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The Essential Guide to Defining a Romantic Comedy

In honor of ‘Home Again,’ starring Queen Reese Witherspoon, two Ringer staffers meet-cute, get closer, disagree, and eventually come together as they debate the finer points of a beloved date-night movie genre

A collage of iconic rom-com leads Open Road Films/Warner Bros./TriStar Pictures/Buena Vista Pictures/Miramax Films/Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

Amanda: Shea, every so often someone writes a very good article about the film industry, and that very good article usually includes some version of the sentence: “Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn’t make romantic comedies anymore.” Broadly, this is a sad and accurate statement: The romantic comedies that you and I love—the montage-filled, mid-budget, perfect date-night movies about two people, often but not always journalists, who hate each other until they don’t—are few and far between these days. Julia Roberts is living it up in New Mexico; Kate Hudson sells fancy leggings now; Richard Curtis has taken his talents to The Little Mermaid. Most of the great stories about people falling in love—but with high jinks!—are now on television.

But Shea, I have great news: Sometimes they do still make romantic comedies, and in fact, they released one just last weekend. A real one, written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer (daughter of aspirational film legend Nancy Meyers, who produced the film) and starring one of the great rom-com actresses of the modern era: Queen Reese Witherspoon. So in honor of Home Again, I thought that you and I should spend an obsessive amount of time talking about the film, its various romantic-comedy aspects, and where it lives in the romantic-comedy pantheon.

Shea: That’s a good idea and a fun idea. Before we get into that, though, can you and I run through some broader rom-com ideas and smaller rom-com conversations because I just really like talking about them and thinking about them and processing them.

Amanda: You had me at “rom-com.”

Shea: Aces. So, much like the way rom-coms themselves are, let’s make this perhaps a little more intricate and cutesy than it needs to be. Let’s start with a series of six questions that we are allowed to answer in only exactly 10 words (as an homage to 10 Things I Hate About You, which I’m certain we’re not going to talk enough about here). And then, after that, we can do six questions where we can answer as long or as short as we like (as an homage to every Hugh Grant line in every Hugh Grant movie, which I’m sure we’re going to talk about plenty). And then after that we’ll get into what’s good (and not good) about Home Again.

Amanda: I’ll have what you’re having! (Is this annoying yet?)

Still from ‘10 Things I Hate About You’
‘10 Things I Hate About You’
Buena Vista Pictures

10 Words Exactly

1. What is the best rom-com speech?

Shea: Jerry Maguire’s right before Dorothy’s “You had me at hello.”

Amanda: Mark Darcy’s “just as you are” from Bridget Jones’s Diary.

2. Who is the best rom-com journalist?

Shea: Jenna Rink in 13 Going on 30 off potential alone.

Amanda: Rachel Weisz in Definitely, Maybe. She brought down a campaign!

3. What is the best rom-com song or soundtrack?

Shea: Chris lip-synching “I Swear” in Just Friends is always fun.

Amanda: “Let the River Run,” because Working Girl is a rom-com.

4. Does the couple have to end up together?

Shea: No. Sometimes messy is better. Sometimes heartbreak is long-term better.

Amanda: Yes, always, unless you are watching My Best Friend’s Wedding.

5. What is the most underrated romantic comedy?

Shea: I will always argue that She’s All That is superb.

Amanda: Two Weeks Notice is Sandra Bullock’s best rom-com. I’m right.

6. Hugh Grant: yea or nay?

Shea: His performance in About a Boy won me over. Yea.

Amanda: Four Weddings and a Funeral is important to me. Yea.

Will Smith and Kevin James in ‘Hitch’
Columbia Pictures

As Many Words As You Want

1. What’s the best setting for a romantic comedy?

Shea: As much as I’d like for it to not be the case (what with me being from Texas), the no. 1 general setting for a romantic comedy is, without even the tiniest doubt, New York City. There are two reasons it works so well:

  1. Everything you could ever think to do or want is there, and so all of everything is available as a romantic resource should you need it. And that’s an important thing, because the possibility of something happening is crucial in building up that warm aura a good romantic comedy has. More often than not, it’s more crucial than the thing happening.
  2. The hardness of the city and the ruggedness of the city make for a very dynamic, very pleasing counterbalance to the softness and vulnerability inherent to romantic comedies. It just feels right together.

