A pleasant surprise is a precious thing, especially in cinema. The output of certain genres or directors can seem like an endless parade of mediocrity, each film barely distinguishable from the last. When something new suddenly leaps out at you, the feeling is always refreshing. Films which blend romance and comedy are some of my least favourite in all of cinema. Rom-coms trade off their predictability and nauseating soft-focus view of human relations. A fairy-tale view of the world is consistent across most of the genre. Romantic comedies are arguably damaging to the viewer unless watched with a sternly critical eye and a sick bucket to hand. Despite the terrible track record there remain a few hidden gems, films which plumb the depths of romantic comedy yet still end up being enjoyable and touching. Here I recommend three films which made me think again. You could easily argue that these films don’t truly belong to the genre; they are certainly unconventional. I’d argue instead that they offer a glimpse of what rom-coms might be if they didn’t simply act as dull propaganda for the status quo.
A romance between a lonely, sensitive man and an inanimate sex doll he orders from the Internet sounds more like a dark satire than a romantic comedy. This film somehow manages to turn a potentially creepy setup into a cute and affecting story. Lars begins as a skittish and childlike figure, despite being in his mid-thirties. His family’s concerns about his seclusion appear to be tempered one day when Lars timidly announces that his partner has recently moved in with him. Their happiness is short-lived however when it emerges that Lars has actually ordered a sex doll from the Internet and has begun dressing and talking to it.
Lars’s voyage of romance and self-discovery is as uncomfortable as it is sweet. Bizarrely the character feels much less cartoony and artificial than most conventional rom-com protagonists. In depicting one man’s struggle to understand and direct his feelings, this film gives a wry and interesting analysis of the concept of romance itself. As a comedy, Lars and the Real Girl avoids simply playing its central character for cheap laughs. The humour plays more on the extreme awkwardness generated when Lars’s largely innocent actions upturn the small-town mindsets of the people around him.
Philip K Dick often wrote about how sci-fi is defined not by lasers and spaceships but the introduction of a new idea which paints the modern world in a new light. Safety Not Guaranteed is therefore not a sci-fi movie; its plot feels closer to a conventional romantic comedy. For me the difference came in the subtle and interesting way the central characters come together. The romantic element grows slowly without being bluntly foregrounded or signposted. This film gives a convincing take on the development of trust and honesty between two people. Darius begins by misrepresenting herself and seeing Kenneth as simply a comical figure. As his honesty begins to disarm her, the progression of their relationship doesn’t feel artificial or pre-ordained.
When a classified ad seeking an assistant for an attempt at time travel appears in a Seattle paper, a trainee journalist called Darius (played by Aubrey Plaza) is assigned by her boss to pose a potential assistant. The boss expects Darius to cynically extract a wacky story from the situation, but the man she meets defies all her expectations. Kenneth is an articulate but downtrodden man who seems to genuinely believe in time travel. As Darius’s cynicism begins to melt the longer she spends with Kenneth, she becomes simultaneously attracted to him and more involved in his grand plan.
Dysfunctional romance can be a great source of comedy but too often traditional rom-coms are coy and whimsical (and lacking humour) when dealing with the painful aspects of relationships. The least traditional film on this list, He Died With A Falafel In His Hand is also the most jarring and comical. Part romantic comedy, part bromance, partly just surreal, this film is problematic in many ways but its inventive script and great cinematography hold it together. Romance doesn’t immediately seem like the primary focus here (the film is a bizarre allegory for the troubles of a freelance writer). However, many of the best comic moments stem from the unstable pairings which seem to constantly form and implode around the central character.
Danny is a freelance writer lacking in motivation and ambition but driven by an increasingly pressing lack of cash. Living in a battered old house somewhere in suburban Brisbane with a group of people even more unhinged than himself, Danny is never short on distractions. Trapped between multiple, colliding romantic trysts and an increasingly aggressive landlord demanding payment, Danny is forced to leave the house in a hurry. Despite his attempts to leave his problems and his personal life behind him, the hapless writer’s problems only become more surreal. A ray of hope comes in an odd form when Penthouse magazine commissions a cheesy erotic story. Everything will be okay if Danny can just finish writing before his personal life collapses around him, but the odds appear firmly stacked against him.