Realism In The Romantic Comedy

Is the romantic comedy genre in film becoming more real these days? We examine the shift in Hollywood’s focus from pure escapism to relatable reality with two recently successful Indie filmmakers.

By Kimberly Dawn Neumann

oy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy and girl have a misunderstanding. Boy and girl are both miserable. Then, somehow, a miracle happens, boy and girl realize they’re destined for each other and walk off into the sparkling sunset holding hands headed for a bump-free future of bliss.

Sounds like a movie, right? Well, in years past that would have been the perfect Hollywood romantic
It’s like a romance novel come to life on the silver screen.
comedy script. And audiences (who were, we assume, predominately female) would have lapped it up. It’s like a romance novel come to life on the silver screen. But recently there has been a shift in the “classic” Hollywood format, and much like the magazine trend urging photographers and editors to publish non-airbrushed photos of models, Madonna and Jessica Simpson, movies are also starting to offer up snapshots of real-life relationship scenarios that aren’t in “soft focus.” In other words, “happily ever after” is no longer a Hollywood guarantee — and audiences are OK with it.

What caused this shift to happen without audiences retreating behind their rose-colored glasses, taking their movie dollars elsewhere? We decided to take a look at this trend towards romantic realism in films to find out.

What is a Romantic Comedy, Anyway?
“I think people nowadays think of the term ‘romantic comedy’ and can only picture big-budget, vapid tales of love which are largely comedic but lacking heart,” says Zoe Lister-Jones, the lead actress, screenwriter and producer for this year’s Indie hit film, Breaking Upwards. “A romantic comedy in its truest form is both funny and dramatic, perhaps in equal parts.” In other words, though real relationships may be no laughing matter, there may still be laughter within the context of what happens when two people try to connect. But there may also be drama.

“Certainly at the box office, we (the audience) accept the premise — at least, when it comes to men and women — that after the lightning strikes, THUNDER is often heard when two people begin the process of sharing their lives together,” says writer/producer Michael Gage. “The shift now indicates that Hollywood has realized audiences will still cheer for the rush of love unfolding on the screen, but they also want to see the main characters suffer after they arrive at true love together.” This concept was perfectly executed in last year’s surprise hit film, (500) Days of Summer, which really did a great job of further redefining the concept of what “romantic comedy” means. In fact, the film begins with this onscreen disclaimer: This is a story of boy meets girl, but it is not a love story.

“What I think we’re really saying here is that it doesn’t take two people to fall in love. I think the term ‘love story’ suggests otherwise,” says the film’s screenwriter, Scott Neustadter, who used his own real-life romance and subsequent crushing breakup as the basis for the film’s plot. “I also think calling something a ‘love story’ automatically implies a ‘happy ending,’ especially in contemporary Hollywood movies. There’s nothing wrong with it. Happy endings can be great. But we intentionally started off this movie letting audiences know, ‘Hey, if you’re here to watch two people fall in love and walk off hand in hand into the sunset, you’re in for a rough 90 minutes.’”

Times are Tough; Shouldn’t Movies Reflect That?
This shift towards reality may also simply be a sign of the times. Though escapism may be the easier “sell” in Hollywood, audiences are becoming more open to seeing the subtler nuances of humanity and how our relationships play out onscreen. “People are more into reality and more in touch with the negative side of life with the recession going on,” says Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil, author of Make Up, Don’t Break Up. “People are looking at life more realistically and clearly, and the money strain is affecting more relationships. People are also realizing it’s more important to have better closure with their own relationships. They are working together as a team in choosing to say goodbye.”

This theme was certainly evident in Breaking Upwards, where the main characters actually planned their own breakup throughout the course of the film. While this may not sound like a classic romantic comedy plot, it still has a place in the genre because the film shows the progression of two people who care deeply about each other trying to find a way to end their relationship slowly, in increments, backing away from their own codependence and finally letting go. Bittersweet though it is, Breaking Upwards ultimately illustrates that most relationships — and the endings that sometimes must follow — are anything but clean, linear and painless.

