Okay, confession time I’m not generally a RomCom (romantic comedy) fan. In fact, I pretty much loathe them on general principles. Not because I’m a film snob (my favorite movie is Highlander, for cryin’ out loud), but because RomCom’s are almost inevitably the cinematic equivalent of a Hallmark Channel Christmas tv movie. Cookie-cutter plots, clichéd dialogue, absurd premises (yeah, you’re gonna find a street walker in Las Vegas that looks like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, sure thing), and that inevitable, syrupy ending where this magical force called “love” (or the Christmas spirit, if we’re still talking about Hallmark) somehow conquers everything and anything that stands in the way of our inevitably handsome/beautiful leading couple. Bleah!
Sometimes, though, even my cynical heart finds a romantic comedy that is a keeper. Groundhog Day was pretty darn good, though I enjoyed it more for the comedy than the romance. And I begrudgingly admit The Princess Bride was a classic.
So, to that end, here are 5 RomComs I think buck the trend and definitely do not suck. I did skip a few of the more obvious choices (like Groundhog and Princess Bride) for a more eclectic mix with a couple of lesser-known offerings for different tastes.
And, if by “eclectic mix”, and “lesser-known offerings”, you’re thinking “Sean’s going to include at least one really obscure foreign film that I’ll have to search for weeks to find”, congrats — you’re learning! 😛
#5 Shadows in Paradise (Finland, 1986. Directed by Aki Kaurismaki)
Baby even the losers, get lucky sometimes. — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Shadows is a dark comedy about the lives of two of life’s “nobody’s”, set in the class-conscious city of Helsinki. Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) is a garbage man whose life consists of getting up before dawn every day to cart off the city’s refuse.
It’s an endless routine of drudgery, broken up only by chain smoking with his ever-optimistic co-worker, and the occasional night school class in learning English. Ilona (Kati Outinen) is a bored cashier, who also smokes too much and has a troubling tendency towards kleptomania at the store where she works. Neither would ever be called glamorous, and probably only their mothers ever told them they were beautiful. None of the popular girl (or boy) and love interest from “the other side of the tracks” trope here. It’s slightly reminiscent of the 1955 Oscar-winning film Marty, with Ernest Borgnine, in that respect.
Nikander and Ilona’s chance meeting sparks a hesitant, unsure romance. Awkward moments abound, including an embarrassing scene on their first date when a restaurant manager insists, he can’t seat them because they are booked up for the evening. The restaurant is clearly almost empty, and it is only after a long moment that Nikander and Ilona realize the manager simply doesn’t want “their kind” in his establishment.
It is this awkwardness, this doubt, that make the relationship between the two so engaging. They’ve both been taken out of their routine, into something neither one really knows quite how to handle. There is the fear of being hurt, the self-examination and the assessing of the other — is this what I really want? What do they want from me? how do I really feel about them? Outinen is particularly good in conveying her feelings with non-verbal cues, which works well with Kaurismaki’s trademark minimalist style.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a romantic comedy without *some* sort of upbeat ending. Like the rest of Shadows, it is a bit of a swipe at traditional romantic endings, but it works. The audience is left with the all-important takeaway that everyone’s dreams matter. Love and happiness aren’t just for the glamorous and the beautiful.
#4 MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING (2002)
Okay, so I’m a hypocrite.
Big Fat…commits many of the cinematic sins I rail about in the RomCom genre. The plot is basic, the jokes are often corny, and the overall feel is more tv sitcom than big screen production. So why is it on the list? Because Big Fat… does one thing very, very well: it’s sincere.
There’s an honest joy and warmth in the performances of the leads (Nia Vardalos and John Corbett) and much of the supporting cast. Yeah, jokes about Bundt cakes are lame, but who cares? Everybody is having fun making the film and gently poking us in the ribs about our own family quirks and odd traditions.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding will never be a masterpiece, and how I wish they hadn’t tried to follow it up with a dreadful tv show spinoff, and an even worse film sequel, but it’s still a good couple of hours of genuine fun. Pass the popcorn. And the Windex.
#3 HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)
Only in the 1970s.
Only in the experimental, free-wheeling era of that bygone time would we have gotten a film like this one made. A teenaged boy (Harold), obsessed with all things morbid (including attending strangers’ funerals and routinely staging fake suicides around the house for his parent’s “benefit”), meets and falls in love with a free-wheeling woman named Maude who is as obsessed with life and living it as Harold is with death. The two meet by chance, and friendship and ultimately a passionate romance blooms between the two of them.
By the way, did I mention that Harold is 17, and Maude is about to turn 80?
Yeah, *that* little bit pretty much upended any lingering hope you had of this being a mainstream pick, now didn’t it? I can only imagine the social media backlash If someone tried to make Harold and Maude today. The professional outrage mobs across social media and the political spectrum would be frothing at the mouth. Well, more than they usually do, anyway.
