Thursday, March 18, 2010

Genre Considerations – Romantic Comedy and Romantic Drama

(Spoilers: Sweet Home Alabama, Casablanca, Sleepless in Seattle, Wedding Crashers)

The difference between romantic comedy and romantic drama is really just tone. Other than the need to be funny in a romantic comedy, most of the other genre issues are the same. Also, many movies have romantic subplots that have similar concerns as the ones I’ll address today.

One of the most important things to remember in a romance is that seeing the lovers happy together is boring. Drama is conflict and romances are only dramatic when something is keeping the lovers apart.

Before we keep them apart, though, we need to see that they are meant to be together. Of course some of this will depend on the “chemistry” of the actors. But we can’t rely on that in the script stage. Romances work best when each of the lovers has a need in their life that the other one fills.

For example, in Sweet Home Alabama Melanie needs to face her past and come to terms with it. Jake represents that past. Meanwhile, Jake needs a bigger ambition for his life – something that Melanie inspires in him by her big ambitions. Each makes the other one a better person.

In Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) cynical Rick needs to regain his passion for lost causes. Ilsa’s compassion and emotional vulnerability help him to do this.

In Pretty Woman (written by J.F. Lawton) Edward needs someone who can warm up his cold heart and Vivian needs someone who sees her as more than a sex object. We know they’re meant for each other because Vivian brings out Edward’s humanity and he treats her as an emotional and intellectual equal.

In Knocked Up (written by Judd Apatow) Ben is a slacker who needs to grow up while Alison is an uptight businesswoman who needs to let loose. This kind of pairing is one of the reasons “opposites attract” is so often present in movie romances.

Of course it helps to show that these people actually have something in common. One of the knocks on Knocked Up was that the two characters didn’t seem like they would actually like each other. (Personally, I enjoyed the movie but I understand the complaint.)

And be sure the issues are actually significant to the characters. One of my least favorite romantic comedies is Sleepless in Seattle (story by Jeff Arch, screenplay by Nora Ephron and David S. Ward and Jeff Arch) because it’s so superficial. The big reason we’re supposed to know that Sam and Annie are right for each other is she peels an apple like his ex-wife. Lame. Go for something deeper.

Once we know the lovers belong together the next challenge is to keep them apart. Frankly, here in the 21st century, this is getting tough to do. Traditional societal mores that were the basis for many classic romances are disappearing. Once it was forbidden for people of different classes, races, religions, etc. to have romantic relationships. But we’ve progressed – to the benefit of society and the detriment of writers!

When looking for obstacles to romance there are two basic kinds: internal and external. Internal obstacles are those where the character needs to change something about their personality in order to succeed in love. For example, the chauvinist may to learn to appreciate women as in What Women Want (story by Josh Goldsmith & Cathy Yuspa and Diane Drake, screenplay by Josh Goldsmith & Cathy Yuspa). Or the recluse may need to learn to accept risk as in Lars and the Real Girl (written by Nancy Oliver).

Since the societal obstacles are getting difficult to pull off, the most common external obstacle is now the romantic rival, also known, of course, as the love triangle. This is an example of the “mutually exclusive goals” technique of creating conflict – two people want the same thing (the love interest) and both of them can’t get it. Instant conflict and therefore instant drama.

Love triangles pose certain challenges, though. One way to go is to make our hero a good guy and the rival a bad guy.* This is how it works in Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Faber & Bob Fisher). John falls for Claire but she’s with Sack. Sack is such a jerk that we root for John to take Claire away from him.

The trouble with this is we might start to dislike the girl if she’s with a jerk. And if we don’t like her we won’t be rooting for our hero to end up with her. The usual solution is that the rival hides his jerkiness from the love interest. But that’s still risky – you don’t want her to seem stupid for missing what everyone else sees.

Of course, in a love triangle the rival doesn’t actually have to be a bad guy. Two perfectly nice men can be in love with the same woman and you still have good drama. That’s the approach I took in Sweet Home Alabama.

It’s also the approach taken in Casablanca. Both Rick and Victor Lazlo are good men. Ilsa’s caught between them because in the confusion of war she had thought Victor, her husband, was dead when she met Rick. We long for Rick and Ilsa to be together but the fact she’s married to a decent guy is a pretty big obstacle.

The risk here, of course, is that we might not root so hard for the protagonist if we actually like the antagonist. It’s a balancing act. The key is to adequately demonstrate that the hero and the love interest absolutely belong together.

And don’t underestimate the power of scenes of preparation and aftermath in romances. These give us a chance to check in with the characters’ emotions. In Casablanca a big reason we’re rooting for Rick to get the girl is the aftermath scene that follows her coming into his bar. We see how in love he is because of how torn up he is.

Romance is challenging to make dramatic. In real life when two people fall in love they generally start dating without any real obstacles. That doesn’t make for very interesting stories. But love is a powerful, primal emotion. A good love story can impact the audience in a very deep way!

*For the purposes of discussion I’ll use a love triangle with two men in love with the same woman. Of course the genders could be reversed, or all characters might be the same gender in a gay story.


DW Smith said...

Thanks, Doug. Do you have any posts about dual-lead films? Lots of Rom-Coms are dual leads, like to hear your thoughts on those specifically.

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