How do you define a romantic comedy? It’s complicated. Welcome to HuffPost’s Rom-Com Week.
Beginning with genre deities Jane Austen and William Shakespeare, the label “romantic comedy” has almost always been applied to happily-ever-after tales. Two people meet, they fall in love, maybe they are kept apart for a bit, and high jinks transpire, but then they’re inevitably and triumphantly united. “Much Ado About Nothing” is a rom-com. “Antony and Cleopatra” is not. Everything Austen wrote is a rom-com; please notice that all her heroines ended up married to their desired love objects.
These days, we’re a little more creative when it comes to our rom-coms; we’re all about playing with form, chopping and splicing until the formula is almost unrecognizable. There’s “(500) Days of Summer,” a bittersweet rom-com with a poignant ending, and “Definitely, Maybe,” a rom-com about a divorced father who realizes that he made the wrong choice by marrying his daughter’s mom instead of a former girlfriend. But when is a rom-com just too anti-romance to qualify? When is a rom-com just a comedy about two sad people destroying each other’s lives?
If any movie is an example of that, it’s “The Break-Up,” a film that truly lives up to its title: A couple played by Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston spend almost the entire flick thrashing their way through a miserably un–conscious uncoupling. Rom-com or bomb-com? Reporters Priscilla Frank and Claire Fallon assess:
Claire: Vince Vaughn in a bowling shirt. Jennifer Aniston, cut-glass exquisite in a little black dress. Flirty bickering. A seemingly fixable relationship obstacle. This sounds like a romantic comedy! (It also sounds like a parody of mid-aughts Hollywood, but I digress.) “The Break-Up” is billed as a comedy, and it centers on the relationship of a couple we see meeting for the first time in the opening scene at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. But is it a rom-com? Priscilla, I’m skeptical. What do you think?
Priscilla: It’s a complex question! One I’m not sure even the wisest of rom-com sages are equipped to answer. But I’m going to go for it and say yes. “The Break-Up” centers on a couple’s increasingly dysfunctional attempts to woo and rattle each other, leading to a “Will they or won’t they?” climax. In the end, they don’t, but I don’t think that the unhappy ending erases what the rest of the film is delivering. I think you could make an argument that “The Break-Up” is an anti-rom-com, but it’s still using many of the same tropes and expectations as the genre, though they’re maimed and disfigured a bit.
Claire: Part of my impulse to say it’s not a rom-com is, to be honest, rooted in a personal grudge. To me, the romantic coupling is so grim and the conclusion so chilling that it seems like a violation to call it a romantic comedy and thereby set up optimistic viewers to be blindsided. When I was a kid, I was a huge wimp. Even comic violence terrified me, and I’d want to leave the room if the lighthearted spoof I’d been watching suddenly had a gunfight or a brawl break out. My dad used to coax me into continuing to watch by saying that nothing really bad would happen in a comedy. That’s sort of how I learned about genre and its role in setting expectations for an audience. So when I watched “The Break-Up” ― I would have been about college age, I think ― after having been repeatedly told it was a rom-com, I felt betrayed. The most basic expectation one has for a rom-com, that the couple ends up together, is violated.
There’s also the fact that non–romantic comedies can share tropes with rom-coms without sharing a genre. For example, “The Notebook” has many of the same tropes (the meet-cute, the external relationship obstacle, the reunion, the happily ever after) but because it’s so unfunny and has a darker tone, we wouldn’t call it a rom-com. What tropes do you think distinguish “The Break-Up” as a rom-com?
Priscilla: Noooo, stop, I can’t bear to imagine baby sophomore Claire lamenting the dissolution of Gary and Brooke’s relationship! I agree, “The Notebook” is definitely not a rom-com. I think if one of the central protagonists dies, that pretty much vetoes the possibility of that. But a breakup is, I think, the rom-com equivalent of a tragic death in a drama. It’s the worst possible ending, but one that still fits within my expectations for the genre.
As for the tropes, the first scene in the movie is classic rom-com meet cute. Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Anniston) are at a Cubs game, and he decides to buy her a hot dog for no reason, leading to some spicy hot-dog-centric banter. He then cajoles her into going out with him (if a man isn’t not listening to a woman say no, is it even a rom-com?) and then, before you know it, we’re watching opening credits scroll over pictures of Gary and Brooke as a happy couple. I was weirdly moved by this photo montage, more than I am by most entire rom-com plots. Their smiles are so realistic and love-pumped, they had me questioning my own relationship.
In a way, that’s where the traditional rom-com of “The Break-Up” ends. But I think the whole setup of the movie riffs off the rom-com framework. How the plot revolves around the main couple who each have their little cast of gender-segregated best friends. And how the lovers are constantly plotting to either get back at the other or get the other back. It moves with the rhythm of a rom-com, even though the goals are backward.
You recently wrote a sharp essay about how even in the make-believe world of rom-coms, women are asked to fantasize about male leads who are duds, assholes and man babies. I feel like “TBU” shows us what actually happens when you fall for and choose that guy. What do you think of Gary’s character and his chemistry with Brooke? Do you buy that they would ever fall in love in the first place?