Amanda: I moved to New York City at age 22 because I loved You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally..., so (a) I was a dumb 22-year-old and (b) I agree with your pick. But I’m going to go against the sensible advice of every single best friend in a romantic comedy and say that the best setting is a workplace (or a school, which is a workplace for teenagers). Here’s why:

  1. A romantic comedy must keep its love interests single for the majority of the movie—I’d say 95 percent, if you want to do it really right. It must also, unless it is Sleepless in Seattle, devise natural ways for the love interests to spend time together throughout the movie. A workplace is the most believable way to engineer regular interactions between two characters, with the added bonus of a built-in love obstacle (dating coworkers is generally frowned upon) that can be easily overcome (everyone does it anyway!).
  2. Despite what ’90s rom-coms might teach you, there are many different types of workplaces! So you can keep the basic structure and add in the wacky montages and banter according to the chosen industry: professional tennis (Wimbledon), Olympic figure skating (The Cutting Edge), the hospitality industry (Maid in Manhattan), real estate (Two Weeks Notice), morning television (Morning Glory), corporate spying (Duplicity), wedding planning (The Wedding Planner), etc.
  3. It has been done many times, which is an asset in the romantic-comedy field.

Shea: This all sounds correct to me.

Still from ‘The Princess Bride’
‘The Princess Bride’
20th Century Fox

2. What makes a movie a rom-com?

Shea: It would seem that for a movie to be designated as a rom-com, it would have to contain just two things: moments that are romantic and moments that are funny. That assumption, however, is incorrect, and the reason why so many movies that aren’t romantic comedies accidentally get listed as romantic comedies (Bridesmaids, for example). There are more pieces to rom-coms than just those two things.

For a movie to be a romantic comedy, there has to be protagonist who, whether they know it or not, needs to find love. (I’m always a fan of the setup where the protagonist is a workaholic and lives this especially tidy and manicured life, and then a new person gets dropped into it and causes everything to get turned upside down. I am equally a fan of the setup where the two work together, and also equally a fan of the setup where the two had some sort of relationship as children and then they meet back up again as adults.) There has to be a scene where the protagonist meets the potential love interest (hopefully in some kooky or zany way, although it doesn’t have to be). There has to be a scene where, after the two have realized they’ve fallen for each other, something happens that forces them apart. (Usually, it’s a callback or the revelation that someone has been lying about something.) And there has to be a scene where one of the people involved in the relationship makes some big gesture (hopefully in front of as many people as possible, in as embarrassing a situation as possible).

Mind you, you can certainly have a rom-com without those things happening in exactly that order, but mostly those are the four big things that have to be involved in a movie for it to be a real rom-com.

Amanda: Shea, you make an important point: Not every funny and romantic film is a rom-com. I’ve also noticed that some nonromantic films, like The Devil Wears Prada or the more kitchen-driven Nancy Meyers films, are often lumped into the rom-com category because they feature women and are very fun to look at. I want to be clear that The Devil Wears Prada, Father of the Bride, and The Intern are some of my favorite movies of the last 25 years; they are well made and enjoyable and deserving of more respect than they currently receive. But they are not, technically speaking, rom-coms.

Shea: Agreed. I was just talking to my wife about this. I watched the last 40 minutes of The Intern through squinted eyes because I thought they were going to end up turning Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway into a couple.

Amanda: I am probably too strict about this, but to me a rom-com is a film about two characters who are pitted against each other in some way and then fall in love. The only rules, to me, are (a) that the two characters dislike each other (or are otherwise unaware of their destiny, but dislike is better) in the beginning, (b) that they not get together until the very end, and (c) that the last scene include some grand gesture. A romantic comedy is a structure more than a genre; it has to follow specific script beats (the meet-cute, the fight, the individual realizations, the big speech.) The only exception to this, as previously mentioned, is My Best Friend’s Wedding, which is allowed because it still includes the big speech and gesture, but from Julianne’s friend instead of her intended.

