Today is February 13th, and that means tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. If you’re married or dating, and you’re a movie-goer, that means there’s a good chance that you’re going to see a romantic comedy (single guys like myself are, of course, looking more towards the action films.) But romantic comedies are, as Forrest Gump might say, a lot like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get, and most of them are going to turn out to be some awful fruity concoction involving some berry that nobody ever eats on its own but that is supposedly so much better when draped in chocolate, which it doesn’t even go with.
I may have lost control of that metaphor.
Truthfully, I’m not a big fan of rom-coms and their tendency to crowbar independent men and women into tepid couples by exposing them to each others’ chauvinism. But I know there are some good ones out there, and people that are fans of the genre, and there are certainly films which are worse than the average. Fortunately, just as boxes of chocolates often have guides on the lid to helpfully steer you to the good stuff, the promotional material for romantic comedies can also be used to let you know when the movie you’re considering isn’t such a good idea. So it’s time once again for another list of bad movie warning signs, so that if the movie your date is dragging you towards checks a few of these boxes you can hopefully call an audible and see something else, such as Die Hard. Once again, any movies whose posters are used in the list have garnered a 25% or lower critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes. As always this list isn’t comprehensive, and there may well be warning signs which aren’t covered here. Feel free to bring them up in the comments if you think of any. And, as always, these are only warnings, not guarantees. A rom-com that falls into one or more of these categories might still be a good film. And that chocolate you’re about to bite into might not be raspberry.
#10: Revamped Remake Romance
This is a sneaky one. You have to know your Hollywood history, your classic films. What’s more, you have to really know them, and not just the title, as the title might be changed as the film gets remade. But Hollywood loves to remake films of any genre, and romantic comedies are no exception. And when Hollywood remakes one of a more venerable vintage, they tend to revamp it and update it. The Shop Around the Corner was remade as You’ve Got Mail, bringing romance into the AOL era; it has a 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the few successes. Rumor Has It is “inspired by” The Graduate, and while that classic film gets 88%, the Aniston homage only gets 20%. And then, of course, there’s The Bachelor — not the tacky reality show, the tacky 1999 film that borrows the premise of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances. The idea of somebody being willed a fortune only if they marry on the spot is pretty far-fetched and runs the risk of being tasteless even when you have a comedic genius like Buster Keaton involved. Chris O’Donnell is not Buster Keaton. The basic problem with these revamped romances is that Hollywood is looking towards their old successes, and trying to cherry-pick what made them successes. And then once they’ve selected the one thing they think is the key, they change it to bring it “up to date”, and often wreck what made it a classic to begin with.
#9: Based on an Advice Book
There were a few romantic comedies inspired by advice books in the sixties, then they dropped off for a while, only to undergo a resurgence in recent years. And most of them have indicated that this particularly subgenre should have stayed dead and buried. There are exceptions — Mean Girls was apparently based on an advice book and was a critical success — but most will get a fair-to-middling reception at best, and that should come as no surprise. The thing is, romantic comedies are built around plots and characters… like just about every other type of film. And advice books typically don’t have either of those. It’s more futile than basing a movie off of a video game… from the Atari era. What happens is that they spin a plot and characters out of whole cloth — just like any other romantic comedy — but hope that the alleged tie-in to a best-seller self-help book will inspire you to buy a ticket and overlook any flaws in the writing. If you were to actually pick up one of those self-help books, they would probably tell you this is manipulative behavior and to dump the person acting that way. Hollywood isn’t dumping the trend though; IMDb says there’s a 2014 film coming based on Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. If you have high hopes for that portraying intelligent charismatic leads, your head’s up Uranus.
#8: S.O.S.: Same Old Stars
It’s no secret that Hollywood loves to typecast. Action movie stars keep doing action movies. Comics keep doing comedies. Ben Stiller keeps playing mannequins. But for some reason when it comes to romantic comedies, a sense of fatigue quickly sets in over seeing the same stars over and over again. Perhaps it’s because having the same actors makes the repetitive nature of the plots more obvious. Perhaps it’s because it not only reinforces the idea that love is just for the super-pretty people, it makes it look like it’s just for the same super-pretty people. Perhaps it’s because Hollywood likes to pair them up again with the same co-stars, and the spark is hard to recapture. Or perhaps it’s because Hollywood likes to release romantic comedies with the same actor in groups of two or three per year, while action movies usually have at least a year in between them. Regardless, after a while even people who are fans of the actors have to be getting tired of seeing them do the same thing. I’d like to propose that after three consecutive romantic comedies, an actor’s agent is required to get them cast in something else. Anything else. Even if it’s bad, just so long as they get a chance to stretch their acting skills so that they’re not phoning it in when they revert to type.
#7: Portrait Studio Poster
You know the type, you’ve seen it hundreds of times before. A few head and full body poses against a splash of color, with all of the actors and actresses apparently having been photographed separately, perhaps because by this point they can no longer stand to be near each other. Movie posters are supposed to look professional, and these certainly do. Specifically, they look like the glamour shots seniors get for a high school yearbook. I realize that it can be difficult to encapsulate the plot of a romantic comedy in a poster and to make it stand out from the crowd. But if the marketing team doesn’t care enough about the film to try, why should I care enough about it to watch?
A related situation is when the poster shows the romantic leads in silhouette against a gorgeous sunset, a blue sky, a field of grain, or any number of other scenic backgrounds. You know who else uses posters that highlight the location and vaguely hint at romance? Travel agencies.
