From ‘Ninotchka’ to ‘Love Actually’: A celebration of the romantic comedy
In his book From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy, 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?
The Nose is off this week. In its stead, a Not Necessarily The Nose-style deconstruction — and celebration — of the romantic comedy.
Some favorite rom-coms from some of the people on this show:
Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
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)
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
The Awful Truth (1937)
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 rom-com person and even pushed back against the iconic boombox scene. That has something to do with why this movie works so well.
- Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Grant. Hepburn. Two leopards. Thirty pounds of sirloin. What’s not to love?
Some other stuff that happened this week, give or take:
- And Now Let’s Review … A.O. Scott conducts his own exit interview as he moves to a new post after more than two decades of reviewing films.
- What if ‘The Daily Show’ Used Guest Hosts Permanently? Fill-ins for Trevor Noah have shown how exciting the lack of a permanent replacement could be. It’s an option with an illustrious history in television.
- David Letterman’s Retirement Beard Just Keeps Getting Better And more from the week in celebrity grooming.
- The Oscars Aren’t Where Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans And West Side Story Needed To Win
- Apple to Spend $1 Billion a Year on Films to Break Into Cinemas
- Paramount Sets Remake Of Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ As Potential Robert Downey Jr-Starrer; Steven Knight To Write Script & Davis Entertainment To Produce With Team Downey
- The Movies Of The DCEU, Ranked
- The Rise of Gender-Neutral Names Isn’t What It Seems The desire of parents to be truly original has had a perhaps unintended effect.
- Illeana Douglas: The Official Movie Star of The Colin McEnroe Show
- David Edelstein: America’s Greatest Living Film Critic
- Scott Meslow: Author of From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy
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Colin McEnroe and Cat Pastor contributed to this show, which originally aired August 24, 2022.