Shea: There are some other exceptions too (in Sleepless in Seattle, for example, they don’t even meet until the very end of the movie), but mostly, yes, we are in agreement here.

Jennifer Aniston Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Who is the best rom-com star of the past 30 years?

Shea: Best I can tell, there are only five people who have a legit chance at grabbing this title, none of whom are men, and all of whom are white women, because white women fucking dominate the rom-com league so hard.

You’ve got, of course, Meg Ryan, who has a resume of outstanding and seminal rom-com work (1989’s When Harry Met Sally..., 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, and 1998’s You’ve Got Mail are all canon, and that’s nothing to speak of the other rom-coms she did, including the one that had to make use of time travel to find someone for her to fall in love with).

You’ve got Sandra Bullock, who I would argue has always been very good in these sorts of roles (Hope Floats, Forces of Nature, The Proposal). But she can’t win because she was never able to grab ahold of an iconic rom-com role, let alone multiple.

You’ve got Kate Hudson, who sneaks into the conversation on the strength of a string of ultraconsistent movies (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; Fool’s Gold; You, Me and Dupree; My Best Friend’s Girl; and more).

And you’ve got Jennifer Aniston, a dark-horse pick who has a surprisingly strong claim to the throne because she was able to go from the traditional rom-com (She’s The One, Picture Perfect, The Object of My Affection) to the more modern version (The Switch, The Break-Up, Just Go With It) better than nearly anyone else.

None of them are our winner, though, because our winner is the only person it ever could be: Julia Roberts. She has two of the six best rom-coms ever (Pretty Woman, which is the best, and My Best Friend’s Wedding, which is the sixth best), the wildly underappreciated Notting Hill (her mega-charm in it turned Hugh Grant 6 inches tall), the most perfect cry-face and smile-face of any rom-com star ever (this is wildly important), and a vibrancy so overwhelmingly lovable that she managed to make ditching out on guys at the altar seem like a charming thing to do. She’s the top.

Amanda: I have a soft spot for the Meg Ryan canon, only because each Meg Ryan character was written by Nora Ephron, who more or less invented the modern rom-com with When Harry Met Sally.... Ephron was the master of the form, and she made neurotic, overly verbal women lovable, for which I will always be grateful.

There’s also a case to made for Renée Zellweger, who doesn’t quite have the numbers of a Hudson or a Bullock, but who starred in two all-time greats: Jerry Maguire and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Anyone who has sparred with Tom Cruise, Colin Firth, and Hugh Grant deserves an honorary mention. And “You had me at hello” has got to be one of the most famous rom-com quotes; that counts for something.

Sidebar: Here are my top five most famous rom-com quotes. I welcome your edits.

5. “Toe pick!” —The Cutting Edge

4. “You had me at hello.” —Jerry Maguire

3. “Big mistake. Big. Huge!” —Pretty Woman

2. “I’ll have what she’s having.” —When Harry Met Sally...

1. “You complete me.” —Jerry Maguire

Shea: I would like to submit: “You make me want to be a better man,” from As Good As It Gets; “It’s a hacky sack,” from She’s All That; and “All I could think was, ‘Don’t get hard,’” from The Wood, when Mike is narrating the scene when he was at the school dance and dancing with Alicia.

Amanda: I’m good with two out of three of those, and I don’t want to be the one litigating whether boner jokes count as rom-com quotables, so I accept your additions. Anyway, back to the rom-com queen: It would be disrespectful to argue against Julia Roberts, and I’m not going to try. The only thing I’d like to add is that the “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” speech from Notting Hill is possibly the greatest romantic-comedy performance of the last 20 years. There is no one else on the planet who could say that string of words in a non-hokey way (as countless television shows and AIM away messages have proved in the years since). But Julia nails it every damn time.