Claire: Wow, now we’re going to have to fight about “The Notebook”! I don’t think a death qualifies as tragic when two old people die in each other’s arms after a happy life together. This is what I call my best case scenario. I think a rom-com could include a death, but I’m less forgiving of the breakup of the central couple. Many rom-coms, of course, derive energy from the dissolution of another relationship, but only to make way for true love.
It’s interesting that, as you point out, the whole traditional romantic comedy plays out in the first scene and montage. To me, this sets up “The Break-Up” as something more like a sequel to a rom-com than a rom-com itself. Such a sequel can be a rom-com, like “The Princess Diaries 2,” but in those cases, the couple usually starts the second movie apart and reunites or the central character meets someone new. “The Break-Up,” in my view, is a rom-com sequel but not a rom-com itself.
I recently rewatched “The Break-Up,” and the meet cute absolutely horrified me. Apparently, this is where men like Gary got the idea that all they had to do to have a girlfriend like Brooke is to logic-trap her into admitting she’s not already married, PUA-style. This is literally how he asks her out! You’re not engaged or married to this dude you’re with, therefore we’re getting a drink right now. QED. In a rom-com universe populated by such clowns as Jake Ryan, Joe Fox and that dude from “The Ugly Truth,” Gary might be one of the least appealing. Aniston ― and, by extension, Brooke ― has great comic timing and warmth, and the one thing we see them bonding over is, essentially, Brooke patiently laughing at shit I imagine most real gorgeous art gallerists would lose their minds over. What can I say? She really sells it. The saddest thing is that I do buy that they would fall in love. Women are taught from a young age to expect very little for themselves.
One point you keep making is that the show has the rhythm of a rom-com, but do you really think it feels like a rom-com? To me, it has none of the warmth or uplift that even a breakup rom-com like ”(500) Days of Summer” has. Both times I’ve seen it, I’ve been startled by how cold and unpleasant and depressing I found it, more like an indie domestic drama with some racist and misogynist jokes thrown in (courtesy of Gary).
Priscilla: Gary is, truly, one of the worst male leads of all time. He’s narcissistic, rude, lazy, delusional, entitled, pushy, a huge dick to her family — I COULD GO ON. But while most dudes in rom-coms get away with behaving this way toward their partners, Gary is eventually d-u-m-p-e-d.
You’re right that the tone of the movie is often dark and brittle, and the couple’s conflicts are cringe-inducing in a way that diverges from the typical rom-com recipe. But I’m referring to the back-and-forth, outlandish schemes that remind me very much of the stunts/pranks/bets we often see in other, sillier rom-coms. Like when Brooke brings over a hot date to make Gary jealous, and then Gary thwarts the plan by persuading the guy to spend hours playing video games on the couch. Or when Brooke walks through the apartment naked to show Gary she’s gotten a Brazilian wax. These sort of preposterous ploys to get someone’s attention — which never really occur in real life — feel very rom-com-esque to me.
Gary and Brooke’s arguments felt like the unseemly underbelly of banter; instead of two people coming together, you see two people falling apart, but their confounding feelings toward each other are still driving the interactions. “TBU” takes the skeleton of a rom-com and strips it of its optimism and sheen. It felt real to me and also, in a way, like a bit of feminist revenge for all movies in which women were made to settle for shitty men.
Maybe rom-com sequel is the right answer. In the final scene, we see Gary and Brooke cross paths a year later, exchange a few pleasantries, and go their separate ways. Gary does a little wink when he leaves, which I interpreted as a potential future between them. Do you think there’s any universe in which they end up together? That this ending isn’t quite as unhappy as the rest of the film?
Claire: Never happens in real life? Speak for yourself! Some of us flaunt bikini waxes to our exes on the reg. It’s called Instagram. What you are describing ― the pranks, the gags ― are, to me, evidence that this is meant to be a comedy. But it doesn’t follow that it’s a rom-com. Plenty of non-romantic comedies (like, uh, Vince Vaughn’s whole oeuvre of bro comedies) follow the same conflict pattern. And as in those, the slapstick in “The Break-Up” is not in service of building a relationship.
But I’m most intrigued by your conception of “The Break-Up” as somehow feminist, because I could not disagree more. Gary, to me, is a particularly bad rom-com lead. He’s relentlessly dickish, he’s unkempt, he’s not particularly handsome. He resents the idea of going to the gym but seems to think Brooke was born with taut biceps and abs as flat and hard as a marble countertop. He’s not romantic with her. He doesn’t help around the house. He brings nothing whatsoever to the table. It seems we needed to dial the awfulness up to 11 to make it conceivable that a woman would let a non-serial-killer man out of her clutches. But in every scene, expectations are higher for Brooke. If Brooke refuses to buy and prepare gourmet snacks for a party Gary insisted on hosting, that is framed as equivalent to Gary hiring a stripper to perform for him in their shared home or trashing the entire apartment. At the end, Brooke and Gary confess to having learned from their breakup. “I would have done so many things differently,” says Brooke, mournfully. What? Well, letting him have a pool table in their tiny apartment, I guess, because it was the single way she didn’t contort her life and desires to serve his pleasure already. Gary apparently has learned something worth knowing, but when he apologizes, finally, the first words out of his mouth are “This has all been really hard on me.”
