For Romantic Comedies, the Holidays Are an Excuse for Unlikely Pairings

Christmas and New Year's cause rom-coms to create couples even more improbable than usual

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It's not a controversial idea: The holidays are a time to be with the ones you love. It doesn't matter what you give, but who you give it to. Presence, not presents. Etc.

Romantic comedies about the holiday season embrace this totally valid message, but take it farther. Togetherness and cheer is one thing; panic over momentary singledom is another. In the world of romantic comedies, the holidays are often used as an excuse to bring together people who, quite frankly, might be better off alone.

Let's start with Love Actually (2003), the ensemble countdown-to-Christmas rom com that has arguably earned the title of "modern classic." As far as romantic comedies go, Love Actually gets a lot of things right, like showing us interracial couples and love stories with unhappy endings, neither of which are terribly common in this genre. But it's far from perfect, and it commits one of the most common sins of the rom com: In its desperation to bring as many straight, white people together as it possibly can, it brings together people who have nothing meaningful in common. These people do not belong together; they belong on a list of doomed fictional couples.

There is a difference between an unlikely couple and an entirely unsuitable one, and that distinction seems to have been lost on Richard Curtis when he wrote the story of Jamie and Aurelia (Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz). As Bobby Finger at The Hairpin pointed out in his very funny recent exploration of his love-hate relationship with this movie, Jamie and Aurelia never have a conversation before Jamie proposes. This is because Jamie is English and does not speak Portuguese, and Aurelia is Portuguese and does not speak English. Yes, their communications, cobbled together from mime, Latin root words, and long meaningful glances, are funny and cute. And yes, it is terribly romantic to imagine that love can overcome language barriers and that, when you meet The One, you will just know and it won't matter if you can't say "please pass the butter" let alone "I love you." And yes, romantic comedies are about escapism, and like all movies, require a certain suspension of disbelief.

However, Jamie and Aurelia barely know each other. In fact, to say that they barely know each other is to overstate their level of acquaintance. As miserable as it can be to be alone on Christmas, and as tempting as it is to find someone—anyone—to be with, this is one fictional couple that shouldn't have given in to that temptation. Or that should have at least waited until they could speak each other's languages and, oh I don't know, knew each other's last names, before they got engaged.

In The Holiday, a 2006 Nancy Meyers movie, two women—American Amanda (Cameron Diaz) and English Iris (Kate Winslet)—switch houses at Christmas after having their respective hearts broken. Amanda proceeds to sleep with and fall in love with Iris's brother Graham (Jude Law), and Iris develops a relationship with an American man named Miles (Jack Black). As in most Nancy Meyers movies, there are a few genuinely touching moments, but a whole lot more real-estate and interior-design porn.

Graham is a widower with two young daughters. He's a sensitive, caring, wounded single dad who, when he meets Amanda, remembers what it's like to feel love again. Why exactly she has this effect on him is unclear, because Amanda is a classic rom-com uptight career bitch. You know the type: a woman so wrapped up in her work that she sleeps with her Blackberry in her hand (a now-standard rom com trope that already felt stale in 2006) and so emotionally shut down that she is physically incapable of crying. Until she falls for Graham, that is.

Put aside for a moment the fact that this movie depicts a woman's devotion to her work as some kind of psychically crippling disease. The problem with Graham and Amanda's romance is the very thing that makes it so romantic in the first place: They are from different worlds. He lives in London and she lives in Los Angeles.

Unless one of them moves across the Atlantic—and the laws of romantic comedies dictate that it is the woman who gives up her career for love—the chances of their still being together next holiday season are slim at best, assuming they don't choose to go long-distance. And you know what's even more upsetting than not having someone to love on New Year's Eve? Waking up on January 1 and realizing that there's about to be five thousand miles and an eight-hour time difference between you and your new love.

Next up, Harry and Sally, from When Harry Met Sally… (1989). And before you denounce me as a heretic and slam your computer shut in a fit of pique, hear me out on this one. This is not the first time a person has suggested that since this movie is about how men and women can, despite Harry's theorizing to the contrary, really be just friends, it ought to end with Harry and Sally being just friends. Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner, who wrote the damn movie, suggested it too.

As attached as we are now to Harry's minutes-to-midnight sprint through Manhattan and to his declaration to Sally about love and sandwiches, the Hollywood happy ending wasn't always a foregone conclusion for Harry and Sally. In fact, Reiner and Ephron agonized over whether or not Harry and Sally should end up together or finish the movie as friends.

In some drafts of the script, Harry and Sally got together, and in some drafts they didn't. "But," film historian Daniel Kimmel recounts, "it became increasingly obvious that audiences would be satisfied only if they did get together… and the writers had to figure out just how the two of them would work out their differences." Reiner had his doubts; he said at the time that the ending "felt kind of phony" to him.

In hindsight, despite the many script revisions, Ephron views Harry and Sally's happy ending as inevitable. In 2004, she would look back and reflect that the decision to bring them together at the end was the right one. "Romantic comedies are all about getting the couple together," she concluded. "After that, what else is there to say?"

Well, there are a few things to say, in fact. And, to her credit, Sally actually says them. Harry shows up just as the ball begins to drop and breathlessly declares his love for her in that now-famous speech. But in response to his admittedly touching spiel, Sally isn't immediately touched. She's skeptical. "How do you expect me to respond to this?" she asks. "I know it's New Year's Eve. I know you're feeling lonely, but you just can't show up here, tell me you love me, and expect that to make everything all right. It doesn't work this way."

Yes, Harry and Sally end up together, and no, I don't think I'd have it any other way. But as heartwarming as their happily ever after is, what's even more heartening is that Sally herself pushes back against the pressure to find someone to be with as the ball drops. The nod to reality—that being alone around the holidays is hard, but sometimes choosing to remain alone is the right thing to do—is rare in this genre, and it's one of the reasons this movie is one of the most beloved romantic comedies of all time.

Lastly, we have New Year's Eve. As I recently wrote here at The Atlantic, New Year's Eve is a pretty horrid piece of cinema. It commits the aforementioned sin of the romantic comedy genre over and over again, seemingly unable to stomach the possibility that some love stories might not end happily by the stroke of midnight. At the end of the movie, only a few people are left single, and they're the few characters who aren't granted a love interest at all.

Given this fixation with finding everyone someone to kiss at midnight, the real question is why New Year's Eve lets even one of its characters end up single. Why not pair up Clare Morgan (Hilary Swank), the young vice president of the Times Square Alliance, with Kominsky (Hector Elizondo), the elderly Eastern European electrician who comes to her professional rescue? What about a secret romance between Robert Deniro's dying cancer patient and his doctor, played by Cary Elwes? Wouldn't Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Ryan Seacrest, who both have cameos, would make one hell of a power couple? By making just a few small re-writes, you could break some taboos that are almost never broken in romantic comedies, while also ensuring that every single person who appears on screen ends up with a happily ever after.

Being alone on Christmas or New Year's can be depressing; we all want love and togetherness, and not only in December. But just as depressing is the endless cultural pressure to find someone—anyone, even if they're totally wrong for you, even if it means settling—to be with around the holidays. Romantic comedies are among the worst offenders when it comes to that cultural pressure, and it's high time they stopped. Personally, I'm holding out hope for a rom com called Better Off Alone.