I think we’re all a bit too familiar with:
Coming this fall to a theater near you… Lily had everything she ever wanted; a group of completely interchangeable friends, a nonspecific marketing job that is probably in the fashion industry, and a family with at least one token gay. But the one thing she couldn’t find, was a man. [cut to a friend sympathetically telling her she deserves love, only for the protagonist to say she’s fine without it.] Little did she know, her world is about to be turned upside down when a breakout of the avian flu and subsequent city wide quarantine mandate lands her in close quarters with her neighbor who has a sloppy apartment.
Sign me up to watch that on an airplane sometime!
No, but really, though romcoms may not be my predilection, I do at least appreciate the effort of certain movies that attempt to make such a formulaic genre a bit more exciting. Especially given that the tropes universally agreed upon as being appealing have been done to death. Yet for every Clueless (damnit, Jane Austen, stop being so good at this game!) there’s those special few that make you wonder what the industry executives had been drinking during the pitch meeting to give it the “okay.”
I’m not talking strictly “bad” films here, by the way. Some of these might be diverting. But here are, in no particular order: ten romcoms with hideously unsexy premises.
Chasing Amy (1997)
I feel like this is a rather conservative one to start off the list, because I really doubt I could find anyone who would consider this movie either romantic or comedic. Yet that genre tag on IMDB doesn’t lie, so here we are.
It’s a classic “boy meets girl,” except the girl tells the boy that she’s a lesbian. And rather than let it go and just like, be her friend, this goateed asshat (sorry, Affleck) decides that it’s better to become the full embodiment of the Good Guy™ trope, and eventually wear her down with his whining until she agrees to date him.
What could be even better than this? How about if Goatee finds out that his new girlfriend actually had been with a couple of guys before him, and then freaks the fuck out and dumps her when she refuses to apologize for her sexual history? But don’t worry, Goatee soon gets advice from another random friend (let’s call him Bob…I think that may actually be right) who also had been in a relationship with some chick named Amy (queue Ron Howard) where Bob felt the need to slut shame and dump her, but never got over it! So emboldened by that heartfelt tale, Goatee decides to fix his relationship with his Joey Lauren Adams by asking her to participate in a threesome.
Again, what is supposed to be romantic here? The only saving grace is that Goatee does not end up with the girl, though she still felt the need to tell him that she loved him before rejecting his threesome offer. I don’t think the narrative wants us to look favorably at Goatee’s actions? It’s hard to tell. But the fact is, the entire premise revolves around his inability to respect her sexual agency, and this is supposed to be sympathetic on some level. Pass.
Parent Trap (1998)
(Yes, I’m just using my memory of the Lohan one. I’ve seen the original but what can I say? I’m a product of my times)
Okay, so the focus for this film is certainly more on sister bonding than on the actual romance. But we still have to sit through a fair amount of Dennis Quaid giving his terrifying smile to Natasha Richardson, so I think it justifies a spot.
“Hey, what if two parents hated each other so much that they just split up their fucking twins.” And I guess we’re supposed to delight in the naiveté of children who think they can get them back together, except that the story ends up validating this. Even twin-splitting aside, this is a relationship with some clear red flags. Like…domestic abuse red flags.
I’m not the biggest fan of love triangles with a bit of a Madonna-Whore flair to them, so perhaps that’s another reason this romance is not particularly compelling to me, but I think it also made me spend more time worrying about their parenting abilities than caring about their future relationships.
Also, nothing was ever resolved. Is Nick going to give up his Vineyard? Is there any reason for them to believe this relationship might be successful this time around? Is this all just because they have guilt over their daughters never knowing their other parent and sister for eleven years?
Lindsay Lohan could act though, man.
Can’t Buy Me Love (1987)
So I have an incredibly specific issue where I never find any romcom starring Patrick Dempsey worth its salt. And that problem most assuredly started here, because holy fuck.
In this one, Patrick plays a geek who doesn’t want to be bullied, so he offers $1,000 to a cheerleader named Cindy, because of course she’s named Cindy, if she’ll pretend to be his girlfriend and make him look cool. Oh and he knew she needed the money because she had ruined her mom’s suede outfit. Does that mitigate or add to the creep factor?
Granted, the “cool guy” transformation is legitimately funny, even more so than She’s All That, because all he really had to do was stop wearing his bizarre beret. But we’ve seen this trope before, right? Cindy’s going to see his “worth” and end up with him. Yum.
Worse still, this is exactly what happens, except it happens rather early on. Then the middle of the movie revolves around Patrick’s new-found popularity going to his head. He basically runs around acting like a jackass (and appropriating black culture at one point), and picking on his former geek fiends. He also eventually violates Cindy’s trust in a major way. But then after that he stands up to a bully to defend his geek friend, so she just completely forgives him and jumps into his arms.