Shea: Exactly. That’s always the first scene I think about when I think about the best rom-com scenes of all time. She was positively perfect in it. And since we’re here, are we going to talk at all about how absurd it is that the rom-com genre has so few entries from people of color? I mean, I’ve been trying to talk myself into liking 1997’s Fools Rush In (which stars Salma Hayek AS AN ACTUAL MEXICAN IN IT) for years. It’s all we’ve got. (Also, I will also claim Jennifer Lopez movies for the Mexican delegation during these sorts of arguments.) What are we to do with them, or with Sanaa Lathan (always excellent) or Gabrielle Union (always excellent) or Nia Long (always excellent) or Regina Hall, Taraji P. Henson, and on and on? And what about Asians? And what about … what about basically everyone but white people?

Amanda: Let’s talk about it: It sucks. The decision-making in Hollywood with respect to nonwhite romantic leads—and nonwhite actors and actresses overall, in every kind of project—is irresponsible and nonsensical. I know we say this with every big show starring a nonwhite woman, but here’s hoping that successful projects like The Mindy Project, Jane the Virgin, Insecure, and the delightful Chewing Gum will remind studios, once again, that we need more nonwhite rom-coms and romantic stories on TV and in movies. The audience is here!

Still from ‘As Good As It Gets’
‘As Good As It Gets’
TriStar Pictures

What is the best kind of montage in a rom-com?

Shea: The best one is absolutely the post-breakup montage where the two people have just separated for one reason or another and we get a bunch of shots of one of them going on about their normal workday while the other lies around on a couch or a bed or eats at a restaurant alone while it rains or walks down the street in a very sad way. I prefer it to the We’ve Just Become a Couple montage because, despite the fact that one feels better and is considerably more fun, it’s almost always followed by the scene where everything falls apart, and that’s usually the hardest part of the movie for me to watch. The post-breakup montage is a signal to the viewer that we’re about to get into the movie’s big payoff.

Amanda: I’m going to go with the We’re Falling in Love and We Don’t Know It montage—a subset of the We Just Started Dating montage, but enhanced by the sexual tension of not yet being self-aware enough to have sex. Plus, movie couples always have to do forced-romantic activities like ferris wheels and boat rides. The non-dating-but-secretly-in-love activities, like bowling, home repairs, and the occasional drinking binge, are more fun to watch.

Still from ‘Jerry Maguire’
‘Jerry Maguire’
Sony Pictures

Can a rom-com be R-rated? (Code for: Can a rom-com have sex?)

Shea: My initial instinct was to argue that, no, a rom-com can’t have a rating higher than PG-13 because any rating higher than PG-13 lends itself to a potential level of crassness that is antithetical to the very existence of heartfelt, romance-based comedy. HOWEVER, as is often the case, my instinct was wrong. When Harry Met Sally... was R-rated. Pretty Woman was R-rated. Bridget Jones’s Diary was R-rated. Jerry Maguire was R-rated. Love Actually was R-rated. And there are a bunch more. So, yes, wrong as it might feel: Rom-coms can be R-rated. (I think the trick is just figuring out what version of an R-rating we’re talking about. If it’s something that’s mostly a language thing, then it’s fine. But if we’re talking about some very serious sex scenes or the actual appearance of an actual literal dick, then that’s when things start to get iffy.)

Amanda: Shea, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Bad language is fine; the occasional crass joke is OK too, as long as it doesn’t turn into the Bridesmaids diarrhea scene on an extended loop. The real issue here is that, while rom-coms are ideal date movies, they are also very good for watching with family members who may or may not include your parents. As someone who watched the first Jerry Maguire sex scene—you know, the “Don’t! Ever! Stop! Fucking! Me!” scene—while sitting next to her own mother, I would like to prevent others from sharing in that discomfort. Please revive the psychosexual thriller as a genre and keep the graphic stuff there.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in ‘500 Days of Summer’
‘500 Days of Summer’
Fox Searchlight Pictures

What is the best rom-com meet-cute?

Shea: This is always my second-favorite part of any romantic comedy (losing out to only The Big Gesture). Were it possible, I would very much watch a movie that was two hours straight of just back-to-back-to-back-to-back meet-cutes.

