Kathryn Grayson in Seven Sweethearts (1942), a musical romantic comedy film The basic plot of a romantic comedy is that two characters, usually a man and a woman, meet, part ways due to an argument or other obstacle, then ultimately reunite. Sometimes the two leads meet and become involved initially, then must confront challenges to their union. Sometimes they are hesitant to become romantically involved because they believe that they do not like each other, because one of them already has a partner, or because of social pressures. However, the screenwriters leave clues that suggest that the characters are, in fact, attracted to each other and that they would be a good love match. The protagonists often separate or seek time apart to sort out their feelings or deal with the external obstacles to their being together.
While the two protagonists are separated, one or both of them usually realizes that they are ideal for each other, or that they are in love with each other. Then, after one of the two makes some spectacular effort (sometimes called the grand gesture) to find the other person and declare their love, or through an astonishing coincidental encounter, the two meet again. Then, perhaps with some comic friction or awkwardness, they declare their love for each other and the film ends happily. The couple does not, however, have to marry, or live together “happily ever after”. The ending of a romantic comedy is meant to affirm the primary importance of the love relationship in its protagonists’ lives, even if they physically separate in the end (e.g. Shakespeare in Love, Roman Holiday).
There are many variations on this basic plotline. Sometimes, instead of the two lead characters ending up in each other’s arms, another love match will be made between one of the principal characters and a secondary character (e.g., My Best Friend’s Wedding and My Super Ex-Girlfriend). Alternatively, the film may be a rumination on the impossibility of love, as in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall. The basic format of a romantic comedy film can be found in much earlier sources, such as Shakespeare plays like Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Some comedy films, such as Knocked Up, combine themes of romantic comedies and stoner comedies, creating a subgenre that appeals to both men and women. Often known as “bromance”, such films usually use sexual elements which bring the two characters together. Films in this genre include American Pie 2 and even Wedding Crashers.
Evolution and subgenres
Romantic comedies have begun to spread out of their conventional and traditional structure into other territory. This territory explores more subgenres and more complex topics. These films still follow the typical plot of “a light and humorous movie, play, etc., whose central plot is a happy love story” but with more complexity. These are a few ways romantic comedies are adding more subtlety and complexity into the genre.
Some romantic comedies have adopted extreme or strange circumstances for the main characters, as in Warm Bodies where the protagonist is a zombie who falls in love with a human girl after eating her boyfriend. Another strange set of circumstances is in Zack and Miri Make a Porno where the two protagonists are building a relationship while trying to make a porno together. Both these films take the typical story-arch and then utilize circumstances to add originality.
Other romantic comedies flip the standard conventions of the romantic comedy genre. In films like 500 Days of Summer the two main interests do not end up together, leaving the protagonist somewhat distraught. While other films like Adam have the two main interests end up separated but still content and pursuing other goals and love interests.
Other remakes of romantic comedies involve similar elements but explore more adult themes such as marriage, responsibility or even disability. Two films by Judd Apatow such as This is 40 or Knocked Up deal with these before mentioned issues. This is 40 chronicles the mid life crisis of a couple entering their 40’s and Knocked Up addresses unintended pregnancy and the ensuing assuming of responsibility. While Silver Linings Playbook deals with mental illness and unrequited love that is never resolved.
All of these go against the stereotype of what romantic comedy has become as a genre. Yet the genre of romantic comedy is simply a structure and all of these elements do not negate the fact that these films are still romantic comedies.