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The Rom-Com Formula, Explained

The Rom-Com Formula: Two people at odds, a meet-cute, misunderstanding, or an outright lie, an adorably clumsy heroine, a red herring love interest, a whimsical job, a big apartment, zany side characters, kissing in the rain, the epiphany, the happy-ever-after… and more. What makes this “comfort food” of cinema so irresistible? The contradictory Rom-Com Genre has had its ups and downs, but these unrealistic yet ever-relatable movies are seeing a comeback. In this video, we analyze what makes this genre, and what it tells us about love.

TRANSCRIPT

Becky: “You don’t want to be in love… You want to be in love in a movie.” - Sleepless in Seattle

The romantic comedy is cinema’s version of comfort food. This ever-charming, always idealistic movie genre all but guarantees a happy ending, after the good fun of a string of wacky misadventures along the way. Let’s break down the key ingredients of the rom-com formula:

The two love interests probably start out at odds. They may come from different worlds, have competing goals, or simply get off on the wrong foot. But as the rom-com wisdom goes, there’s a very thin line between love and hate, and the story frames all this friction as kindling for sparks to fly.

Susan Vance: “You’re angry, aren’t you?”

David Huxley: “Yes, I am!”

Susan Vance: “Mm-hmm. The love impulse in man frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.” - Bringing Up Baby

The plot tends to involve a big misunderstanding or even outright deception, as characters pretend to be someone they’re not. Common plot points include a serendipitous meet-cute, a grand gesture, a love triangle, and a scene of the lovers kissing in the rain. The story is often set in New York, where the single protagonist lives in a suspiciously large apartment, and the characters tend to have whimsical jobs at magazines in the fashion industry, or managing independent bookstores.

There’s a spunky and adorable heroine, often played by an actress who’s known for her extensive rom-com portfolio. But lest she comes across as too perfect, she has charmingly relatable flaws like being improbably clumsy. A cast of zany side characters usually includes a best friend with seemingly endless time to provide comic relief and discuss the main character’s problems.

Rom-com leads often start out with a red herring love interest who seems very appealing but turns out to be all wrong. Meanwhile, as the protagonist spends time with someone they aren’t actively trying to impress, they can be their unfiltered self and get to know the other person in a real way.

Harry Burns: “And the great thing is, I don’t have to lie because I’m not always thinking about how to get her into bed. I can just be myself.” - When Harry Met Sally

This long-developing chemistry leads to a moment of epiphany, where the character suddenly realizes the feelings that have been crystal-clear to the viewer all along. And the scene where the couple declares their love and commits to each other tends to be saved for the very end. Since the movie stops here, we don’t actually get to see what happily ever after looks like.

Today we’re in the midst of a Rom-Com Renaissance, but there’s a lot of debate about what happened to the romantic comedy since its ‘90s Golden Age, and whether a pure version of this story type is still viable. Here’s our take on the rom-com: where it comes from, what it says about love, and what its future looks like.

Rebecca Bunch: “Romantic love is not an ending. It’s just a part of your story, a part of who you are.” - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 4x17

A Genre of Contradictions

Part of what gives the rom-com such a layered reputation is that it’s inherently contradictory. The genre is loaded with conventions that are both empowering and limiting to women, the demographic it’s most often marketed to and beloved by. It tends to center on a spirited, intelligent female protagonist, but it also suggests that finding love is the most important thing in her life.

Bridget Jones: “I have two choices: to give up and accept permanent state of spinsterhood and eventual eating by Alsatians, or not.” - Bridget Jones’s Diary

It’s all about romance, but these farcical premises can veer into behavior that would be considered extremely creepy or inappropriate in real life. Just look at some of the most famous rom-com set-ups: dating someone for a bet, stalking for love, or becoming obsessed with and aggressively pursuing a person you’ve never even met.

Another common critique is that rom-coms are unrealistic, hooking us on the potentially damaging myth of a perfect soulmate who’s the answer to all our problems. As Mindy Kaling puts it, “I simply regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world created therein has different rules than my regular human world.”

Natalie: “People waking up in bed with full hair and makeup. It’s so unrealistic.” - Isn’t It Romantic

But in spite of their belief in destiny and the implausibly big apartments, rom-coms can also be extremely relatable, tapping into the longings and hang-ups we all experience. Mark Harris writes, “The sad/scary undertow of every romantic comedy is, ‘What if I’m not in a romantic comedy but a melodrama? What if it never works out for me?’” This deep-seated fear, which everyone has felt at some point in their life, gives these movies a visceral sense of high stakes.

