Rom Coms Where the Wrong Choice is Right

Ahem…this is going to be controversial. But what follows is a brief list of romantic comedies and dramas in which the “wrong choice” love interest is far more deserving than the “right choice” one.

Casablanca (1942)

Perhaps the originator of this trope, Elsa was right to stay with Victor, but Rick is Rick, and you know she’ll always wonder.

The Sound of Music (1965)

What can I say except McSweeney’s convinced me: Captain Von Trapp would have been happy married to Baroness Schrader.

Pretty in Pink (1986)

Let me say I think the “she should have ended up with Duckie” stuff is overplayed (see Jon Cryer thoughtfully arguing against that here), but I don’t think there’s any doubt Duckie is a better realized character than Blane. I’ve always wondered if twenty years later, Duckie and Andie might make a go of it.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

I always pretend this movie is centered on Patricia (Parker Posey) and that after her boyfriend (Tom Hanks) dumps her to pursue the children’s bookstore owner (Meg Ryan) whose business he destroyed, Patricia goes on to take over New York publishing and find love with someone worthy of her.

Enchanted (2007)

At the level of satire, this movie works for me. At the level of romance…no, definitely not. Idina Menzel’s Nancy in particular deserves much better than she gets. The idea that driven career women secretly want to become princesses? No, not so much.

Letters to Juliet (2010)

This film could make the list twice, first because the B-plot (the romance between Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero) is infinitely more interesting and charming than the A-plot, but also because Gael Garcia Bernal is a metric ton more attractive/beguiling than Christopher Egan.

ETA: I deliberately omitted Twilight not wanting to reopen Edward vs. Jacob…but yeah, Team Jacob. All the way.


A Fine Romance Friday: Jackie

So it’s neither Friday, nor is this a romance. But since this is the label I use to write about film, here we go.

In 2016, Pablo Lorrain released a biopic about Jackie Kennedy called, creatively, Jackie. Focused on the period immediately surrounding JFK’s assassination, it’s a vehicle for Natalie Portman, but it’s also a meditation on history, gender, and grief.

Now I might be sort of interested in the mid-century. Okay, maybe a lot interested (exhibit A). So when the trailer dropped, I was SO EXCITED, but then the reviews trickled out. While they were generally positive (88% at Rotten Tomatoes), there was some prominent dissent, and I’d characterize them as muted on the whole. Therefore I didn’t see it until now. But I found it to be one of the most absorbing films in recent memory, and I have a few thoughts which I’ll drop below.

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A Fine Romance Friday: To Catch a Thief

I’ve become a stress wraith. It’s the beginning of summer, I still have two weeks to work before my kids are done with school, I’ve been writing more than I have in years…and I’m feel like I’m about to shatter. It’s the situation in the world, I know, and looming deadlines and goals (all self-imposed), but my nerves are raw, exposed, and frayed.

When I get like this, it’s hard to read. I can’t seem to make my mind to settle long enough to digest prose. Even concentrating on a movie is hard because the things I should be doing keep exploding into my head. I find myself re-reading and re-watching both because those acts require less concentration but because I know what I’m getting into. The emotional pleasures of the re-watch are guaranteed.

So when I saw it was on Netflix, I instantly pressed play on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 romantic heist To Catch a Thief.

If somehow you haven’t seen it, our story is fairly simple: John Robie (Grant) spent many years as a notorious burglar known as The Cat. He’s retired to the French Riviera, but when jewelry starts to go missing, the cops come after him. Robie has to unmask the real thief before either the authorities jail him or the old members of his criminal gang take matters into their own hands and silence Robie for good.

Into this tangle comes Frances Stevens, played by an absolutely radiant Grace Kelly. She’s a cold, restless American heiress whose mother owns diamonds the unknown thief is stalking. Frances sees Robie as an interesting distraction, and intrigue and sparks fly.

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A Fine Romance Friday: Hysteria

I truly don’t understand why Hollywood has turned away from the romance–and why they never adapt romance novels to the big screen. Even when today’s filmmakers manage to produce a decent movie with a love story in it, such specimens all too often fly under the radar, waiting to be discovered on cable and streaming video services. Today’s selection is just such a film: Tanya Wexler’s 2012 historical romance Hysteria, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, and Rupert Everett.

Our plot is thus: in the late Victorian period, the young doctor Mortimer Granville (Dancy) had been challenging outdated and inhumane practices in London hospitals, and he now finds himself unemployed. He takes a job with the older Dr. Dalrymple (Pryce) who treats hysteria in upper class women via, um, manual stimulation. The two develop a thriving practice, Granville becomes engaged to his partner’s young, biddable daughter (Jones). But he also repeatedly clashes with Dalrymple’s other daughter (Gyllenhaal), a suffragette who spends her days doing charity work in the East End of London and saying provocative things to every members of the upper crust she comes in contact with. Everything is good until Granville develops carpal tunnel syndrome, but his listless inventor friend (Everett) then invents a mechanical device to achieve the same effect. (Essentially an early vibrator.) It’s feminist fantasy history with bon mots tossed in.