#6: Romantic Occupation
The protagonist has to have a job. That makes a certain degree of sense. But Hollywood loves to use the job to further emphasize the theme of love. He’s a florist. She’s a wedding planner. He’s a relationship counselor. She’s a divorce attorney. He bakes cakes. She’s a hooker with a heart of gold. He writes greeting cards. She’s a chocolatier. He’s a gynecologist. She assassinates runaway grooms. Whether the job is themed around love, marriage, or sex, the idea is the same: the writers want you to think about the irony that this person’s job is centered around a type of relationship that they don’t have. They want you to feel that it’s sad and tragic. But it’s usually just trite, and frequently causes a conflict of interest that makes it hard to like the protagonist.
#5: Stunt Casting
This one hardly needs explaining, does it? Since the early days of Hollywood, they’ve tried to cast people who were known for something other than acting as the leads in romantic comedies, to draw on the cachet of their already-existing stardom. Elvis had a string of films that aren’t regarded as classics (and maybe just a few where he got to show some actual talent). The Rat Pack had several appearances that mostly showed they were decent musicians but not decent actors. It’s still going in the modern era. Madonna is notorious for coming back every few years and lousing it up in another romantic comedy. Mariah Carey and Britney Spears both tried and failed to launch movie careers with films proclaiming how wonderful they are. American Idol made an attempt to bring its first “idols” multimedia star status and is still getting roundly mocked for it all these years later. Sometimes singing talent just doesn’t translate to acting talent. Of course, as Paris Hilton has shown, even that’s better than no talent at all.
#4: Implausible Premise
An impossible premise isn’t necessarily an indication of trouble; the inclusion of elements from fantasy or science fiction can (sometimes) enliven a romantic comedy. But when the premise is merely implausible — when it violates no laws of physics yet still is never really going to happen — then it starts getting shaky. Romantic comedies work, in theory, because people want to relate to them, and that’s a little difficult when the plot relies on people acting like complete idiots, being forced into contrived situations, or otherwise behaving in a way that people just aren’t going to behave. Did You Hear About the Morgans is about a divorcing couple forced back together when they’re entered into witness protection; but witness protection actually has provisions for splitting divorced (or divorcing) couples up, so they wouldn’t actually be forced into that situation. Similarly, no judge is going to force people to remain married, as in What Happens in Vegas, and if any preacher put someone through ridiculous tests as in License to Wed, they’d simply find a different preacher to marry them. Say It Isn’t So is based on the notion that nobody gets a DNA test. Failure to Launch assumes that someone can make a career out of dating people and encouraging them to move out. Coming up with premises, particularly different ones, is no doubt the hardest part of a screenwriter’s job… but if there isn’t an ounce of believability in peoples’ actions, it just doesn’t work.
#3: Star Supercluster
This is a recent development, but one that’s easy spotted. The more stars there are in a rom-com, the worse it’s going to be. Too many cooks spoil the broth, too many actors spoil the plot… by tangling it into knots while not leaving it any more substance than, well, broth. What’s more, it increases the chances of that the “Same Old Stars” and “Stunt Casting” warning signs will be triggered as well.
#2: Holiday Romance
This is similar to the “Romantic Occupation” problem mentioned above, only where that one is trying for irony, this is just trying for outright manipulation. Holidays are associated with all sorts of warm and fuzzy feelings and the hope is that by tying their story in with a holiday — either directly or just by having it set on the day — those warm and fuzzy feelings will transfer to their story. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the story wouldn’t be able to stand on its own, and this is frequently borne out. The number of critical failures among holiday-themed romantic comedies, at a casual glance, vastly exceeds the critical successes. Valentine’s Day, naturally, is the biggest holiday of choice for romantic comedies, and Christmas comes in a close second. But occasionally other holidays get chosen as well; regardless of any actual associations of the holiday, they will attempt to dress it up as a magically romantic time of year. No doubt there’s a romantic Halloween movie out there somewhere, and probably even a few for Arbor Day. By all means, Hollywood, release romantic comedies on the holidays; we all know that’s when they sell best. But try to only set them on those days when they really merit it. And if you must set them on a holiday, at least try to schedule the release appropriately; releasing Leap Year in January 2010 shows a truly awe-inspiring lack of awareness.
#1: Putrescent Protagonist
If there’s one thing that a romantic comedy has to have going for it, it’s that the audience has to be rooting for the lead character. So it’s really impressive when they screw this up. Julia Roberts was surprisingly successful in My Best Friend’s Wedding as a woman who decides to wreck her friend’s upcoming marriage so she can have him for herself, but when it was gender-flipped in 2008 as Made of Honor, people didn’t find it as charming. The Wedding Planner (also mentioned above) has a similar plot, only she’s trying to break up her client’s wedding. Any number of romantic comedies are centered around plots where someone is brought into a wedding to help support it and then decides to wreck it. An equal number are based around those where someone enters a relationship with someone under false pretenses — How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and Chasing Liberty come to mind — so that there’s a built-in way to “add tension” when the reveal comes. Love, somehow, always conquers all. And it’s always implied that this love is “true love”, while that other love — which might very well have been the plot of a romantic comedy itself — is apparently false. What do you call a character who comes into peoples’ lives and destroys their happiness for their own selfish desires?
In any other genre, they’re the villain.
And there you go, ten warning signs of bad romantic comedies. If you see indications of these in a film, skip it and see something else. And if you have your own warning signs to share about the genre, let me know in the comments.