Well, feh on them! Harold and Maude is a wickedly funny film, with an unrepentant counter-culture sensibility. Bud Cort (Harold) adroitly deadpans his many fake suicides, scaring off one arranged date after another, while his detached, clueless mother (played by Vivian Pickles) comes up with one plan after another to make her son “right.” It’s The Graduate meets Better Off Dead.
Ruth Gordon’s Maude is fittingly whimsical and carefree, long past beyond feeling the need to abide by society’s expectations of her. As Maude herself so famously says in the film “Harold, *everyone* has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can’t let the world judge you too much.”
Together, the two are screen magic. The chemistry between the two is palpable, despite this being the most unlikely of relationships. Many life lessons are conveyed in their moments together, one of the more memorable and gently delivered being The Sunflower Scene.
As you might imagine from the age difference of the two characters, there is a bittersweet element looming for both. Scheming mothers and traditional authority figures might not be able to make a dent in Harold and Maude’s relationship, but Time is ultimately sovereign in all things. Yet, even in its saddest moments, we learn. Life is not only worth living, but it is worth living as fully and well as possible. Take a chance, even if you end up getting hurt in the process. And, if you just want to sing out, well then sing out!
#2 BENNY AND JOON (1993)
I went back and forth between placing this one 2nd and 3rd. I like both it and H&M quite a bit. This one won out by a whisker, as I think it’s a better over all example of a well-made romantic comedy and represents one of Johnny Depp’s very best performances.
Benny and Joon a brother and sister (Aidan Quinn and Mary Stuart Masterson, respectively) who live together in a small town. Benny’s a mechanic, who avoids dating and most social activities because he is dedicated to caring for Joon. Joon is an eccentric woman, who is given to acerbic quips and oddly humorous observations and suffers from the lingering mental trauma of some past event (later revealed in the film). It’s not an ideal situation, but it works and both seem relatively happy.
Enter Sam (Johnny Depp). Sam’s also an eccentric character. Not from some past trauma or mental disorder. He’s just wonderfully strange. Obsessed with film (hey, I like this guy already!) Sam has a particular affinity for the physical comedy of silent screen legends like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Depp’s gift for physical comedy steals scene after scene in the film. The “dancing rolls” scene is (among other references) a perfect homage to Charlie Chaplin in his 1924 film The Gold Rush. I’m not sure if the “Troublesome Hat” scene is an homage to Chaplin or Keaton, but it is again sublime. The film would be worth watching even without the romance angle, just for Depp’s performances.
Sam and Joon together are quite an odd couple (that seems to be a running theme in my picks, I’ve noticed!). Be it making grilled cheese with an iron, or sharing phobias of the infamous Dancing Raisins commercial of the 1980s, their screen time together is never boring. A few groups, grumbled about the film upon its release, claiming that it somehow trivialized mental illness. I think that’s nonsense. It’s weird and it’s wonderful, but never dismissive of Joon’s issues. If anything, it presents a positive image of people with emotional problems. Big Brother Benny has to learn that there comes a time when Joon has to be given a chance to be her own person, and that he cannot run her life forever. Great stuff.
#1 AMÉLIE (FRANCE, 2001).
What can you say about this one? Amélie is one of the great films of the last 25 years, regardless of genre. As a romantic comedy, it’s in a class all by itself.
Amélie de Poulain (Audrey Tautou) is a young Parisian woman working in a café as a waitress. Though apparently shy and somewhat reclusive, Amelie is also possessed of a wildly active imagination and a pixie-like mischievousness. A holdover from an isolated childhood, Amélie often likes to imagine the mundane and depressing in a more fanciful, happier light. A chance discovery in her apartment one night sparks her fancy to the point that she resolves to bring her whismies into the real world, with the goal of making another person happy. Little does she realize that she is starting on an adventure that will touch the lives of many of those around her, and eventually chart her own path to happiness.
Every scene in Amélie is just about perfect. Every scene fits into the overall narrative of the film, even if it isn’t always immediately obvious. It’s also, as one reviewer called it, “a sugar rush of a movie.” This is a very, very happy movie for the most part. There are a few (very funny) bits of dark humor, which I tend to prefer as a general rule over upbeat themes, but this is a film that is unquestionably filled with joy.
Normally, terms like “sugar rush of a movie” and “filled with joy” would have me running for my cinematic bunker. Not so with Amélie. The film is never heavy-handed, and avoids being syrupy or maudlin through clever story-telling and surreal moments inside Amélie’s imagination. We learn that joy can be found in even the simplest of moments (such as cracking the sugar crust on a crème brulee), and that a stolen garden gnome can be the catalyst for change in a lonely man’s life.
As for Amélie’s own path to happiness…it’s unquestionably (as one would expect) the most-involved and most satisfying part of the film. I could elaborate, but I don’t want to spoil any of it. From the first encounter, Tautou is simply brilliant as the elfin do-gooding Amélie, blending an adventurous streak with vulnerability, a generous and kind nature with an impish delight in vexing those who need to be reminded of their own better natures. That her own desires should somehow ultimately be realized seems to be only just and right by the film’s end. See this one if you can, folks.
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