Much like Beyond the Lights (which I recommended here!), Hysteria is a romance novel come to the screen. It’s witty and sweet, and the final romantic resolution is believable. While I sometimes found it to be a bit snigger-y (is that a word?) and while the film is far more prudish than it wants or needs to be given the subject matter, it’s a very enjoyable way to spend an evening.

A Fine Romance Friday: Down with Love

“Why, dear Emma, do you write mid-century romance, a subgenre which isn’t really a subgenre?”

“Well, gentle reader, the answer is simple: Down with Love.”

That’s right, this week’s fine romance Friday is Peyton Reed’s rom-com Down with Love (2003), which if you don’t know, stars Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.

To talk about the plot of this movie is almost to the miss the point, but to blurb it briefly: Ewan McGregor is Catcher Block, “a man’s man, ladies man, man about town” who writes for KNOW Magazine (basically GQ). His newest assignment: write a tell-all about Barbara Novak (Ms. Zellweger), whose bestseller Down with Love is setting off a feminist revolution. He blows her off, then she insults him on TV, he becomes intrigued by her and pretends to be an yokel astronaut in order to seduce her and reveal to the world that she’s a–no, not that!–fraud. Except of course none of this works out. Hijinks ensue. And roll tape.

Look, you’re either intrigued by this set-up or you’re not. And I wouldn’t blame you if you want to run away screaming; this movie probably isn’t most people’s cup of tea. Except here’s the thing: I grew up watching way too much AMC, but back in the early 90s when AMC actually played classic movies. (Remember that?) And among those films were That Touch of MinkSend Me No Flowers, Lover Come Back, and most of all Pillow Talk.

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A Fine Romance Friday: The Dish

Last night, I tweeted a bunch of funny, sexist, offensive, and odd nuggets from Gen’s and my research for the Fly Me to the Moon books. I Storify-ed the entire thing here in case you missed it.

On to today’s movie recommendation: The Dish, a 2000 drama directed by Rob Sitch starring Sam Neill and Patrick Warburton.

Before we get into the plot, I must warn you that this is not technically a romance.  Which is to say that there is a very small, though very sweet, romance subplot. But since my conceit with these posts is fine romances, the real romance here is with humans and the moon. What’s on that big rock in the sky? Can we get there? And what will we risk to share human exploration with the world? (And yes, I’m trying to tie it into my promo this week. Just roll with it.)

The Dish begins a few days prior to the July 1969 lunar landing. It’s set in Parkes, Australia, home to the largest satellite dish in the world. Parkes is one of the sites that’s going to help transmit the images from the moon to television sets everywhere.

The Dish is an ensemble piece, flitting from story to story: the bumbling mayor, with his devoted wife and his would-be radical daughter; the nerdy engineers and technicians who work at the dish who chafe under the oversight of the incredibly uptight engineer sent from NASA to oversee their work; and everyone else in town who can’t believe a man is going to walk on the moon and they are kind of, sort of adjacent to history.

The plot isn’t any more complicated than that. Things go wrong, and they fix them. History is achieved, and the pictures transmitted. It’s based on real events, although one major plot development is invented and I’m sure much of the rest is heavily fictionalized. But the charm of it comes in things that I can’t summarize for you: quiet conversations between friends, a fabulous late 60s soundtrack and perfect costumes, and this amazing thing that, almost 50 years later, it’s stunning that humans achieved. This isn’t an earth-shattering movie, but it’ll make you smile.

For this week’s fine romance Friday, cook up some lamb and watch The Dish.

A Fine Romance Friday: The Cutting Edge

So a giant blizzard is about to bury the east coast, specifically Washington, DC. Well, if you’re looking for something steamy set in the Capitol, I have some ideas. You can’t read all the time–okay, you can, but you might not want to–so what should you watch between books and cocoa?

The clear answer is Paul Michael Glaser’s romantic comedy The Cutting Edge (1992).

If somehow you haven’t seen it, it’s essentially an updated version of The Taming of the Shrew set against the backdrop of pairs figure skating. Our shrew is Kate (Moira Kelly), a spoiled and notoriously difficult skater who lost her latest partner 18 months before the Olympics. She needs a new one or else she won’t be able to make a play for the medal she came so close to winning the last time. The only problem is that no one will skate with her.

Enter our Petruchio, Doug (DB Sweeney), a hockey player whose career was cut short by an injury. Skating with Kate not only brings him a healthy paycheck by way of her wealthy dad but is also his last shot to get of his dead-end job at his brother’s bar.

What follows is completely predictably and utterly charming. Kate and Doug are enemies, then they’re friends, and finally lovers, all the while trying to perfect an impossible skating move.

It’s the rare winter romance that comes with scarcely any holiday trimmings (they exchange Christmas gifts and there’s a brief New Year’s scene). But more seriously, I would argue that it’s the first New Adult romance, and it may still be the most influential entry. It includes, fully formed, most of the tropes we still see in the subgenre, including the protagonists’ tragic backstory (Kate’s mother’s death, Doug’s injury), drama with the parents/the struggle for independence, banter, tension, angst, and sports.

