Since that train first fell in love with that tunnel, movies have been all about the romantic comedy. And the genre moves in waves, with one style dominating the genre for a few decades. There were the classic Nora Ephron and Ephron-esque movies of the '80s and early '90s ("Sleepless in Seattle," "While You Were Sleeping" and the ilk) followed by the teen era of the '90s and aughts (think "Drive Me Crazy" and "10 Things I Hate About You") interspersed with gems from what we'll call the Hugh Grant/Sandra Bullock school of romantic comedy (shout-out to uber-rom-com "Love Actually," and the "Two Weeks Notice" and "Notting Hill"s of the world).
Now, it's a new era: the age of the modern romantic comedy. Director Leslye Headland is at the top of the bubble, the creator of these complicated human stories that don't cringe away from dirty jokes and dirtier sex. "Bachelorette," her 2012 directorial debut, was met with mixed reviews, with some audiences saying that the characters were too mean, too messy. They seemed to forget that people, likely including themselves, are mean and messy. Headland's follow-up, "Sleeping With Other People," was a breakout hit at the recent Sundance Film Festival, meeting sweeter reviews and predicting widespread appeal.
Starring Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis, the story follows two sex addicts who lost their virginity to one another once upon a time. The story has echoes of "When Harry Met Sally," an Ephron classic, but is updated with the raunch and spontaneous fun that marks the new standard for romantic comedies.
There are plenty of quotable lines and memorable moment in "Sleeping With Other People," which was scooped up by IFC Films for distribution at Sundance, just as everyone has their own favorite lines and moments in rom-coms. And Headland is a super-fan of rom-coms: "There’s nothing like a good romantic comedy," she said. "If it’s done right it can actually make you feel, I mean I was going to say save your life but that’s a little dramatic, it can really save your idea of love. It can actually make you feel like, 'Oh my god, I’m not alone in this world.' I’m sitting in a theater full of people who also believe in the same thing. Or you’re like me and sitting at home, eating cupcakes, watching it by yourself. That’s also good."
In the spirit of Valentine's Day, we put Headland to the test: if she could Frankenstein the perfect romantic comedy using lines and elements from other movies, what would she pick?
Here's what the director came up with.
"I like the set-up of Sandra Bullock’s character a lot at the beginning. And that she’s just in love with the idea of this guy, that’s like Peter Gallagher going through the turnstyle every day and she’s created this whole story about him and her. I relate to that one a lot."
"The first time that she hears him on the radio and the way that Nora Ephron cuts between two incredibly lonely people connecting without realizing they’re connecting. That’s something too that I really wanted to explore in ‘Sleeping With Other People’ is like how people are sort of energetically attracted to each other, even if it’s inconvenient for their lives. I think it’s when she’s driving and then listening and he’s sort of finally opening up about his wife passing. I think that’s one of the best moments in a romantic comedy ever."
"I really hate the meet-cute. It’s the hardest thing to write too, as a comedy writer. You know these people are going to meet each other, it’s very hard to make it original and organic and fun and funny and I think a movie that actually does it well is – admittedly a cheesy movie – but I love in 'Jerry Maguire' when Renee Zellweger says 'I’ll go with you.' That’s the first time they met. She quits her job and they go into the elevator and he has the goldfish and you know that’s the beginning of their story. You know that’s going to be the beginning of their relationship with each other but like there’s something that Tom Cruise is so funny and weird in that movie. He’s so out of control, so out of his rope and she just like impulsively goes with him. I don’t know, there’s something about that, as silly as that is, I buy it. Like I totally, totally buy it."
"I really like when James Marsden and Katherine Heigl sing 'Bennie & The Jets' in '27 Dresses.' I really love that scene. I don’t know why, I think it’s just very energetic and awesome and for some reason always stuck with me."
"The scene where it’s the three of them dancing together, Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze are dancing but the woman is like behind her and teaching her as well. It’s this great, like, you can feel her coming into her own self. It’s my favorite scene from that movie even though obviously the end is amazing, there’s still something about her learning. It’s like the training montage of ‘Dirty Dancing,’ like in ‘Rocky.'"
"It was the drunk girl scene, there’s always a part where the person goes out with somebody they shouldn’t be going out with. It’s really easy to f—k up that scene and really demonize the girl, like why would you ever go out with her in the first place? I felt like Leslie Mann and Steve Carell just ruled that f--king scene so badly. I feel like everyone’s been on that date where you’re just like, 'Oh my god.' I think that [Judd] Apatow did such a good job at reinventing those scenes. You get why [Steve Carell] is there, why his character is in that position. But you’re also like, 'get out of there! At the beginning of this movie I would’ve been okay with you just having sex with a beautiful woman but we know that this is not what you want, you need to get out of there.'"
"The scene when Cameron Diaz is running away and then Dermot Mulroney is running after her and then Julia Roberts is running after him and then she calls Rupert Everett and he goes 'Who’s chasing you, Jules?' I love that scene so much. I remember seeing it when I was younger, when it came out, I saw it in the theatres, and just being like, 'That’s me! I’m running after everybody and no one is running after me!' I totally loved that."
"You have to put the boom box scene from 'Say Anything' in there somewhere, right? In your third act when you’re characters have like split up for reasons that are so stupid, you know? There’s always that moment in the movie where like, there is some misunderstanding. I think in 'Say Anything' they do it so well because it really does feel like she makes this choice, not based on some silly obstacles, but she really makes it for herself that she can’t see this guy anymore. Ione Skye is like, 'I can’t do this right now,' and he wants her back so badly and she doesn’t even have to say anything. He’s just doing that incredibly iconic, amazing moment of like, 'Remember us? Remember us together?' It’s very organic, like 'we’ve lost each other but I want you back' sort of gesture. It’s interesting because she doesn’t go with him in that moment. She really is struggling with it. She really can see how much it's breaking his heart that they can’t be together."
"The ending of 'The Graduate' is like the perfect ending to any romantic comedy -- I think every romantic comedy sort of steals from it. You know like, him running to stop her wedding and that weird feeling afterwards of 'Why would you do this?' It’s definitely a movie that we reference a lot, so I think I’d definitely have to go for the ending of 'The Graduate' because that’s probably the best sort of triumphant, at the same time like blegh feeling."