While many movie-watchers consider “When Harry Met Sally” or “There’s Something About Mary” to be romantic comedies that everyone must see, genre-bending rom-coms deserve some attention, too. Whereas the average feel-good romance flick indulges in a handful of time-tested tropes, such as The City as a Character, Enemies to Lovers and Big Costume Parties, some newer rom-coms have opted to riff off of traditional plot lines, at times both satirizing and paying homage to the stereotypes that viewers have come to expect.
So, whether you’re looking to dip your toes into the genre or experience a fresh take on its stale themes, here are three nontraditional romantic comedies that are pushing the envelope.
1. Legally Blonde
The Synopsis: Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), a California girl with a passion for fashion and love for all things pink, wants nothing more than for her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III, to propose before he heads off to law school. Instead of proposing though, he breaks up with her because he wants a smart girl to replace his dumb blonde girlfriend. In order to win him back, Elle decides to follow him to Harvard Law School and enlists her sorority sisters to help her pass the LSATs. Upon arriving at Harvard, Elle continues to work hard, impressing Warner.
In its portrayal of Elle and the friend group that supports her, the film critiques women-on-women hate while disproving many of the “dumb blonde” stereotypes that viewers may have assumed of Witherspoon’s character at the film’s onset. Instead of focusing on her attempts to get back with Warner, the movie highlights Elle’s determination to lift up the women around her by empowering them in their relationships and careers. In addition to the feminist undertones, the film still stays true to its roots, featuring a compelling romantic subplot in which Elle bonds with Emmett, the junior partner of her law professor. She eventually falls in love with him, proving what viewers knew all along—that she should be with someone who appreciates her intelligence.
The Twist: Instead of being dominated by the love story between Elle and Emmett, the film treats their relationship as a slow burn, one which advances subtly throughout the film, leaving plenty of room for the movie’s ample comedic moments. Just as Elle puts romance on the backburner to focus on law school, so does “Legally Blonde.” Of course, plenty of romantic moments happen, giving viewers the giddy feeling of falling in love with someone slowly. Since their relationship grows gradually, the viewer becomes more interested in Elle’s work at law school and the case she takes on, rather than her love life. For an empowering movie with a little comedy and romance on the side, “Legally Blonde” is a must see.
2. The Big Sick
The Synopsis: In “The Big Sick,” Kumail Nanjiani, who’s grown to prominence through his roles in “Portlandia” and “Silicon Valley,” as well as his hilarious Twitter presence, plays himself in a film based on of his real-life romance with Emily V. Gordon. When Emily meets Kumail after his comedy show, their chemistry is undeniable and they begin dating. Unfortunately, Kumail’s family, who are traditional Muslims, want their son to marry a Muslim woman in an arranged marriage, so they set up him on a date with a prospective bride every Friday night. At the end of the dates, the women always leave Kumail with a picture of themselves, which he collects in a box. When Emily finds out about the box, she stops seeing him.
While he’s trying to get over his break-up with Emily, Kumail finds out that she’s in the hospital in serious condition. With nobody else to visit her, Kumail feels tied to her bedside as she lays in a coma. Enter Emily’s parents, who know about his blind date past, and the film focuses on the clash of their cultures and eventual happy ending (spoiler alert—but, since the script was written by the two of them, it kind of goes without saying that everything works out).
The Twist: Adventure movies, horror movies and period dramas are commonly based off of real life events, but true life inspiration for romantic comedies is rare. Even rarer is the two main characters writing the script themselves. As a successful comedian, Nanjiani inserts comical bits that have the viewer in near tears. The duo also bring fans to tears through the emotional poignancy of the scenes that feature Emily while she struggles through her coma.
At moments it seems hopeless for her, and even though most viewers are aware that she wrote the script, it still feels unlikely that she’ll survive. The mix of romance, humor and mortality combine to create a film with amazing depth, as, cast against the backdrop of death, the simple act of believing in your love for someone feels like a courageous act of humanity.
3. They Came Together
The Synopsis: A parody of traditional romantic comedies, “They Came Together” stars Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd as Molly and Joel. Molly works in a quaint candy shop while Joel works for a huge candy corporation, though he has dreams of one day opening up his own coffeehouse, “Cup of Joel.” The film took the outline of every romantic comedy ever, satirized them and ended up with a movie that still manages to be both original and entertaining.
The Twist: As a parody, the entire point of the movie is to make fun of the genre. While there is comedy and there is romance, the film uses every opportunity to make fun of how traditional rom-coms execute these aspects. Funny moments are funny because of how they are mocked, and the romantic moments are just cliché enough that viewers cringe, but not so cliché that you want to turn the movie off. So whether or not you like romantic comedies, “They Came Together” is perfect for some good laughs.