As far as sorting out what are the best ones, that’s a very tough question. There are so many. We’ve got the one in Reality Bites where Lelaina and Michael have a fender bender. We’ve got the one in Notting Hill where Will bumps into Anna and spills juice on her. (The Bump Into is an elite meet-cute subcategory.) We’ve got the one in The Wedding Planner where Mary gets the heel of her shoe stuck in a manhole cover and Steve dives in to save her before she’s crushed by a runaway dumpster, which is far less ridiculous of a scene as it is a sentence to write. We’ve got the one in 50 First Dates where Henry helps build Lucy a tiny cabin made of waffles. We’ve got the pulled-over scene in Bridesmaids (even though this is another movie that belongs in the Often Accidentally Identified As a Romantic Comedy). We’ve got the heart-attack-recovery thing with Harry and Erica in Something’s Gotta Give. We’ve got the gloves-shopping scene in Serendipity with Jonathan and Sara. I can go on and on, really.

I think, though, if I have to go with one—and I understand this is cheating and very much not in line with any of the things I’ve talked about thus far, but: I’m going with the tiny meet-cute at the end of 500 Days of Summer. By that point, we’ve seen Tom get stretched and twisted and pulled into a billion pieces by Summer, the woman he thought he was supposed to be with. We watch him be heartbroken and sad, and then they finally have that scene on the park bench where they reconnect just long enough for us to be able to see that he’s finally over her. And then, right as the movie is ending, just as the credits are about to roll, we see Tom meet (and flirt with) a woman before a job interview. He gets up to walk away, then goes back and asks her out. Eventually, she says yes, and he introduces himself as Tom, and she smiles and shakes his hand and introduces herself. Her name? Autumn. It was a very great moment and an even better payoff.

Amanda: I tend to favor the cranky meet-cutes—the situations when two people are thrown together at a party or on a school field trip (don’t think I forgot One Fine Day!) and are forced to make do … by falling in love. The Cutting Edge, about a singles figure skater and a hockey player with limited visibility who team up—in doubles figure skating and in life—is a great example; Something’s Gotta Give, in which Harry (Jack Nicholson) has a heart attack and must recuperate in the unbelievably beautiful Hamptons home of his girlfriend’s mother (Diane Keaton), is another classic. Sweet Home Alabama makes Melanie (Reese Witherspoon) secure a divorce from her hated first husband (Josh Lucas) so that she can marry her second (Patrick Dempsey)—except of course she realizes she’d rather stay married to her first husband, which is a neat inversion of the setup. I am never not moved when someone realizes how wrong they’ve been about movie love.

But my all-time favorite is mushier, because it is also the first time that we, the rom-com-going public, met Hugh Grant. Four Weddings and a Funeral’s meet-cute technically fits into the category of “people who are forced to make do by falling in love” in the sense it happens at a wedding, where the British people in this movie seldom want to be. At the first wedding, Charles (Grant) is the best man, which means he forgets the rings and gives a very charming speech about goats and the “bewildered awe” he feels when contemplating marriage; he spends the better part of the reception trying, in his fumbling, floppy-haired way, to get the attention of Carrie the American (Andie MacDowell.) He fails, because it’s Act 1 of the movie, and, as she’s leaving, Carrie tells him, “It was nice, not quite meeting you.” It’s a perfect piece of writing, with the mix of hope and crushing disappointment that comes with not quite getting a shot at the person you wanted. A rom-com in seven words, more or less.

Still from ‘Home Again’
‘Home Again’
Open Road Films

Shea: Amanda, I just realized that we’ve gone 4,000 words deep in this article and we’ve not even gotten to Home Again, the whole reason we’re even writing about romantic comedies in the first place. Rather than do a straight up review of it—I think both you and I agree that it’s a fun, good movie—let’s run it through the tentpoles of the conversation we’ve just had.

Amanda: Shea, what a wonderful idea. The only thing we need to do before we start is to remind people, briefly, of Home Again’s major plot points. So, friends: Home Again is about Alice, a 40-year-old woman who moves back to her native Los Angeles after a divorce. For reasons that do not need to be examined, she invites three 20-something filmmakers—all cute guys—to move into her guest house and, eventually, her life. I think you can figure out the rest.

