Writing a rom com is very much like baking a cake; everyone has their own approach to the adornments and toppings, but few dare to tamper with the golden ratio of basic ingredients. Add too much serious emotion and you end up with gooey, heavy sludge, which practically invites ridicule; add too many gags and layers of irony and you are left with a bubble of air, which pops the second after the movie ends and is instantly forgotten. Rather than risk unwittingly creating such monstrosities, many screenwriters today stick to a simple, safe recipe for rom com success. The ingredients are as follows:
1. One man: frank, confident, a touch reckless
2. One woman: highly principled, neat, a touch neurotic
3. Zany friends: One to three per spouse
4. Disapproving Parents: To be added if the man and woman cannot come up with sufficient cause for conflict between themselves
5. A helpless dog/child: To be added if the man and woman cannot come up with sufficient cause for resolution between themselves (Note: this is where rom com transitions into the similar but distinct genre of heartwarming family drama)
But as long as this recipe has existed, it has had its detractors; particularly in recent years when the release of ‘No Strings Attached’ was followed a few months later by the eerily similar ‘Friends with Benefits’. Critics wondered for about the thousandth time whether the power of the rom com was becoming blunted through overuse, whether audiences across the nation were suffering from rom com ennui. If an audience knows the rom com recipe well enough to predict when the jaunty background music is about to slow down to a sluggish crawl, when the movie is going to suddenly turn from tickling their funny bones to tugging at their heartstrings, then the illusion is lost; the poignant moment induces yawns, not tears.
Jaded by the sheer quantity of homogeneous rom coms, it is tempting to look around for someone to blame for it all. The first person who comes to mind is Nora Ephron. Shakespeare may have laid the foundations with the merry, cross-dressing shenanigans of his comedic plays, Jane Austen may have inspired countless authors and period dramas with her incisive satire of the relations between the sexes, but it is Nora Ephron who is credited with tailoring the rom com to modern life. However, a closer look at her films reveals that her influence on the genre is much more complicated and profound; far from instructing us on how to better follow the rom com recipe, her movies hold the key to escaping from it.
Certainly, ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is generally taken to be the quintessential rom com, from which movies like ‘Friends with Benefits’ and ‘No Strings Attached’ are directly descended. But that movie does not follow a formula or even invent one; Nora Ephron simply uses the characters and forms that best fit her story, regardless of whether or not they are elements of the rom com recipe. The diversity of her other work is testament to her flexible approach to the genre; both ‘You’ve Got Mail’ and ‘Julie and Julia’ feature passions and interests outside the realm of romance, and more original sources of conflict than disapproving parents. ‘You’ve Got Mail’ is based upon a 1940 movie called ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, but Nora Ephron updates the story by linking it to the contemporary rise of corporate power and decline of small businesses. Similarly, ‘Julie and Julia’ relates Julia Child’s adventures in French cooking to the Cold War and President McCarthy’s red scare, in which her own husband was blacklisted. But the movie that diverges furthest from the rom com recipe, almost to the extent of negating the term altogether, is her earlier and lesser known classic ‘Heartburn’.
Based on her novel about her marriage to Carl Bernstein, the man who broke the Watergate scandal, it is a story that begins with a wedding and ends with a separation. It demonstrates most clearly the quality that has ensured the lasting success of all Nora Ephron’s movies; the way that they seem to capture a slice of real life. Small touches like the incompetent building contractor hired by the couple in ‘Heartburn’, a couple’s difficulty escaping one another on a moving sidewalk in ‘When Harry Met Sally’, a dialogue with an irritated cashier in ‘You’ve Got Mail’, feel like they have been lifted from wry personal observations. Of course, one could argue that rom coms are not supposed to resemble real life, since the whole point is escapism, but unless they capture some part of human relationships or the experience of living that the audience can believe in, they can offer no world to escape to. Perhaps the only solution is to throw away the rom com recipe and take a good, hard look at reality, even at the risk of cooking up a story that is not nearly as neat and satisfying as one had hoped.