The Romantic Comedy is a sub-genre in crisis, it has been in crisis for some time now, with only one or two brief signs of liberation from this peril.
Somewhere in the 1980’s and 1990’s it seemed like the rom-com was enjoying a revival with a never-ending cycle of films that seemed to star no one but Tom Hanks and/or Meg Ryan: Sleepless In Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally and other pieces of confection that escape me just at the moment. In amongst the Hanks-Ryan domination, the cinema played host to a string of uplifting, frothy, romantic hits: My Best Friend’s Wedding, Four Weddings And A Funeral, The American President, Notting Hill, As Good As It Gets, Moonstruck and a ton that I’ve forgotten, that seemed to hark back to a previous golden era awash with Cary Grant, Grace Kelly and the like.
Movie-goers just couldn’t get enough of being in love, over love, under, laughing all the way to the bower, the box office and the bedroom. For a while there (seems like long ago, through the mists of time) even I was buying into the idea of this most optimistic of genres, that there is someone out there for me and that we’ll ride off into the sunset and it’ll all be just fine and dandy.
But it’s a very different romantic climate these days my friends and, I don’t know about you, but I just can’t relate to the “old school” of romantic comedy anymore; I haven’t been able to for some time if truth be known. Perhaps I’m the only inhabitant of the Isle of Cynic, but I don’t relate to the doubly-optimistic endings on the mainland of love anymore: he gets the girl and they get married and/or it all works out. However, one or two notable exceptions did, I feel, keep a-pace with these changing times, tides and temperatures in movie love-land, Sideways, Kissing Jessica Stein and Lost In Translation; those films made sense to me. It was as if the writers had licked a finger, held it up to see which way the amorous winds were blowing and got it right. Modern messages for modern times.
Thank the cinematic-Gods that not I, nor you, have any idea what Bill Murray said to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost In Translation. Thank the Gods again that they didn’t sleep together and who knows if they went back to their respective marriages to save them or leave them - what did you think, what are you, fatalist or romantic?
Woody Allen always trod the closest line to what my idea of the hybrid of love and laughter should look and sound like, but there’s no way I’d consider his films to be romantic comedies; Woody’s was a genre all of his own.
Rom-Com writers and filmmakers need to keep abreast of the changing winds of how we meet, who we meet, how long we’ll stay together, why and why it might even make as much sense to stay single (burn me at the stake for spouting such heresy). I’m not saying that love is dead, love is over, love is in the air or love me do, I just want a romantic comedy that captures the zeitgeist.
But let me just dwell on the idea of a ‘crisis’ a little longer.....
Day #84 Tip: You are obliged to give your protagonist a crisis
I’ve given over pages to discovering all of the notable dramatic points of the traditional screenplay - Inciting Incident, First Act Turning Point, Mid Act Climax, Second Act Turning Point, Climax and Resolution - all that is, bar one: the Crisis.
The “Crisis” is a McKee’ism in terms of story structure and the dictionary describes “crisis” thus:
(1) a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger
(2) a time when a difficult or important decision must be made
(3) the turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death
(4) the point in a play or story when a crucial conflict takes place, determining the outcome of the plot
Robert Mckee refers to it as “the obligatory scene”, meaning the moment we, the audience, have been anticipating, that moment when the protagonist will come face-to-face with his greatest demons: “a true character dilemma of the lesser of two evils or irreconcilable goods” says Bob.
In Notting Hill, William Thacker (Hugh Grant) lives his life in stylishly-scruffy anonymity, in a house behind a “blue door” that he bought with his wife before she left him for a man who "looked like Harrison Ford, only handsomer”. William has retreated away from the world into his “strange half-life”, not daring to venture too far or too bravely out into romantic terrain, less his “...heart would not recover...” if he was cast aside again. William has shied away from love.
But life has different plans for William Thacker and less than FIVE minutes into this film, he “meets” Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) in his tiny travel bookshop and the film has it’s Inciting Incident: boy has met girl. Anna is from Hollywood, Beverly Hills and is on the front page of every newspaper, William is from Notting Hill and can think of nothing worse that the limelight, but lost to each other in love they are.
Throughout the twists and turns of this Romantic Comedy we are eventually led to that “obligatory” scene where William faces his own personal crisis and it happens in the last moments of the film within seconds of the climax. Having rejected Anna’s offer of love, William realises that he’s done the wrong thing and hurtles across London to try and save the day. At a press conference packed and teeming with hundreds of reporters and journalists, it’s William’s only chance to ask Anna if she will reconsider her decision to leave the UK...this man who has made a life of becoming very private (to protect himself and more importantly, his heart) very publicly (in his own bumbling way) begs her to stay.
“Recovery or death” says the dictionary of a crisis. The Chinese written character for crisis, symbolises “danger and opportunity” McKee tells us. It’s the last throw of the dice for the Protagonist and will show us what he or she is made of.
Love sure is a proving ground.