Rom-coms almost always end in finding love, but the real “meat” of the movie is so much more than that. Because the couple usually doesn’t get together until the final scene, this story implies that what really matters is the journey there: the protagonist’s ups and downs at work, their private doubts, and struggles, their nutty escapades with friends. Often, the biggest obstacles the rom-com main character needs to overcome are internal.

Charlie Young: “You are afraid not to be an assistant anymore. I think you’d rather run around, getting Kirsten coffee, than sit down, write something and find out you suck.” - Set It Up

The men in the women’s life can be read as symbolic stand-ins for the versions of herself she could become. Seeing beyond the “red herring” guy represents outgrowing immature or superficial misconceptions about what she expects from life, and the true goal of the story is personal development, which is a necessary precursor for anyone to be able to dedicate themselves to another person.

Natalie: “I complete myself.” - Isn’t It Romantic

A Brief History of the Rom-Com

The deeply ingrained tropes and incongruities of the rom-com actually date back much further than you might think. In the Elizabethan era, William Shakespeare made early contributions to the genre with plays featuring complicated love triangles, comic misunderstandings, and that classic rom-com trope of deception.

In As You Like It and Twelfth Night, a female protagonist disguises herself as a man, while pining for a male who’s fooled by her costume, and accidentally making another woman fall in love with her alter-ego. The Bard set the bar for the importance of sophisticated dialogue in romantic comedies.

Leonato: “There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.” - Much Ado About Nothing

A few hundred years later in the Regency period, Jane Austen revolutionized the form with her novels Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, stories which also mined the tension and turmoil of central misunderstandings. We can see a precursor to the modern red herring love interest in the way that many of Austen’s characters initially fall for a dashing “bad boy” who turns out to be a rake.

Most importantly, Austen’s work exemplifies the idea of the marriage plot. All of her six published novels end with weddings. On the one hand, the author turns a critical eye on the institution of marriage, emphasizing the social reality that most women in that time had to marry shrewdly to secure a livelihood.

Elizabeth Bennet: “With father’s estate entailed away from the female line, we have little but our charms to recommend us. One of us at least will have to marry very well.” - Pride and Prejudice (1995)

At the same time, she empowers her female protagonists by giving them the agency to buck that economic and social pressure and choose their partners based on true love. As Sophie Gilbert writes in The Atlantic, “No one did more to challenge the conventions and strictures of marriage for women in the 19th century, while simultaneously enshrining it as the ultimate happy ending for her worthy, intelligent, and independent characters.”

Modern rom-coms still tend to adhere to some version of the Marriage Plot structure. Even when there’s not an actual wedding, the movie usually ends with the implication of monogamous commitment, and this climactic moment of romantic happiness is framed as the emotional payoff the whole story has led up to.

Joe Fox: “How about some coffee, or, you know, drinks or dinner, or a movie, for as long as we both shall live.” - You’ve Got Mail

To this day, Shakespeare and Austen’s works are still being channeled into beloved modern rom-coms, from the Shakespeare-inspired 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man to Austen adaptations Bridget Jones’s Diary and Clueless.

Jumping ahead to early film, the ‘30s and early ‘40s ushered in the heyday of screwball comedy, which again proved that witty dialogue was the key to a satisfying rom-com. These films, usually centered on a strong, independent female protagonist, were remarkable for their portraits of equality between the genders.

Susan Vance: “Anyway, David, when they find out who we are, why, they’ll let us out.”

David Huxley: “When they find out who you are, they’ll pad the cell.” - Bringing Up Baby

A subgenre of the screwball is what Stanley Cavell calls “comedies of remarriage,” stories about separated spouses who ultimately get back together. While most of the screwball comedy involves the partners verbally sparring or manipulating each other, ironically, all this fighting emphasizes how these clever, vigorous characters have truly met their match. Ultimately, the screwball’s “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” take on love would inform many later romantic comedies.

Walter Burns: “You’ve got an old-fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ‘til death do us part.” - His Girl Friday

In the ‘50s, movies like The Seven Year Itch, How To Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Some Like it Hot, all starring Marilyn Monroe, focused on women wanting to lock down a rich man, emphasizing the fundamentally economic nature of marriage.

