The Anatomy of a Rom-Com

I’ve watched a lot of rom-coms. Like, a lot. I say this not as a point of pride or to show that I’m in touch with my sensitive side. Rather, this is a cry for help. I’m a broken man.  With every airplane chase scene, kiss in the rain, or Matthew McConaughey zinger, a little part of my soul dies.

For the better part of two years, I’ve enjoyed what some call a healthy, adult relationship. With every relationship there comes sacrifice. Gone are the days of consequence free Entourage benders. Every viewing of Goodfellas or Django Unchained comes with a sacrifice to McConaughey, J. Lo, and the rest of the rom-com gods.

However, these viewings are not all for naught! I’ve been dissecting these movies and feel I have finally cracked the code to the perfect rom-com. I’ve decided to share my findings with the world. If anyone can understand movies targeted towards women between the ages of 18-55, it’s this guy.

Movies Used For Research: Maid in Manhattan, What Women Want, You’ve Got Mail, How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days, 13 Going on 30, Edtv, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, No Strings Attached, Friends With Benefits, What’s Your Number, That Awkward Moment, Love Actually, Failure to Launch, The Holiday, The Wedding Planner, 27 Dresses, Hitch, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Serendipity, The Proposal, He’s Just Not That Into You, Sweet Home Alabama, The Ugly Truth (Again, I’m a broken man…)

The Setting: New York City

new york rom com

If I’ve learned anything from rom-coms it’s that New York is the place to be if you’re looking for love.  New York City is a city people romanticize as being a city of endless possibilities and big dreams.  I mean, just watch the trailer for Serendipity. If that doesn’t get your romance juices flowing then you’re just a monster.

In real life, New York is more about chance encounters with pizza rat or homeless subway riders. Nevertheless, throw some actors in New York City, add a couple of skyline views, a few chats in Central Park, maybe a party at rooftop bar, and you’ve got yourself an ideal setting.

An added bonus is that it’s a perfect launching point for the characterization of the female lead. Rigid, overworked, undersexed, this executive and/or journalist just can’t seem to find a man. She puts her career first, dammit! With the hustle and bustle of NYC in the background, this character fits perfectly into the setting.

There have of course been deviations. Coastal cities such as Seattle, San Fransisco, and L.A. are always serviceable backups. There’s also small towns to create fish out of water scenarios for big city gals (a la Sweet Home Alabama or The Proposal). However, the safest bet is always New York City.

The Female Lead

kate hudson

The female lead usually falls into one of three categories. There is the aforementioned workaholic who puts her career first (The Proposal, You’ve Got Mail, The Holiday.) Then there’s the woman who finally decides its time to settle down. She has either been recently dumped, is a wild child of sorts, or just can’t seem to land a guy despite looking like Katherine Heigl (27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth.)

Then there’s the fairy tale lead. She is swept off her feet by a richer, often British man. If there’s one movie that perfectly captures this motif, it’s Maid in Manhattan.

Let’s dissect the trailer for a moment. J. Lo is a hardworking, beautiful, yet invisible member of the maid staff at the Beresford Hotel in Manhattan. She puts on a hotel patron’s dress and is mistaken for a rich, high society gal by a handsome senator. The lovable sidekick (in this case her child) sets them up. They chat in Central Park, hit it off, and begin to date. We eventually get a Vanessa Carlton montage about 1:40 seconds in. From there, it’s safe to assume they live happily ever after while overcoming their different socioeconomic backgrounds. This movie may be a trainwreck (and loses points for striking out on Hugh Grant as the male lead.) It’s also a prime example that when writers are out of ideas, modern Cinderella stories are always a safe fallback.

The Male Lead

The male lead can be one of many thinly drawn out caricatures of a man, as long as he’s played by Matthew McConaughey.

There’s every-man McConaughey:


Cocky McConaughey:


Charming, overly blonde McConaughey:

wedding planner

Man-child McConaughey:

failure to launch

and, finally, hallucinating ladies man McConaughey:

ghost mcconaughey

The male lead’s job is to generally be a horrible human being, albeit a charming one. He usually counters the female’s workaholic character with his laid back attitude and lack of stability. He can also be an artsy musician, writer, or architect that opens up a Type A woman to her romantic side. There is also the womanizing type that finally meets his match with the witty, strong female lead. No matter what variation of bro your lead is, one thing’s for sure: you’ve got to get McConaughey.

The Premise

The premise is the least important part of the movie.  I can’t stress this enough. In fact, Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached came out within six months of each other despite having the exact same premise and were both box office smashes.

same rom com
The lesson is that sex with Ashton Kutcher and Justin Timberlake has no consequences

I’ve seen a lot of nonsensical premises while watching these movies. Here’s a few excerpts from the IMDB pages of rom-coms:

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Those are pretty wild summaries and require quite a suspension of belief on the audiences part. But nothing compares to the ludicrous premise of What Women Want.

In addition to convincing the whole world this man is a strong romantic figure, the audience is forced to go along with its ridiculous premise.

Here’s a summary taken directly from the Wikipedia page:

Nick slips and falls into his bathtub while holding an electric hairdryer, shocking himself. The next day, Nick wakes up and comes to realize that he can hear the innermost thoughts of all women. This proves to be an epiphany for him as he realizes that most women, especially at work, dislike him and consider him to be sleazy.

Yeah, I know. But consider this: What Women Want made $374 million dollars.

So yes, the premise is the least important part of these movies. Period.

The Finale

Hugh Grant's precoital ritual (probably)
Hugh Grant’s precoital ritual (probably)

Any good rom-com isn’t complete without some sort of climactic chase scene. It’s not enough for a man to give a woman his unrequited love and admiration. Just when things are going well, the idiot man will inevitably fuck it all up. He’ll then have his moment of clarity mere moments before an ill fated wedding or flight.

Fortunately for us all, the guy always makes it just in time. Cue the big romantic speech or gesture. These have varying degrees of difficulty, from a song and dance routine, public proposal, or god damn flash mob.

Speaking of flash mobs, this entire genre has really forced the hand of the male species. YouTube is littered with elaborate proposals by men trying to live up to the rom-com gold standard. There are dance routines to Bruno Mars songs, faux movie trailers, and music videos made across the globe. It’s as if rom-com’s have bred a whole generation of Ted Mosby’s looking for their blue french horn.

So there you have it. Rom-coms have single-handedly created unrealistic expectations of New York, dating, proposals, and love. They have showcased ridiculous premises, turned a whole generation of men into sensy’s, and driven Matthew McConaughey off the deep end.

He's this close to figuring out the perfect wedding proposal
He’s this close to figuring out the perfect wedding proposal

No matter how watered down they become, rom-coms will live on forever. When the apocalypse comes, the only sure things to survive are cockroaches, Twinkies, and rom-coms. And of course, that smug bastard McConaughey.







8 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Rom-Com”

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