The simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of movies aren’t very good. There are always sterling examples of great films that emerge every year, and some years have a better crop of movies than others, but the reality of the situation is that it’s easy to indict a genre based on its worst examples, especially when there are so many. Perhaps no subgenre has been more maligned than the romantic comedy, as there’s been a plethora of clichéd, subpar and outright terrible entries in the form. But it isn’t the case across the board. Beyond just the classics – like “It Happened One Night,” “The Apartment,” “Splash” and others – there are other prime examples of filmmakers doing interesting and innovative things within the genre.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, here is a list of great romantic comedies that people who aren’t too into the subgenre should check out. Some are classics and some are overlooked gems, but they all make clever decisions that bring out the best in romance and comedy and produce something that has lasted the test of time.
“Trouble in Paradise” (1932)
Outside of film nerds, Ernst Lubitsch is not a well-known director, which is a pity. The amazing filmmaker has delivered some of the best musicals and comedies of the early 1900s, up through and into the ’40s. “Trouble in Paradise” is a brilliant comedy that still plays well today, even with some of its outdated settings and approaches. The movie is a great comedy that starts as a romance between two thieves before branching into another romance/comedy of errors as the thieves scheme to get the money of a lonely rich woman. It’s full of excellent sparring dialogue, hilarious subversion of expectations, and just a sweet reminder of the power of love shared between high and low society. It’s probably the least known film on this list but is great to rediscover. Plus, you’ll come off like a true cinephile for having seen a Lubitsch film.
“A New Leaf” (1971)
Writer/director Elaine May’s black-as-coal “A New Leaf” is a panacea for those who are sick of the sweetness and twee qualities of most rom-com films. The movie features an outstanding performance by Walter Matthau as a formerly rich curmudgeon who swears off suicide long enough to woo a rich woman (May) in hopes of killing her for her money. Matthau and May have a great chemistry that actually works, and the misanthropic style of Matthau with all of his scheming helps to undercut the formulaic elements of the romance. The ending is earned through real character work and will make even the most cynical of viewers appreciate its inherent charms. It’s lesser known than some of May’s other work but is a great feature that will surprise with how dark it’s willing to go.
“Harold and Maude” (1971)
While “Harold and Maude” is fairly well known, especially among those who love quirky, offbeat films, many people have overlooked this gem over the years. Hal Ashby’s movie is a great story that starts off with an opposites attract angle – a young suicidal man and the elderly, vivacious woman who brings him around – but ultimately ends up being about more than just a simple love story. A celebration of life and love and simply enjoying what you’ve got, complete with a kickass Cat Stevens soundtrack, the movie is weird and unexpected and dares to take on various societal norms and mores through its coupling. It’s the rare rom-com that inspires not just romantic feelings but also a real sense of mortality and existentialism that will last long after the credits have finished.
“Something Wild” (1986)
Continuing with the “opposites attract” theme, “Something Wild” may be the first instance of a manic pixie dream girl, the term coined by Nathan Rabin for inspiring female characters in films like “Garden State” and “Elizabethtown.” Melanie Griffith is perfect as the loose cannon Audrey who shakes up the life of morose, stick-in-the-mud Charlie (Jeff Daniels). That sounds pretty clichéd by this point, with so many films having that kooky lady that spruces up a too-serious man’s life. But director Jonathan Demme takes the story in wildly different directions, including tonal shifts that veer into some more serious and unbelievable territory, which constantly leaves the audience unprepared about what will happen next. “Something Wild” is many things – a comedy, a crime story, an examination of life – but at its heart, it’s a romantic tale about two people who somehow make it work despite everything life throws their way.
“Broadcast News” (1987)
One of the most prescient movies ever made, James L.Brooks is firing on all cylinders as the writer and director of “Broadcast News.” It has so many standout scenes, quotable lines and even prophetic examples of what news would become many years later, but at the center of all of this is a love triangle of severely damaged people, played by Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks and William Hurt. Each of them represent people at different points in life, or different types of approaches to life, and the way they interact with one another makes for some of the best comedic moments in film of all time. It may not be the most upbeat or optimistic movie about love, but it has some of the most honest and recognizable moments that everyone has experienced when dealing with romance.
“The Princess Bride” (1987)
It’s unlikely that people have gone this long without seeing “The Princess Bride,” or at least been bombarded by its many quotable lines. Its subject matter and tone may make it seem more fit for the fantasy crowd or ever a younger audience, but it still resonates well into adulthood with its idealistic portrait of true love. The movie is pure escapist fodder that manages to create instantly iconic characters, moments and scenes in its short running time, all while remaining faithful to the ideals of romance. It’s a sweet, optimistic tale that is self-aware enough to make jokes at its own expense while never winking too hard to become a cynical enterprise. “The Princess Bride” is worth revisiting, even for those who prefer different tales than “a kissing story.”
“High Fidelity” (2000)
While it begins with a break-up, Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” is nonetheless a great dramedy about romance and the ways we pursue love. The movie rings painfully true as a good look at life and love filtered through pop culture-obsessive eyes. For those who are immersed in music, movies or any sort of pop ephemera, it charts the many different relationships experienced in a lifetime before it’s time to put away childish things (but never forsaking one’s record collection, of course). It’s an honest look at the ways people screw up their lives and define themselves through many decades, all while pursuing happiness with another. Many nerds could see themselves in John Cusack’s shoes and understood that weird tug between fantasy and reality, between working at a relationship and having it simply unfold like a sweet pop song. It can be uncomfortably harsh at times about the decisions people make, but its commitment to truth about what drives people makes it a resounding film that will appeal to many.
“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008)
Speaking of brutal honesty, writer and star Jason Segel leaves it all out there (literally, with some great moments of male nudity) in Nicholas Stoller’s movie about the ways we mend and discover ourselves after being in a couple. The film is hilarious, with many memorable and easily identifiable sequences, and underscores the ways people recover following a heartbreaking moment. At its heart, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is a paean to the transformative power of love, but it never shies away from the sticky practicalities that lead people to screw up and make mistakes. It’s a fun, weird and energizing look at the travails of finding love when one feels like an outsider and a good reminder that rom-coms have the ability to speak to both the real world and our better selves.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)
Edgar Wright’s film, adapted from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book series, has something for everyone: fights, musical performances, video game references, movie references, brilliant visuals that echo the comic, and a great story about what it means when two people embark on a relationship. Michael Cera is pitch perfect as the slacker Scott Pilgrim who must defeat the seven evil exes of his new flame Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), all while navigating the minefield of growing up and being a person worthy of love. The kinetic film moves so fast, with so many iconic moments and shots crammed next to each other, that it’s easy to forget that it’s a romantic comedy at its heart. The ending may not be the type most people expect from the genre, but it is an honest question posed to the few couples that struggle to figure out where they should go beyond their initial attraction.
“They Came Together” (2014)
Lastly, for those that love the romantic comedy genre but admit to its many formulaic flaws comes a great parody of the subgenre from David Wain (“Wet Hot American Summer”). Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are absolutely delightful and game as the stand-ins for the generic rom-com tale that takes aim at the various clichés of the movies it mocks: the meet-cute, the opposites attract elements, the romantic rival, the displays of affection, and of course, the insistence that the background city is practically a character of its own. Assisted by a murderer’s row of comic talent, the film is a madcap story that veers into absurdist territory constantly while sticking to the elements of rom-coms that so many know by heart. It’s a fun film that pokes at the subgenre from a place of understanding and love and creates a post-modern take on the genre that will have newbies and aficionados alike rolling with laughter.