ROMANTIC COMEDY – Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film

Whereas romantic and screwball comedy both have fun
with the courtship process, romantic comedy is serious
about love itself, and screwball comedy treats it as a joke.
Consequently, at the heart of many romantic comedies are
the painful realities that come from opening one’s self to
love. The men (Tom Hanks and David Duchovny) are
devastated by the deaths of their beloved wives at the
beginnings of Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and Return to Me
(2000), respectively. In Love Affair (1939) and its two
remakes, An Affair to Remember (1957) and Love Affair
(1994), a nearly fatal automobile accident causes a misunderstanding that almost sabotages a fragile chance for love.
Although romantic comedy is usually traditional in
its take on courtship, both romantic partners tend to be
hesitant in their maneuvering toward couplehood.
Although the man typically plays the catalyst, he often
simply has to grow up. This is the scenario in such staples
of the genre as 10 (1979), The Sure Thing (1985), When
Henry Met Sally . . . (1989), and High Fidelity (2000). In
some stories the man has to work through other issues,
such as mental illness in As Good as It Gets (1997), and
the discovery that one’s lover received a heart transplant
from his late wife in Return to Me.
Romantic comedy’s predisposition for serious or
melodramatic overtones need not go beyond the pain
associated with the search for love. The title character
of Sabrina (1954) attempts suicide when the hurt over
romance becomes more than she can stand. Sometimes
the genre’s quiet desperation has overtones of Cyrano de
Bergerac, where concerns about appearance derail
romance, as with the low self-esteem of Abby in The
Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996), or in the modern
Cyrano story, Roxanne (1987), in which Steve Martin
sports a beak that would have impressed Jimmy
Durante (1893–1980). Never Been Kissed (2000) provides
a quick-witted crash course in romantic pain as the
heroine revisits an assortment of failed relationships.
A pivotal component of romantic comedy is the
affectionate celebration of love by older couples; an
example is the romantic testimonials that pepper When
Harry Met Sally. . . . Not surprisingly, these older players
sometimes double as matchmakers, as in I.Q. (1994) and
Return to Me. Sometimes these figures become poignant
agents in unexpected ways. For instance, in Love Affair
and its two remakes, the close relationship between the
male lead and his grandmother is central to the love
story. In each film the heroine falls for a playboy, but it
is not until she sees him through the eyes of this adoring
grandmother that he becomes relationship material.
Ultimately, Jack Nicholson’s line from As Good as It
Gets, ‘‘You make me want to be a better person,’’ could
be a mantra for the genre. Unlike screwball comedy,
which puts up a funny be yourself fight to and avoids
comic rigidity, romantic comedy is about changing and
embracing a broader humanity. In Woman of the Year
(1942) and Adam’s Rib (1949), the best of the Katharine
Hepburn (1907–2003) Spencer Tracy (1900–1967) classic teamings in the genre, the heroine has to rectify
behavior that threatens her marriage. In both stories her
career drive and her patently regal manner have gotten in
the way of being a good spouse. This defrosting of the
ice-goddess persona, which became a Tracy-Hepburn
theme, had its start in the memorable romantic comedy
The Philadelphia Story (1940).