Am I just dead inside? Is this romantic?
Let’s jump into another movie with bizarre financial arrangements. Here, Goldie Hawn is a rich jerk who either lives on a yacht, or has the need for a lot of pairs of shoes on a yacht. Her carpenter, Kurt Russell, builds her a closet that clearly took a lot of effort, but she wants him to redo it because of something mundane; I think he used the wrong kind of wood. He demands more money for that, but she refuses, so he leaves in a huff. I think.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, Goldie falls off her yacht (oh she has a husband by the way), hits her head, and wakes up in a hospital with amnesia, so there’s a news report that’s all “someone please claim this woman!” Kurt, who is living in a tight financial situation with three sons, decides to fucking lie to her and tell her that she’s his wife, and manipulates her into coming home with him to help around the house or something.
I mean, in his defense, he did a really good job on that cabinet.
Anyway, Goldie basically does all these household chores for them, and ends up like, solving the kids’ interpersonal problems, managing all the money, and helping Kurt design a golf course or something. She’s just like a house elf! Except there’s also twoo wuv. Only then her real husband and mom find her and her memory returns.
She goes back to her yacht, but her life is now all empty without her abductor! Fortunately, he and his sons hop in a boat to track her down, and both Goldie and Kurt jump into the water together to be with each other. Also, she was the rich one, not her husband, so they’re going to have an awesome life together! And she wants to have more babies with him!
I’m worried my exclamation points are not reading as sarcastic. You know they’re sarcastic, right?
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Apparently the “tricking you into a relationship” premise is highly sought after in Hollywood.
This time it’s Sandra Bullock doing the sneaking. She collects train fares and thinks Peter Gallagher is really hot. He’s just a random commuter. Then one day, he gets pushed onto the tracks by a group of muggers and she saves his life, and ends up taking him to the hospital. He falls into a coma, so after she hears this news, she mumbles to herself that he was the man she was going to marry. And a nurse hears her and tells his entire family. Who just believe that at face-value.
I guess Sandra was too embarrassed to tell them the truth, but she also super bonded with the family while he’s in his week-long coma. So, that’d just be awkward to mention now. More awkward: Bill Pullman is his younger brother and Sandra falls in love with him. It was an action-packed week, okay? Then, when Peter Gallagher wakes up, he doesn’t remember Sandra, so they tell him he has amnesia, and that he should propose to her again.
But here’s where the twist twists even more: Peter Gallagher is already engaged, but his fiancée is still married so that’s why the parents don’t know about her. Then there’s an eventful wedding where Sandra admits the truth and the real fiancée stands up and Bill Pullman is all, “sign me up!”
Seriously though, can we just make a rule that amnesia (real or fake) as a plot device is never particularly sexy?
The American President (1995)
You’re going to see this a little more later on, but people with important governmental jobs shirking their duties to chase some tail is never going to be particularly romantic to me. I guess this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that this president (Michael Douglas)’s love interest was a lobbyist with an actual political reason to meet with him. Though what firm does she work for where they were able to secure that kind of face time?
Still, this president is willing to bring the lobbyist as his date to an important dinner (it’s not as if he couldn’t have gone alone…this is not a high school dance and no one would be asking) knowing it would harm his public reputation. When the premise of your film requires your characters to behave in outright illogical ways, that’s not a good thing.
The only thing more cringe-inducing about this movie is that despite its fun, presidential twist, it’s completely formulaic. The dude meets a girl, kind of fucks up, and has to impress her. Michael Douglas’s grand gesture is pressing for stringent environmental legislation and gun control. Awww. The Commander-in-Chief destroying his working relationship with Congress because of a cute lobbyist is so romantic!
Made of Honor (2008)
Sorry, P. Demp, gotta take another swing at you.
I’m 99% sure this movie only exists because someone thought of this pun and became enamoured of their own genius. Here’s the premise: let’s take all the tropes from all romcoms since the beginning of time, and shove it into one movie. Not Like Other Girls? Check. Love triangle? Check. A guy who is apparently so in love with his best friend that he agrees to be her maid of honor just so he can travel to Scotland for her wedding and sabotage it? Check.
No seriously, that’s the premise. This guy realizes he’s in love with his friend while she’s away on business, but when she comes back she has a fiancé, so he decides this maid of honor gig would be a great way to spend time with her and get her to realize how in love she is.
It almost blows up, but then it works because he does that whole arriving-just-as-the-priest-is-asking-for-last-objections. Because it’s a tropey slogfest of predictability, but on steroids.
