re not exactly interchangeable. But even though this question usually means, “what is your favorite movie in this particular genre?” the answer is no less difficult to arrive at.

When the professor says, “And now lets go around the room and everyone can introduce themselves by telling us their name, year, and favorite movie!” I usually experience a moment of utter horror because I haven’t thought about it and have about two minutes to desperately run through lists of movies in my head that are not too-commercial-or-else-I’ll-look-like-a-sellout or way-too-pretentious-because-they’ll-know-I’m-trying-too-hard, to pick an acceptable movie, a movie that will be associated with me, and my artistic work, throughout the entire quarter. No pressure, right?

So, to dispel that moment of horror, right now, I’m going to comment on a few of my favorite rom-coms and why I think they’re great.

Here is the criteria I’m using to define what makes a rom-com a rom-com:

  1. The central story must be about people who meet, fight, fall in love, and have a happy ending, albeit not necessarily in that order, (excludes movies like Shakespeare in Love, excellent, but no happy ending).
  2. The movie cannot be rooted in another genre that trumps the rom-com aspect (excludes The Fifth Element, a science-fiction action movie with a rom-com at its core).
  3. While there will of course be dark moments in any good film, the rom-com must  not be the kind of movie you have to retreat to a dark room after watching, and digest the deeper meaning whilst pondering the plot. I don’t want to use the word “light” to describe a rom-com, because I believe they can deal with big or important issues, but the “com” has to come through in the finished product. Let’s say they must be “enjoyable” in the conventional sense of the definition. (Excludes movies like, The Dreamers which require soul-searching post movie-watching experience).
  4. The movie must have been made during the 90s or later. I don’t believe by any means this is when the genre originated, and I can think of lots of movies off the top of my head that are probably rom-coms that were made much more than 20 years ago (Philadelphia Story and Some Like It Hot to name a few), but for the purposes of this class (it is a production class), I’m going to keep things recent.

Dani’s List of 5 Great Modern Rom-Coms

(Spoiler alert: you may only want to read the descriptions if you’ve already seen the movie. I will probably give away the ending.)

Pretty Woman  Number 1 reason this movie is great: Julia Roberts‘ smile. Okay, just kidding, it’s not the only reason this movie is great, but she does have a great smile. I like this movie because Julia Roberts and Richard Gere have great chemistry. He plays the straight man to her low-key but realistically funny character, characterized by an unpolished exuberance for the finer things in life.

However, in some scenes it is the supporting players who deliver the most poignant, important, and memorable lines. One of my favorites is near the end, when the unflappable concierge says, “It must be difficult to let go of something so beautiful,” which is a nice summation of the story up to that point. I also like to think that given his delivery, and that they’re looking at the necklace Roberts’ wore to the opera that made tears run down her cheeks, they are talking about something and someone who is beautiful not only on the outside, but within.

I have also always loved that the movie ends with the same line that appears early in the film, “Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream?” The repetition of that line ties a nice little bow on the story, right before the credits roll. The reference to dreams brings up connotations of fairy tales and happily ever afters, which seems appropriate for this film, especially given the dream Roberts’ confides she has, where a prince climbs to the top of the tower to get to her.

The iconic scenes from this the movie, including the Rodeo Drive shopping spree (“Big mistake. Huge.”) stand out and make the movie memorable, as well as nail the “com” part of the rom-com.

However, the real #1 reason I love this movie is because both characters change. So many rom-coms are actually about the guy, and how the guy has to change before he can get the girl. That’s fine, to a point, but it is refreshing to see how a relationship changes both characters, making them both grow as individuals. In Pretty Woman, Gere’s character learns there are things more important than money and there are things money can’t buy.  Roberts’ character learns she’s worth more as a person than she thought. Together these two epiphanies “seal the deal” making these two characters just right for one another, and leaving the audience heart-warmed with a satisfying love story.

Easy A  Here’s another great rom-com where the protagonist is actually the girl in the story. Emma Stone‘s wry, dry, and hysterical delivery make her the perfect star of this off-the-wall rom-com. I’m a huge fan of the frame narrative technique they used, allowing the “older and wiser” version of Stone’s character, Olive, to narrate the events, which are almost broken into chapter-like segments. I like this for a couple of reasons. The first is that this technique gives the movie an almost-book like feel, appropriate because of the obvious parallels between this story and The Scarlet Letter. I love that the movie had the guts to come right out and draw the parallels between the two, going so far as to have Olive sew red “A”s onto all her outfits. The second reason is because it creates a sense of expectation about what happens when the story catches up with the narrative. The ending (spoiler alert!) when Todd (played by Penn Badgley) arrives outside her window, astride a riding-mower, iPod speakers held aloft, serenading her with that song from the end of The Breakfast Club, is the first moment where it is truly unknown what happens next by both audience and character. The mashup of the best movie romance tropes is a nice touch for movie buffs in its own right, but the fact that neither the audience nor the protagonist knows what happens next drives home Olive’s point, “It’s none of your damn business.”

