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From ‘Ninotchka’ to ‘Love Actually’: A celebration of the romantic comedy

In his new book, From Hollywood with Love, critic Scott Meslow lays out two ways to tell if a given movie is a rom-com. First, his own definition: “A romantic comedy is a movie where (1) the central plot is focused on at least one romantic love story; and (2) the goal is to make you laugh at least as much as the goal is to make you cry.”

And then, The Donald Petrie Test, named for the director of some rom-coms, like Mystic Pizza and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, but also some edge cases, like Miss Congeniality and Grumpy Old Men: “If you removed the love story from this [comedy], would you still have a movie? If the answer is no, it’s a romantic comedy. […] If the answer is yes, it’s a comedy with a romantic subplot.”

So those are the litmus tests. Now, does that make Broadcast News a rom-com, or no? What about Annie Hall? Or something like Grosse Pointe Blank? How about His Girl Friday? Or even, actually, Love Actually?

This hour, a deconstruction — and celebration — of the romantic comedy.

Some favorite rom-coms from some of the people on this show:

Illeana Douglas
Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Ninotchka (1939)
Too Many Husbands (1940)
The More the Merrier (1943)
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Cluny Brown (1946)
Pillow Talk (1959)
The Apartment (1960)
What’s Up, Doc? (1972)
Foul Play (1978)
Arthur (1981)

David Edelstein
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
The Awful Truth (1937)
Ninotchka (1939)
Midnight (1939)
The Lady Eve (1941)
His Girl Friday (1940)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Cluny Brown (1946)

Scott Meslow’s five recommended under-seen rom-coms from the past decade

  1. Populaire (2012)
    A zippy, ultra-stylish French rom-com about the romance between a dapper boss and his secretary, set amid the long-forgotten craze for competitive speed typing.
  2. Sleeping with Other People (2015)
    Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis are at the peak of their charms in this witty rom-com about two friends who reunite years after losing their virginities to each other — the rare rom-com to get the balance of raunchy and sweet just right.
  3. Man Up (2015)
    Ignore the lame title — this rom-com, in which Lake Bell plays an unlucky-in-love woman who pretends to be a man’s blind date, is pure, fizzy fun (and is also the only rom-com I’ve seen to borrow a plot point from The Silence of the Lambs).
  4. Destination Wedding (2018)
    Other critics weren’t as high on this extremely stripped down rom-com, in which Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves snark their way through a wedding they’d both prefer not to be attending — but in a genre in which so many characters have “negative” qualities that are actually just adorable, I appreciated this movie’s deliberately sour tone.
  5. Plus One (2019)
    A delightfully unapologetic throwback to the genre’s ’90s heyday, but with a modern touch, as two platonic friends (Jack Quaid and Maya Erskine) agree to be each other’s plus-ones for a packed wedding season before realizing they may actually have a spark after all.

Colin’s 5 (or 6) favorite rom-coms

  1. Heaven Can Wait (1978)
    I realize this is assailable on the basis of Julie Christie not being an especially memorable character and getting less screen time than, say, Jack Warden. Warren Beatty is so vain, he probably thinks this movie is about him, and he’s sort of right. But it is very nearly perfect and enriched by an amazing ensemble of supporting players.
  2. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
    I surprised myself by ranking SLP this high, but I love the frank and funny handling of mental illness and its indistinguishability from being an Eagles fan. I’ve seen it quite a few times, and I invariably cry at the end. I love what J-Law does with her part, and Chris Tucker and John Ortiz are standouts among the fine supporting cast. Shout out to Kevin Lowry for his work as dolly grip on the “A” camera.
  3. The Lady Eve (1941) / Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
    These are both “rom-cons” involving grifts by a femme fatale who is usually a few steps ahead of the male lead. Barbara Stanwyck actually generates more sexual heat than the smoldering Catherine Zeta-Jones. She was still doing that 42 years later, hitting on a rain-streaked, bare-chested priest played by Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds. But I do love Intolerable Cruelty. I think it’s the only Coen brothers rom-com and definitely an homage to the ’30s and ’40s.
  4. Say Anything (1989)
    I loved John Cusack during this period. A few years later, I was seeing a psychotherapist who looked exactly like him. It was distracting. I’ve learned that Cusack didn’t really see himself as a romcom person and even pushed back against the iconic boombox scene. That has something to do with why this movie works so well.
  5. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
    Grant. Hepburn. Two leopards. Thirty pounds of sirloin. What’s not to love?


  • Illeana Douglas: A movie and television star
  • David Edelstein: America’s Greatest Living Film Critic
  • Scott Meslow: The author of From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy

The Colin McEnroe Show is available as a podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe and never miss an episode!

Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

Colin McEnroe and Cat Pastor contributed to this show.

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Lily is the senior producer for The Colin McEnroe Show. She first worked at Connecticut Public as an intern in 2014. She has previously worked for WBUR, KUNC and as a producer for the New England News Collaborative's weekly show Next. Lily can be reached at ltyson@ctpublic.org.
Jonathan is a producer for ‘The Colin McEnroe Show.’ His work has been heard nationally on NPR and locally on Connecticut Public’s talk shows and news magazines. He’s as likely to host a podcast on minor league baseball as he is to cover a presidential debate almost by accident. Jonathan can be reached at jmcnicol@ctpublic.org.
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