The hopeful ending is the most heartbreaking part. Brooke should stay far away from him. If she’d gotten together with her cute art client and moved on, this movie might actually have been a rom-com. Instead, the ending revealed to me what I didn’t want to believe throughout: that the movie positions Brooke and Gary as equally flawed, equally well-meaning people in a relationship that wasn’t working, despite all the evidence that she deserves way better. It’s worse than a woman settling for a shitty man, because it implies that she was actually fortunate to have done so and that ending up without that shitty man is worse. Do you hope Brooke and Gary got back together?
Priscilla: But when the pranks and gags are geared particularly toward a romantic plotline, that screams rom-com to me. The same techniques are being applied to a relationship’s ending as its beginning.
As for the feminism stuff, I think what’s cool about the movie is that Gary is presented as a less evolved human and member of the relationship who doesn’t deserve Brooke. I agree that he’s a total asshat, but I think he’s honestly depicted that way. There are rom-com characters, like Benjamin Barry in “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days,” who, despite having many of the same unpleasant personality traits, are still supposed to be interpreted as desirable. Gary is not an appealing character. He isn’t cast in that typical rom-com glow that obscures men’s flaws for the good of the happy ending.
In the beginning, Brooke falls for Gary ― as you said, women are taught to have the lowest of expectations. And initially, after the breakup, she’s the one who seems more eager to rekindle their relationship. But by the end, it’s Gary who has the epiphany that he was a shitty partner. Brooke realizes she deserves more and ultimately turns Gary down, even after he gives her what she thought she wanted. Brooke ultimately has the power and realizes she needs more than what the typical rom-com guy brings to the table. It seems almost like calling bullshit on the whole genre. (It’s also very meta to star Aniston opposite Vaughn, who are basically Brooke and Gary incarnate.)
Maybe I’m giving “TBU” too much credit, but I didn’t think the two characters were equated as being equally flawed. Gary’s behavior is blatantly more selfish and immature. I think the film critiques what women and men are expected to deliver in relationships. (Brooke comes home from work and prepares an entire dinner for their guests, and Gary is asked to do one thing and complains about her being a nag.) In the end, Brooke comes out vindicated and victorious when Gary pulls out the big, romantic gesture and she still turns him down. That final scene hints that Gary has matured in the time since the breakup, and maybe there’s a possibility there, but who knows?
I sometimes get the feeling in rom-coms that no, this couple shouldn’t be together, I don’t buy it at all. And yet one fireworks kiss later, we’re supposed to root for their happily ever after. Here, I feel like the satisfaction of the romance not working out scratches the same itch as a great couple coming together. It’s the proper conclusion to momentum that’s been building.
Claire: I’m still deeply troubled by two things about this framing: Gary has to be so much worse than Brooke for us to acknowledge that she could do better at all, and also, the ending of the movie still goes out of its way to place blame on both sides. As I mentioned above, she makes more concessions about how she could have behaved differently in the relationship than he does! Brooke, stop, you’re perfect.
Calling bullshit on the genre, despite its many flaws, also pisses me off. I hate when Hollywood feeds women a steady stream of romanticized mediocrity and then punishes them for liking it. Oh, we’re wrong to want the happy ending you pushed on us? Thanks, assholes. What about calling bullshit on the genre by offering some rom-com heroes who don’t suck? Don’t tell our narcissistic schlub boyfriends that they can have their dream relationship with a supermodel as long as they clear the floor-level bar of bringing home 12 lemons as requested.
In the end, I guess I just don’t have the same itch to see people break up as I do to see them get together. Breakups make me sad, even if they’re for the best. I watch a rom-com for the same reason I think most people do: to feel optimism about love. I’m a romantic, and despite all the pitfalls involved in being a straight woman in a patriarchal dating world, I want to see the possibility of love blooming from time to time. “The Break-Up” might be a comedy, and it might be about a relationship, but it’s not about a romance, and it has no optimism to offer. My final verdict remains: not a rom-com. Have I budged you at all on that score?
Priscilla: I see what you’re saying. And yes, I’m slightly budged. I guess I would settle on something rom-com adjacent, like being a rom-com sequel or an anti-rom-com that uses the genre’s tools for a different output. What do you think? Will this chat end more amicably than Gary and Brooke’s relationship?
Claire: You’re right in that it is indisputably a film informed by and in conversation with romantic comedies. Let’s call it an anti-rom-com and smile wistfully at each other as we part ways.
This is Part 3 of a four-part debate series, including conversations around “Pretty Woman,” “Bull Durham” and “Clueless.”