They were also more transparently about sex, even if it was only alluded to, due to the Hays Code: a set of guidelines that, starting in the ‘30s, required movies to avoid nudity, profanity, and even prolonged kissing. 1959’s Some Like it Hot follows two male characters disguised in drag, being romantically pursued by men, and trying to seduce Monroe’s sexy Sugar. This box office hit helped take down the Hays Code (which officially ended in 1967) by pushing boundaries in exploring gender and sexuality.

Jerry: “I’m a man.”

Osgood: “Well, nobody’s perfect.” - Some Like It Hot

The late ‘50s and early ‘60s gave us campy sex comedies starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, which focus on a battle of the sexes. Despite their name, the sexual content in these movies was comprised mostly of innuendo.

Brad Allen: “I don’t know what’s bothering you, but don’t take your bedroom problems out on me.”

Jan: “I have no bedroom problems. There’s nothing in my bedroom that bothers me.”

Brad Allen: “Oh. That’s too bad.” - Pillow Talk

The casting of Doris Day, known for her wholesome image, underlines how these movies eased audiences into a more sex-conscious age. As A.O. Scott writes, “Her presence simultaneously upholds the pretense of virtuous normality and utterly transgresses it.”

Part of why so many early rom-coms end in a wedding or focus on a previously married couple is that this takes away the issue of premarital sex. But in ‘60s rom-coms, some filmmakers stopped shying away from this reality.

1960’s The Apartment explored the darker territory of adultery and a boss exploiting his younger female employee for sex. 1967’s The Graduate is essentially a bleak mash-up of major rom-com plot points that expresses ambivalence towards settling down at all.

‘70s films continued to explore disillusionment with forever-love, but found consolation in the message that temporary loves can still improve and add dimension to our lives.

In the ‘80s came the birth of the high-school rom-com, making the genre more accessible to young people. In the same period, viewers got to see more female leads in professional settings, navigating their careers and love lives, a clear precursor to modern workplace rom-coms.

Tess McGill: “I have a head for business and a bod for sin.” - Working Girl

The decade ended with what is widely considered the best romantic comedy of all time: When Harry Met Sally. Part of the reason this movie retains such a special status is its universality and simplicity. It’s working title was actually Boy Meets Girl. Instead of hooking us with a wacky premise, the film seeks to answer a fundamental question: can a straight man and woman ever be just friends? And the movie’s thesis—that no, they cannot—is foundational to countless rom-coms where the protagonist’s friend turns out to be their true love.

On the other end of the spectrum from When Harry Met Sally’s model of the down-to-earth, no-frills investigation of human relationships is a second major type of rom-com, which revolves around a high-concept, sometimes absurdly ridiculous premise.

This category is exemplified by 1987’s Overboard, a heartwarming story about a woman with amnesia falling for the guy who’s kidnapped her, and 1990’s Pretty Woman, the fairytale of a cold-hearted businessman being transformed by a week with a prostitute.

Edward Lewis: “So what happened after he climbs up the tower and rescues her?

Vivian Ward: “She rescues him right back.” - Pretty Woman

Which brings us to the so-called Golden Age of the rom-com in the ‘90s and early 2000s. During this era, genre masterminds like Richard Curtis, Nancy Meyers, and Nora Ephron became household names. A cadre of stars like Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, Sandra Bullock, and Kate Hudson became expected fixtures of the genre.

This period offered sophisticated, well-executed takes on the form, that occasionally played with or subverted certain audience expectations. Significantly, the genre also took positive strides forward in becoming more diverse: Latina star Jennifer Lopez made her mark on the genre, and after the success of 1988’s Coming to America came more black rom-coms like Boomerang, The Best Man, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

The Rom-Com’s Death… And Rebirth

Through all these decades, the romantic comedy was often commercially and critically successful. But somewhere around the late 2000s, something changed. Ticket sales for this kind of movie declined, and suddenly, there was a lot of talk about the death of the rom-com. As Mindy Kaling wrote in 2011, “The genre has been so degraded in the past 20 years that saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity.”

So, what happened? One explanation for the rom-com’s stagnation in the late aughts is that mid-budget studio movies were becoming a thing of the past. But another concern was that, even among those rom-coms that did get made and were profitable, there was a clear decline in quality. Old, gendered tropes were becoming stale and outdated.