Oh yeah, and this shit happens:
However, this wouldn’t have even made the list if it hadn’t been for the mystifying fact that the film begins with a flashback of 10 years ago, where P. Demp and his future Friend Besto (Michelle Monaghan) first meet at some kind of college Halloween party. He’s dressed as Bill Clinton, and is supposed to meet “Monica” in her dorm room, but instead accidentally gropes Michelle. And then he sort of creeps on her, so she tells him that his nose is big. Which okay, origin story of friendship? However, on their honeymoon at the end of the movie, he roleplays as Clinton again. What was the point of these bookends??? And really, this is what they’re going with for romance?
Father of the Bride (1991)
But hey, if there’s one trope I love, it’s definitely protective paternalism. Especially when it’s a father who refuses to accept his daughter’s choices because he believes he knows what’s best for her.
There’s really not much to say about this movie. Steve Martin has a daughter that’s getting married, and he doesn’t like her fiancé for literally no discernible reason. So he just ends up being a bigger and bigger ass to the guy, and subsequently making an ass of himself. For comedy!
Then, he kind of succeeds in breaking them up, or else it was just that the daughter and the fiancé hadn’t really had a fight before, but Steve Martin decides the right thing to do is get them back together. Which they do.
If this is romantic to you, by all means, enjoy. I’ll just reread the “Princess and the Tower” in A Feast for Crows for the umpteenth time and enjoy the casual slaying of this trope.
Failure to Launch (2006)
Okay, I think I may a bit biased here. I, for some reason, have had the unfortunate pleasure of watching this movie more than once. I don’t remember why, but I can comfortably tell you that it’s bad by about every metric.
The clever premise is that Matthew McConaughey is in his thirties and still freeloading off of his parents, and apparently is only friends with other guys who also live in their childhood homes too. So the parents hire Sarah Jessica Parker, who apparently makes a career out of dating men like this. She builds their confidence, so that they move out eventually, and then dumps them because that wouldn’t be a set back.
Except…Matthew McConaughey doesn’t have low self-confidence, he has like, a dead fiancé, and his parents helped him through the rough time. Which apparently they didn’t realize, or didn’t care about. Then somehow Sarah Jessica Parker developed feelings for him along the way (until the dead fiancé reveal, he kind of just seemed like a completely unmotivated asscake), so she gives the parents back their money.
Which should be the end of this horrible romcom, but no, to get these two back together the parents hogtie and gag their son and stick him in the same room as Sarah Jessica Parker.
It works, and the film closes with the parents popping the biggest bottles to celebrate their empty nest.
This was a plot that came out of the head of someone sentient. Who thought it made sense. My god, give me Meg Ryan checking her email again…
Love Actually (2003)
That’s right. This movie is the least sexy thing imaginable. It’s like someone had terrible ideas for five or six romcoms, but not enough material to last an hour and a half. So what’s the solution? Cram them all together! And shove in as many recognizable English faces as possible!
I’m going to ignore the plotlines that are quite blatantly mind-numbing (American girls love accents!), depressing, or involve a seven-year-old pursuing Marceline, and jump straight to the three stories that are considered really romantic: Keira Knightley’s Good Guy™ friend, Colin Firth reenacting this, and Hugh Grant being the worst Prime Minister ever.
Seriously, how are any of these romantic? Hugh Grant’s comes the closest, I guess, if I’m being really generous, but the idea that a newly elected Prime Minister would actually risk his working relationship with the American President over a crush is past irresponsible. Not to mention his feelings seem entirely based on the fact that she’s hot. Like, they kind of talk, but it’s just “oh heehee she’s awkward and clearly star-struck.” Which yeah, should we bring up those power dynamics?
Speaking of lack of communication and power dynamics, how about Colin Firth “falling in love” with someone he literally couldn’t talk to. Though they kept mumbling around each other for some reason. I guess it’s all that love they were feeling from sexually charged tea pouring.
Ugh, I’ll just let Peebs explain:
So yay, kudos to Keira Knightley, who actually gets a love confession from somebody she has a relationship with. But like, Jesus would I not want to be in her shoes! What is she supposed to do with this information? Andrew Lincoln’s Cue Cards of Extreme Emotional Significance said he was “without agenda,” so we must believe it, right? He just thought it’d be really neato to vomit his feelings onto her? Who happens to be married to his own Friend Besto? “Just because it’s Christmas,” apparently. Merry Christmas! Here’s a steaming pile of awkward that you get to smell every time we’re in the same room together from now on! At least she had the decency to laugh at that corpse imagery…I’d have probably called the cops.
^No, Keira, you’re confused. You meant to spray him in the face with a water bottle.
I think this movie should have its name changed to “Love. Wait, actually…”
So there you have it. 10 clever twists on the romcom formula that really made for some quality media. Like I said, some of these are kind of enjoyable (I will watch the shit out of The Parent Trap any day), but I do have to wonder if we wouldn’t just be better off with Lily and her avian flu.