I have a confession to make: I love romantic comedies. I’d never admit that in person, but don’t be fooled; it's true. I’ve been married for five years, and any time my wife wants to watch one of them I moan and roll my eyes and only grudgingly give in, but I almost always enjoy them. She sees right through me, of course, but thankfully she’s nice enough not to rub it in – well, most of the time anyway – and lets me make up for it by renting science fiction movies she truly dislikes, so I guess I’ve got the better end of that deal.
What do I like about “chick flicks,” you ask (apart from the attractive women, eh hem). Surely, you’ll say, it’s not the plot; most of them follow the same predictable story-line: Guy and girl are each seeing (or at least dreaming of) other people, they meet but one or both dislikes the other until something happens and they fall for each other, but then one does something stupid and almost blows the whole thing, before finally they realize they love each other anyway - wedding bells, happily every after, and oh look, six of the supporting characters hooked up too! Nor, I'm sure, could it be the moral tone of these films. After all, nine times out of ten the proof that this is “true love” involves passionate sex. Right, since we really need to be told again that love = sex....
In fact, I should note that I don’t love all romantic comedies. I hate the ones where the big conflict involves one of them being caught cheating, or still married, or secretly transgendered (ok, I made that last one up, but I wouldn’t put it past them). Such things are fine when it’s the sleazebag she’s leaving for Mr. Right, but not when we’re expected to accept this about the protagonists themselves. It makes my skin crawl when the main character is the one who is lying all along, and you spend the whole movie waiting for the other shoe to drop.
When such things are avoided, however, all good romantic comedies get several things right. First, and most obviously, they all center on love, which may seem cheesy, but it's a lot less so than the special effects in half the sci-fi films I enjoy. Sure they’re often shallow and clichéd, but these stories always center on people who go out of their way to make each other feel special and loved, and I for one can never be reminded of that too often.
Second, and more significantly, all good romances force the main characters either to forgive or to give something up for their true love. This act of self-sacrifice almost always constitutes the climax of the film, and takes countless forms – from Wesley facing torture and “almost” death for Buttercup in The Princess Bride to Jane forgiving Kevin in 27 Dresses (which I “reluctantly” rented for Mother’s Day). No matter how often these films try to reduce love to an emotion, in the end they almost always affirm that true love requires sacrifice, forgiveness and the commitment to take each other back even when we fail.
Finally, I love these movies because they’re always hopeful and life affirming. Of course, a “feel-good” ending is simply required of the genre, but I’m not just talking about the happily ever after, roll the credits kind of hope. What I appreciate is how they always affirm that real love should bring out the best in people. The couple, usually without realizing it, finds that in love they can truly be themselves, and love each other for who they really are (unlike their previous relationships, which are usually shown to involve some degree of mutual or self-deception). More importantly, they find themselves driven to be better people because of their love. Thus, as often as not the difference between the “right” guy and the wrong one is that the true love recognizes the way he has been living is wrong in some way, not because he fears he’ll be rejected for it, but because he knows he deserves to be. The wrong guy, on the other hand, tends to thinks he’s entitled to the girl’s affections even when he acts like a jerk. Most of the time, Prince Charming's noble act is hidden from the heroine just long enough to create conflict, but it’s always there, and it’s usually the turning point in the film.
However predictable, sentimental and over-sexualized these movies tend to be, they rarely fail to get these central truths of love right. Watching them, I sometimes feel they set the bar too high, creating an imaginary ideal of romance that no real guy could ever attain (least of all, me). But more often I’m encouraged to work harder to love like this myself. In my relationships with my wife and daughter – in my relationship with God – I need constant reminders to sacrifice, forgive, hope and grow. That’s why, however I may roll my eyes in mock distaste, I’ll continue to rent chick flicks, for my wife, of course!