Romantic comedies are much maligned by film snobs and regular moviegoers alike. The genre is sometimes rightfully mocked for its formulaic approach to love, from an unbelievable meet-cute to some kind of grand romantic gesture that makes audiences cringe. Nevertheless, we should not discount romantic comedies as a whole or we would lose out on some of the best on-screen love stories.
For all their crimes, romantic comedies also give us something that we don’t get much of in film: female protagonists and a fantasy world aimed at women. The fantasies rom-coms offer women aren’t wildly aspirational, just a world where we can have hope that men will act with empathy, that women might have their dream job and a dream partner –– which is, 99.999 percent of the time, a man. Clearly, this fantasy world is created for straight women.
Based on my considerable expertise, the difference between good and bad rom-coms comes down to the male love interest. In so many of these films, we are asked to accept the basic premise that the world hinges on whether these two people will get together, and it goes without saying that the female lead is unquestionably head over heels for her designated love interest. Too often, though, we don’t have any reason to actually believe this. In fact, in many romantic comedies we are asked to overlook something particularly bad that the romantic lead has done, which is what makes the grand gesture necessary in the first place. Although it’s not really exciting or crazy, I think that the real key to a good romantic comedy is giving us a likable male lead. It sounds obvious, or even boring, but it’s actually unusual to watch a rom-com and feel like I would be over whatever betrayal the protagonist has suffered on the same timeline that she is.
“To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a recent Netflix teen rom-com adapted from the young adult novel of the same name by Jenny Han, is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Leading man Peter (Noah Centineo) is actually worthy of the interest both protagonist Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and we the audience are supposed to have in him and the film has become one of the streaming platform’s most successful original films to date. Fans were enamored with Peter, the sweet male lead who never did anything to make us hate him. He’s sweet, he brings Lara Jean to a party and plays with her scrunchie and he gets her snacks on a school ski trip. Peter is actually likable. Admittedly, the cliché but highly enjoyable “pretend to be dating then actually develop feelings for each other” plot didn’t hurt the film’s popularity, either.
This all leads me to what is perhaps the gold standard of rom-coms: “When Harry Met Sally.” Sure, Harry (Billy Crystal) isn’t perfect and he argues with Sally (Meg Ryan) all the time, but in a way that feels real. There is no major betrayal, yet we still get the grand gesture to make us tear up in the end.
Harry is the most well-developed of the romantic leads in almost any rom-com. Typically, rom-coms spend most of their time with the female lead. We follow her through her day-to-day life, complaining about her romantic woes to her friends. We only see her romantic interest through his interactions with her. In “When Harry Met Sally,” though, we get to know both characters through their interactions over the course of years. This film doesn’t present a woman desperate for love who will set her sights on any man. Instead, we get a picture of two people growing and evolving together who are clearly compatible. We see a romance grounded in friendship in a way that is rarely present in other rom-coms, a solid basis for their relationship that makes it both a realistic fantasy and the ideal.
I confess that I will watch just about any rom-com at least once, but “When Harry Met Sally” is the one I keep returning to time and time again. Basically, we owe Nora Ephron everything. If we want better rom-coms, we need to present a fantasy with compelling relationship dynamics and romantic leads actually worth swooning over.