The movie portrays Olive as a very sympathetic protagonist because one little lie, a lie perpetuated to help a friend, snowballs into something unmanageable. One of my favorite scenes in Easy A is what I think of as the “rock bottom” scene in a lot of movies. This scene usually occurs near the midpoint, and shows the protagonist as low as he or she can go. In this case, I think it’s the scene where Olive is sitting in the the confessional, spilling her doubts and regrets. Stone does a great job, the monolog is masterfully delivered, and the scene is essentially a single take. The expected joke (that there’s no one listening) is paid off, and keeps the tone of the movie from drifting too far away from its comedy roots.

(500) Days of Summer  What’s not to love about this movie? I love movies that play fast and loose with the chronology they tell the story in, but when not handled well it can sometimes get confusing, flashing backwards and forwards through a relationship. LOST handled these transitions using sound effects (the flashback, flash-forward, and flash-sideways sounds are all different in LOST, ever notice?), (500) Days of Summer uses the nifty convention that there are 500 literal days between Tom (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meeting, falling in love with, and getting over Summer (played by Zooey Deschanel). Every time there is a major jump in the time frame a very cleverly designed slide helpfully counts forwards and backwards, showing you where you are in their relationship.

When the relationship is new, the slide looks like spring, trees are budding, flowers blooming… When things look like they’re going really well and Tom might finally be winning Summer over for a more permanent relationship, the background is green and lush. Things start to go bad and… things turn brown and the leaves fall off. Then when the inevitable breakup happens, snow and ice dominate the scene. Brilliant but simple, right? I love this trope for another reason, but I’ll get to that later.

This movie is definitely Tom’s movie. It’s about his growth as a person and all the things he learns because of his relationship and breakup with Summer. This makes it very easy to be on Tom’s side from the get go. I love the sequence where early in the movie he lists all the things he loves about Summer, the freckle on her neck, the way she licks her lips before she speaks… and then later, after the breakup, he goes through the same list saying how much he hates all those things. Who hasn’t been there, right? Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship that ended on a low note probably remembers how quickly all those little details can get warped in your head. This aligns the viewers with Tom’s view of Summer. We tend to like her when he likes her, and dislike her when she breaks his heart.

I think Summer is a more interesting character however. Though it may take at least two viewings to achieve some objectivity regarding Summer, she has one major thing going for her: she point-blank tells him what she is and isn’t looking for in a relationship. He just doesn’t listen. Life lesson: when someone tells you who they are, you should listen. With that in mind, her character is much more likable throughout the film. Including the scene at the end, when they’re sitting on the bench and Tom asks her why she’s getting married. Her response is brutally honest, “Because with him I’m sure of what I was always unsure of with you.” I love this moment between them. I also love how that shot, the one where she’s obviously wearing an engagement ring and has her hand on top of his, is used at the beginning of the movie to fake the audience out, believing Tom will (in the end) get Summer.

The sequence that definitely earns this movie a place in the list however has got to be the iconic expectations versus reality sequence. Brilliant. From the moment those two windows appeared on the movie screen I instantly connected with what they captured. How often I imagine what a social gathering will be like, who will be there, what will be said, how charming/funny/engaging I’ll be… Only to arrive and have my expectations dumped on their head. It’s a shame that trick won’t be able to be recycled for a while, but (500) Days of Summer did it so well I just can’t see anyone else attempting it in the near future.

The single line that tips this movie over from being a good movie to being a great movie is the last line. I remember seeing this film for the first time, sensing the wrap-up was coming, and thinking, “well that was fun.” It’s nice, Tom is interviewing for positions in architecture firms so you believe his life will turn out better than it started and he’ll get to ride off into some nice sunset left for the viewer to imagine… and then there’s that scene with the girl, who is, somehow, everything Summer was and more. And then when she sticks her hand out and says, “Hi. I’m…” and you just know what the next word out of her mouth will be. Those are my favorite moments in books and movies, the flashes of insight you have, seconds before the characters get there. Plus, the really brilliant thing is that it was foreshadowed the whole time by the changing seasons on the calendar.

Imagine Me & You  This is a romantic comedy that turns all the normal conventions of rom-coms on their heads and proves that the genre is more versatile than we give it credit for. To begin, it demonstrates that not all rom-coms have to be about heterosexual couples. I was a bit skeptical when I heard about this movie. I had two opposing fears, the first was that the film would go way too far in the brainless comedy direction, overcompensating for touchy subject matter. The second, opposite fear was that this would be a movie-with-a-point-and-political-agenda, and those, generally speaking, are no fun.