Review Home Again in Exactly 10 Words

Shea: Smart. Creative. Charming. Reese Witherspoon is very much a delight.

Amanda: Reese Witherspoon and the house are fantastic. Would watch again.

Review Home Again in As Many Words As You Want

Is Home Again a rom-com?

Shea: Absolutely, yes. And more than just that: It’s a clever, modernized version of a rom-com, what with the main character seeking love in the form of self-actualization rather than in the form of a person to lie down with or kiss in the rain.

Amanda: I’m gonna say it’s a lifestyle film with rom-com rising. You’re right; the major focus is Alice figuring out her life and how to have the best relationship with herself and the gorgeous Spanish-style home she inherited from her famous director father. But there are some delightful rom-com B-plots, including her PG love triangle with an adorable 20-something houseguest and her ex-husband (played by Michael Sheen, who eats the three younger actors in this movie for lunch.) Also, I suppose there is still the possibility of romance with one of the guys in the future. We’ll count it.

What’s the best rom-com moment in Home Again?

Shea: I’m going with a small thing that happened that I thought was very cute: when Alice’s soon-to-be ex-husband shows up and meets the guys who are living with Alice and the girls, and then Alice’s mom shows up. As she leaves, she makes a remark to Alice’s husband about how he’s still cute, and he immediately looks at Alice’s pseudo-boyfriend. It was just a quick thing and really it didn’t mean anything at all, but those sorts of quick-hit things are always my favorite. They’re the things I like to point out to people who are watching it for the first time when I’m watching it for the 30th time.

Amanda: I’ve also got a tiny moment, and one that does not even involve Reese Witherspoon. (Also, mild spoilers.) One of the sweeter story lines in the movie, if you’re a sucker like me, is how the young guys who move in with Alice get invested in her kids. George, the sensitive guy, takes a particular interest in Alice’s older daughter, Isabel, and her playwriting competition; he coaches her through the writing process and promises to stand in the wings of the stage as she presents her play. (He agrees to this because Isabel has anxiety, because this is a 2017 movie set in L.A.) The other thing to know here is that George is not the guy who gets to sleep with Alice, but he does have some unrequited feelings for Alice.

Anyway, the play competition is obviously the climactic scene of the movie, the three guys obviously almost miss it, and everything obviously turns out OK. But before it does, George rushes backstage and is greeted by Isabel’s teacher, who has been looking frantically for him, since Isabel can’t do the speech without him. They greet each other with relief, because this means that Isabel will be OK—and then they each do a double-take, because they’re both young and attractive and are clearly going to get together after the play. It’s a half-second and it’s a delight. Good for George!

Where does Home Again belong in the rom-com pantheon?

Shea: This might surprise you some, or it might not surprise you at all, but: Home Again automatically jumps its way up to the upper third of the rom-com pantheon, which is where the movies that are Very Rewatchable but Not Classic get designated. It’s in there with movies like Steve Carell’s Crazy, Stupid, Love; Jennifer Aniston’s Picture Perfect (I’m disappointed we didn’t get the chance to give credit in this column to Jay Mohr, who was somehow a nearly perfect love interest in this movie); and Jennifer Garner’s 13 Going on 30.

Amanda: I agree with you entirely on the rewatchable aspect of this; Home Again is the right blend of familiar (single-lady self-help) and plucky (all of the film-industry commentary, which I thought was quite sharp and genuinely funny, plus Michael Sheen). I have to dock it a few points for the lack of a rom-com ending—I’m a purist, sorry—but happily, I get to add back a majority of points for the transcendent lifestyle work that is happening in this movie. The kitchen! That sunroom! The movie night with the projector in the impeccable garden! I do not know anyone who lives like this in Los Angeles, but I’d love to meet them, or to watch this movie over and over instead. So why not, let’s give it the official Top Third Rom-Com designation. A happy ending for everyone! That’s what rom-coms are for.