'What's Your Number' and 9 Other Rom-Coms That Are Secretly Sci-Fi

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Testing the Mindy Kaling theory of chick flicks

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20th Century Fox

In this week's New Yorker, Mindy Kaling, who writes for The Office and plays its character Kelly Kapoor, says she thinks of romantic comedies as "a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world."

It's a good way of thinking about rom-coms. Just look at the trailer for Friday's What's Your Number? In it, Anna Faris's character is horrified by a magazine article that says women who have had more than 20 romantic partners have a 96 percent chance of ending up unmarried. How does she react? Not by laughing at the preposterousness of such an article, but by taking it to heart. She vows not to sleep with anyone else until she finds The One, then tries to rekindle sparks with the 20 men she's already dated so her "number" doesn't go any higher.

Who in the world would ever embark on a quest like that based on a bogus statistic in a women's magazine article? A romantic comedy character, of course. While total realism can't be expected of nearly any genre of film, some romantic comedies feature a special kind of fake: the world inhabited by the film is real, but the plot is driven by some decision from the main character that is so inscrutable that it makes it seem as though the film's protagonist came from another planet.

We're not talking about films like Groundhog Day or What Women Want, which involve actual sci-fi elements. We're also not talking about real-world fairytale narratives like Pretty Woman or Notting Hill, where fate intervenes to make long-shot romances happen. We're talking about the kind of plot contrivance that requires viewers to suspend their knowledge of how humans actually act, where the plot can't happen without someone making the decision to do something truly bizarre. A few examples:

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Presented by

Eleanor Barkhorn & Spencer Kornhaber

Eleanor Barkhorn and Spencer Kornhaber are senior associate editors at The Atlantic.

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