Mike Chadway: “Rule #3, men are very visual. We have to change your look.” - The Ugly Truth

Evidently, the genre needed a makeover on both fronts, not just to remain in existence, but to stay relevant. How, then, did the form adapt to a modern world?

First, rom-coms might come in different packaging. 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook incorporated darker themes of mental illness and grief into the rom-com formula, and was rewarded with box office success and eight Academy Award nominations.

Movies like Wedding Crashers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Knocked Up found a new audience in gearing themselves towards men. More recently, Deadpool can be seen as a superhero twist on a male-oriented romantic comedy.

Deadpool: “Some of the best love stories start with a murder. And that’s exactly what this is: a love story.” - Deadpool

Modern rom-com-esque movies also present new takeaways: like that a woman might prefer to be single or that our platonic best friends are the great loves of our lives. Crucially, this notoriously straight, white genre has found modern relevance by putting people of color and queer characters front and center.

And finally, romantic comedies have mostly moved from the movie theater to TV and streaming services, a format that allows more time for character development and exploring nuance in relationships. Netflix essentially reignited the genre with its 2018 “Summer of Love,” during which it released 11 rom-coms including the popular Set It Up and To All the Boys I Loved Before.

On top of all this, in recent years there’s been a growing self-awareness and deconstruction of stereotypical rom-com tropes. Most interestingly, some stories have investigated what happens to people who have internalized the lessons of romantic comedies. The Mindy Project’s rom-com addicted protagonist Mindy Lahiri can’t help applying their conventions to her own love life. In a classic rom-com device, her constant bickering with her fellow OBGYN Danny sets up the revelation that they have feelings for each other. But because this is a TV show, that storyline only takes us to the end of the first season, and we go on to see the conflict that ensues when this unlikely couple actually tries to build a life together.

Mindy Lahiri: “Stay-at-home-mom. Can you remind me what that job entails?”

Danny Castellano: “Cooking, cleaning, keeping the piano in tune, stocking the pantry, raising our son, and maintaining a positive attitude that sets the tone for the rest of the household.” - The Mindy Project 4x5

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was also inspired by applying rom-com lessons to reality, as a way of elucidating how twisted they really are. The protagonist Rebecca’s romance-obsessed worldview is framed as a symptom of her mental illness that leads her to act in totally unhinged ways, like pinning all her hopes of happiness on a pretty average guy she dated years before after a random “meet-cute” run-in with him.

Rachel Bloom: “People in romantic comedies generally are psychotic. Okay, a woman moving across the country to be with a guy, a woman bursting into song. And then we said, okay, if this took place in reality, she would be dreadfully unhappy.”

Natalie of 2019’s Isn’t It Romantic is yet a third heroine who grew up watching rom-coms. But unlike Mindy and Rebecca, she has been rudely disabused of their idealistic notions. Natalie must confront her cynical hang-ups when she hits her head and wakes up in a world of rom-com tropes, and she’s actually empowered by learning to view her life through rom-com glasses. Up to this point, she’s been missing the rom-com potential that was already there in her life because she believed she wasn’t good enough to deserve the fairy tale. Ultimately, though, both Isn’t It Romantic and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend end in an affirmation of self-love.

Natalie: “My God, this whole time, I thought I had to get somebody else to fall in love with me, but I… I had to love me.” - Isn’t It Romantic

Rebecca’s healing comes from letting go of a socially-prescribed, restrictive narrative and instead creating something entirely original. This is the same lesson the rom-com genre itself had to learn. It had to chart a new course to evolve with the times.

Heather Davis: “The moment you’re craving isn’t anchored in real emotion. It’s a script dictated to you by our society’s patriarchal love narrative.” - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 1x18

The rom-com isn’t cinema’s definitive take on love. It co-exists with romantic tragedies, melodramas, and dissections of relationship breakdowns. And on some level, we might view these genres as just falling at different points in a relationship timeline. Rom-coms capture how the early stages of love are often experienced through rose-colored glasses. So when the arguments, disappointments, and compromises create bumpier roads ahead, the couple can sustain themselves by remembering how this picture-perfect time felt, when everything was still a beautiful beginning.

Harry Burns: “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” - When Harry Met Sally