To witness this onscreen, however, was refreshing. “I definitely think the romantic comedy genre as a whole is in need of deconstructing and rebuilding from the ground up,” says Lister-Jones. “So much of what Hollywood is looking to make relies largely on escapism, which they see as a formula for box-office returns. I think there’s a lot to be said for films that people can really relate to; films that portray real people dealing with very real issues. That doesn’t mean they can’t be entertaining — or even funny — movies. It just means they need to ask deeper questions about the nature of relationships from current and relevant new perspectives.”

Gender Roles Are Changing, Too
Romantic comedies are shifting farther and farther away from the once-popular “chick flick” formulas in order to appeal to a wider audience and keep the genre from stagnating. (500) Days of Summer
I always think a good movie leaves its audience asking questions.
accomplished this admirably by making the protagonist male, a marked shift in the classic romantic film plot structure. “It’s still surprising to all of us involved with this film that people view this as an intentional flipping of gender roles — none of us ever thought of this in that way,” says Neustadter. “My male friends sit around and talk about relationships, dating and their frustrations with the opposite sex just as much as women do. Girls break up with guys all the time, don’t they? I think part of what makes this story work is that we’ve all been on both sides of the coin. We’ve liked someone without having the same feelings reciprocated and vice versa. It’s a universal experience.”

And that experiential universality certainly plays a part in opening up the genre to explore new storytelling styles. Men and women may be from Mars and Venus or whatever, but when it comes to Hollywood stars, the roles in that galaxy are a little less rigid. This presents ever-evolving possibilities for everyday reality to influence how we expect to view relationships in film. Male/female dynamics have changed markedly in years past in the real world and in dating and they continue to do so. Therefore, it would make sense that romantic comedies also evolve to reflect what’s happening culturally.

Misery Likes Company
“I think when situations are not grounded in an emotional truth in films they’re harder for the viewer to connect with and relate to,” says Lister-Jones. In other words, the new, more realistic romantic films are successful because audiences can see themselves in the onscreen characters presented and then they don’t feel so alone. They’re being shown romantic situations they can relate to and therefore feel both attachment to and empathy for the characters.

Both Breaking Upwards and (500) Days of Summer included scenarios lifted directly from the lives of the films’ screenwriters, and while it’s not necessary to use your own autobiography as the basis for a good script, there’s something to be said for drawing upon your own truths and life experiences to make a film which will resonate with audiences. Also, familiarity is comforting. When people identify with something onscreen they’ve experienced in their own lives, it gives them a feeling of, “Oh, thank goodness, I’m not the ONLY one who has gone through this.” And rather than being fed “comedy” born out of a situation’s total implausibility, viewers are entertained by the more subtle humor that stems from a sense of camaraderie and understanding of the characters themselves as human beings.

In the End, Hope Matters
“Love is pain mixed with joy, but the pain of unmet expectations has the overwhelming power to crush the concept of true love,” says Gage. However, there is one fundamental element that must be present for a film to be termed a “romantic comedy” — and that’s hope. Without it, why would people even bother to keep trying to find that romantic connection with someone else?

Though Hollywood is allowing a trickle of true-to-life relationship stories to infiltrate the romance genre, one thing that we all still want to believe in is that the power of love will prevail somehow (even if it’s with a different person than the one you originally thought was The One). “Dramas are a really hard sell right now in Hollywood precisely because people’s realities are dark enough,” says Lister-Jones. “Breaking Upwards is bittersweet, but undoubtedly, it’s still a comedy. We wanted it to end on a hopeful note while leaving a lot up to the audience. I always think a good movie leaves its audience asking questions.”

Bottom line: Whether it’s in a romantic comedy or your own reality, the concept of hope is what keeps love alive… both onscreen and off.

Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a popular New York City-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Cosmopolitan, Maxim, Health, Redbook and frequently online. A certified dating/relationship coach, she’s published two books: The Real Reasons Men Commit and Sex Comes First and is the founder of For the record, she believes in love. For more, visit
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