What I Learned From a Summer of Romantic Comedies

Seven lessons from the past three months of movie-theater love stories

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Focus Features/Warner Bros./Screen Gems/Sony Classics

This summer at the movies, we had two choices for what to see: explosions or romances. From alien robots making stuff blow up in Transformers to comic-book villains making stuff blow up in The Green Lantern, and from Nazis making stuff blow up in Captain America to ancient gods making stuff blow up in Thor, the lesson of the explosions was that it's fun to watch stuff blow up.

The lesson of the romances? A little more complicated.

First there was Friends With Benefits, in which Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis proved that anything Ashton and Natalie can do, they can do better. Then Owen Wilson became lost in Paris, in the space-time continuum, and in the dysfunctional labyrinth of Woody Allen's worldview. Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Julianne Moore and Emma Stone got crazy and stupid in love. Finally, Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess starred in One Day, a movie about two people, 20 years and, in the case of Hathaway, about 50 different accents.

So what have we learned from a summer spent cowering from the heat in the comforting embrace of the rom com? Here are the seven lessons I picked up:

People rag on romantic comedies because they secretly want life to be one.

One of the most amusing parts of Friends With Benefits is its mockery of its own genre. Mila Kunis's Jamie and Justin Timberlake's Dylan are at their funniest and most likeable when they're making fun of the conventions of the romantic comedy. "Shut up, Katherine Heigl, you big liar!" Jamie shouts as she passes an ad for a rom com. She and Dylan sit on the couch drinking beer and jeering at a fictional romantic comedy starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, complaining about the genre's emotionally manipulative music and unrealistically happy endings. When Dylan asks why it is that women think the only way to get men to do something is to manipulate them, Jamie blames "history, past experience, and romantic comedies." Secretly, though, Jamie loves romantic comedies. She knows every frame of Pretty Woman and every line of the fictional rom com she and Dylan so gleefully mock. She even adopts the "five-date rule" espoused by the fake movie's heroine (somewhere, in Hollywood, someone just greenlit a romantic comedy called Five Date Rule, I'm willing to bet). Her mockery of the genre is just a cover for her desire to have her real life turn out like a rom com. Which, because Friends With Benefits is a rom com, it does. Which leads us to the second lesson…

… Once you've mocked romantic comedy clichés, you are free to indulge in them.

All of them: the grand gestures, the emotionally manipulative music, that thing where one person magically knows where the other person is and manages to find them in a giant bustling city of over twenty million people, and, of course, the unrealistically happy ending. You can commit all these clichéd sins as long as you make fun of them first, and Friends With Benefits certainly does. Same goes for Crazy Stupid Love: Emma Stone's character Hannah, finding herself drunk in a hot man's bachelor pad, tells him, "I know what happens in the PG-13 version of tonight. I get really drunk and pass out and then you cover me with a blanket and kiss me on the cheek and nothing happens." We giggle, because we know she's right, and we've been expecting that very scenario. Similarly, when Steve Carell's Cal finds himself standing alone in the rain after a fight with his estranged wife, he says to himself, "What a cliché." And yet, while Crazy Stupid Love is more comfortable with ambiguous endings than Friends With Benefits, it's still heavy on the clichés: There is drunken passing out, there is a blanket, there is a kiss on the cheek. Apparently, some clichés are clichés for a reason.

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Chloe Angyal is a freelance writer and an editor at Feministing. She is currently working on a book about romantic comedies.

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