By Erica Richards
Genres set certain expectations for a film’s narrative. While yes, the characters and plot most likely differ for each film—audiences know what to expect based on genre. Horror should scare, a documentary should inform, and comedy should cause laughter. Undoubtedly then, a romantic-comedy should have two characters who seemingly shouldn’t be together, end up together. Right? They meet, they usually don’t like each other, they end up falling in love—then, there is some type of conflict that separates them, but by the grace of the genre, the love overpowers any type of reality. In the end, the two romantic characters end up together, falling in love—happily ever after, just like the fairytales told us so. The genre presents an expectation, a safe space. But—what if it doesn’t?
A couple historical, classical examples where the two romantically involved characters do not end up together right before the credits roll would be “Casablanca” (1942) or, “Titanic” (1996). However, neither of these films would fall into the romantic-comedy genre, and no one who has seen the films would argue that. “Casablanca” and “Titanic” are romance films, yes, but both are full of tragedy. There is no comedic element to the narratives of these classic films.
More than likely, at the end of the film the audience’s reactions were filled with tears and heartbreak at the realization of the end of the story: the two characters in love will not end up together. But, at the end of a romantic-comedy, if and when that happens to the couple, the audience is saying: “What the hell!?” …why is this? Cinema is escapism. People want to escape their realities, not face them. Audiences want to know that no matter what situation comes about, even a sinking ship, a happy ending will ensue. The reassurance that everything will work out and that in the end, love is enough, comforts a viewer.
Genres set certain expectations for a film’s narrative. While yes, the characters and plot most likely differ for each film—audiences know what to expect based on genre…Undoubtedly then, a romantic-comedy should have two characters who seemingly shouldn’t be together, end up together. Right?
How much does the typecasting play into these expectations, too? When Julia Roberts or Jennifer Aniston is the lead woman on a cast list, expectations are set. Julia Roberts—America’s Sweetheart! They can’t—and wouldn’t write a story where she ends up alone! The Rachel Green—of course, she will end up in love! She has to! Vince Vaughn opposite of Jen—the audience knows they are set up for guaranteed laughs. These actors are mentioned because the quintessential films that break the rom-com happy ending rule are “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (1997) and “The Break-up” (2006).
An element that is one of the best parts about “My Best Friend’s Wedding”, is the woman vying after the man and the way the narrative revolves around it is different. Julianne (Roberts) is completely head over heels for her longtime best friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney), but he is in love with Kimberly (Cameron Diaz). Julianne finds herself going utterly insane over Michael preparing to marry Kimberly. The film looks at her trying to convince Michael that she is the one he should spend the rest of his life with, and that is what the viewer wants, too. When Julianne finally has the courage to confess her love for him, in the gondola, the most-gut wrenching scene in the film follows: the chase scene.
Julianne kisses Michael and we think this is the moment where he will realize this is who he should be with—but oh, are we surprised when the camera pulls back to show Kimberly witnessing their kiss. Kim begins to run away, Michael chases her, and Julianne chases Michael. Julianne calls her gay-bestie George to blame this confession catastrophe on him when he makes her face her reality. He simply says to her, “who is chasing you? No one.” That realization that she will never be the one for Michael sets in for the audience, too. America’s sweetheart isn’t the one. It is no that she isn’t pretty enough, funny enough, smart enough—it’s just the fact that she is not who he wants to marry.
The end of “The Break-Up” really challenges the audience. Time has passed, and we see the couple stumble upon each other in public…The audience is left with no closure, one way or the other. But sometimes you just run into an ex and realize you don’t know that person anymore.
“The Break-Up” pulls from “My Best Friend’s Wedding” in some ways, and I’m not just referencing the musical number led by the sassy-gay friend. The female lead is struggling to get her long-time boyfriend to be the man she wants him to be, the type of man she wants to marry. But this narrative is interesting because we already see a couple past the honeymoon phase. This is a look into the hard parts of a relationship. That makes their situations incredibly relatable. The couple bickers about doing the dishes—when Brooke (Anniston) is arguing with her live-in boyfriend, Gary (Vaughn) and is fed up because she wants him to want to do the dishes. Gary argues, “why would I WANT to do dishes?!” … funny and true! However, it’s not always about doing the actual thing—whatever it is, but wanting to do it to show support for your partner. A tough compromise in any relationship.
The end of “The Break-Up” really challenges the audience. Time has passed, and we see the couple stumble upon each other in public. The almost awkward extension of their catch-up conversation gives incredible hope for the viewer that they will end up together, but they end up walking their separate ways. The audience is left with no closure, one way or the other. But sometimes you just run into an ex and realize you don’t know that person anymore. You have a friendly conversation, and then you go about your way.
What do these endings say about the female lead in a rom-com? She CAN end up alone and happy, even if the audience does not always agree or understand it. The more important question is why do audiences have such an issue accepting this? One person’s disappointment in the anti-rom-com ending is another person’s reality. Maybe it is a comfort to watch a beautiful, strong woman end up single and happy at the end of the film because maybe you are that woman. Maybe you know that woman in some facet of your life… and her story should be told, too.