Neither fear came true. In some ways this film felt like a rom-com about two people who just happened to be women. It didn’t make a particularly big deal about it being an issue, but neither did it pretend these two women weren’t going to face any problems because of their sexual orientations. I thought it did a good job walking the line and kept politics far enough away that viewers could sit back, relax, and enjoy a good story.

Another thing I love about this movie is that it begins with a wedding, an event that normally ends a comedy, a convention going back all the way to Shakespeare – if it ends with a wedding, it’s a comedy. Granted, the wedding is not between the two central characters in the rom-com, but it was still a bold move. The trailer for the film wasn’t spectacular, it didn’t do a wonderful job with the chronology of the film, so I sort of envisioned the bride-to-be torn between her male fiance and her female love through most of the film, culminating with a mad dash out of the church when she realized she’d made a horrible mistake. That is not at all what happens and that movie would probably have been trite and didactic. Ol Parker‘s way was much better.

The success of the film comes down to having three incredibly likeable characters tangled in a non-traditional love triangle. Rachel (Piper Perabo) is a likable protagonist, who remains likable throughout the film, even though she is the one (sort of) having the extra-marital affair. Her honesty and integrity clash with her growing feelings for Luce (Lena Headey). Luce, is also a free spirit not afraid to plunge her arm into a vat of punch to retrieve a lost wedding ring. The most unlikely likeable character has to be Rachel’s husband, Heck (Matthew Goode). If he weren’t a likeable character I don’t think the script would succeed nearly as well. Because he and Luce are both likeable it makes viewers sympathize with both Rachel’s conflicted feelings and her desire to do the right thing by everybody involved.

There are some great lines in this script and it has a knack for introducing ideas and themes early on and then bringing them back towards the end. Extra points go to H’s (played by Boo Jackson) question, “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” and to the meaning of Rachel’s favorite flower, the lily (I dare you to love me).

10 Things I Hate About You Are there any Shakespeare nerds in the house? This movie holds a special place in my heart. After all, how many teen rom-coms can there be based on the bard’s works? It plays a little fast and loose with the actual plot of Taming of the Shrew, but the nods there are (Padua High, Kat Stratford – a double whammy) are fun for those nerds among us.

Both the soundtrack and the clothing give me irresistible nostalgia for the 90s. This movie definitely contains the definitive version of “I Want You To Want Me” (by Letters to Cleo). Who needs Cheap Trick?

But beyond that, the script contains one of every high school stereotype out there, but not in a corny way. All the characters have something unique and different about them that catapults them from cardboard cutouts to real, quirky, characters. Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) and Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) make a delightfully mismatched couple. Heath Ledger manages to pull off the I-had-ulterior-motives-to-date-you-but-then-I-really-fell-in-love-with-you cliche effortlessly, and makes it feel like it’s the first time you’ve seen it. Compared to How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which feels contrived and forced throughout, 10 Things I Hate About You stays fresh and heartfelt.

Even though this is another example of a rom-com that is really about the guy and how he has to change to get the girl, I like that the ending seems to be on Kat’s terms. She says, “You know, you can’t just buy me a guitar every time you screw up.” But hey, she did really want to start her own band so… maybe just this once it’s a good apology.

The thing I like most about this movie is that it presents the great big events of a Shakespearean tale at a high school level, where the stakes feel just as great and love seems just as fleeting.

A New Documentary: Miss Representation

Last night my college sponsored a screening of the new documentary film Miss Representation. I expected something dogmatic and preachy. Rather, I got something nuanced, thoughtful, and artistic.

The film certainly had a message, but the documentary did a good job of not choosing a single scapegoat to blame all the world’s ills on. Media was certainly blamed to a certain extent, but the documentary presented its case calmly and with evidence to back up its claims, leaving the audience to make its own value judgments.

The use of statistics interwoven with deeply insightful interviews with some of today’s leading female politicians, actors, and activists, was superb. From a film-making point of view the documentary was well-paced, never rushed never boring, coming in at just under an hour and a half. The use of music was also particularly affective. 

It is sobering that while 51% of the US population is female, women make up only 17% of congress.

“You can’t be what you can’t see.” says Marie Wilson, the Founding President of The White House Project. Ultimately, the film urges those powerful women out there now to mentor the next generation of female leaders.

Change is possible and this is certainly the kind of documentary I hope seems incredibly dated in twenty years. Until then I urge people to check out Miss Representation‘s website: http://missrepresentation.org/the-film/