The Cutting Edge just about the perfect movie for a snowpocalypse–anytime of year.

A Fine Romance Friday: The Apartment

Next up in our 60s set/60s produced romance series is Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). A delightful, and surprisingly dark and risque romance, featuring Jack Lemon in one of cinema’s great beta hero roles and a luminous Shirley MacLaine as the object of his adoration. This one comes with a content warning for its representation of mental illness and suicide.

The basic–and quite adult–set-up is that Lemon is a much put-up peon at a drug company. A group of managers there including the odious Fred MacMurray, promise him promotion and upward mobility…if he lets them use his apartment for their affairs. He’s unhappy with the situation, but can’t see a way out of it. All the while, he’s nursing a crush on the woman who runs the office building’s elevators (MacLaine), who is also being pursued by MacMurray. She eventually falls for MacMurray’s lies and when the affair end badly, she attempts suicide at the apartment, unaware that it’s Lemon’s. Lemon revives her and then cares for her as she recovers. But when she’s back on her feet, will she remember that MacMurray is an ass? And will Lemon ever work up the gumption to quit his job?

My advice is to watch The Apartment immediately after Pillow Talk (1959), a film only one year older but which feels like it’s from a different generation. To watch The Apartment is to watch modern life come to mainstream American movies. You can practically see the studio system crumble on screen. From the way the black and white cinematography looks, to the banter, to the treatment of mental illness and suicide (though these are imperfect from a modern point of view), to the characterization of MacLaine, to the frank engagement with extra and pre-marital sex, and most of all, Lemon as the atypical romantic hero.

It’s a movie that has some darkness, but it’s a wholly different glimpse into mid-century life and courtship rituals. Watch it and play gin rummy tonight.

A Fine Romance Friday: That Thing You Do!

We haven’t had one of these in a while, have we? In the lead up to the release of Star Dust, I want to spotlight romantic movies set in the 1960s or produced in the 60s. First up is Tom Hanks’s (yes, that guy) music rom-com That Thing You Do! (1996).

I’ve had a soft-spot in my heart for this movie since I went on my first-ever dates to it. But a recent article at UPROXX reminded me how stinking charming it is. Our basic story: the drummer of a small-time band in 1964 Erie, PA, breaks his arm. A new guy (Tom Everett Scott) steps in, convinces them to make their big song more up-tempo, and the next thing they know, they’re in possession of a hit record and a recording contract. The band’s handsome front man (Johnathan Scheach) treats his girlfriend (Liv Tyler) like crap, so when the band inevitably falls apart weeks later, we cheer when his girlfriend and the new drummer ride off into the sunset together.

It’s an insubstantial confection of a movie, but it works because of the pitch-perfect recreation of the 60s. The sets, the costumes, and above all the music, are perfection. There is the catchy as hell title track, but I also like the slow-dance B-side “All My Only Dreams.” The entire soundtrack (which I own) is a 60s sound-alike wonder. The movie also gets the sheer fantasticalness of success right. The scene in which the band plays a fictional version of The Ed Sullivan Show is just joyful. We know it can’t last; we don’t really want it to. But gosh, it’s a fun ride.

In terms of the romance, Liv Tyler has never been lovelier on screen than she is here. And Tom Everett Scott is delightful and kind; the absolute best version of a beta hero. When they finally confess their feelings (and share one hell of a kiss) it has more of a jolt than you’d expect from something this frothy.

That Thing You Do! is an amuse bouche for your ears and a lovely invocation of the 60s. I commend it to you tonight.

Seven Underrated Romantic Comedies

For at least ten years, I’ve been reading about the demise of the romantic comedy (aka the rom-com). I even blogged about how there don’t seem to be many rom-coms in theaters and how many recent attempts are, well, not very good. Katherine Heigl made a living for a while playing up-tight career women who could only find love once they’d been humbled in films like The Ugly Truth and 27 Dresses (and even Amy Adams and Jennifer Lopez got in on the act in Leap Year and The Back-Up Plan, respectively).

The past 20 years of film have seen rom-coms that are pretty but in which the romance isn’t compelling (Letters to Juliet), comedic movies in which the romance is compelling but not the focus (Pitch Perfect, Easy A, Bridesmaids, Monsoon Wedding), dramatic films with happy ending romances (The Young Victoria and a host of other biopics), and romance-focused flicks without happy endings (Bright Star, Once, (500) Days of Summer, In the Mood for Love, Moulin Rouge). I started my Fine Romance Friday posts in response to the trend, but not all of the movies I’ve written about are rom-coms and many are older films made before the mid 1990s.

So in that spirit, I want to provide a list of what I see as the most underrated rom-coms of the last 20 years or so. I wouldn’t argue that these are very best rom-coms made in that period, but everyone knows about Amelie and The American President (right?). I’m not going to do full write ups, but I’ll drop in the trailer, link to IMDB, and write a paragraph about why you should check it out. I organized these chronologically. Let me know what I’ve missed in the comments!

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