To movie-loving men of the world: Romantic comedies are not your enemy. When most guys think of rom-coms — or, worse, "chick flicks," a term that needs to die a quick death — they probably think of bubbly Katherine Heigl vehicles or whatever Gerard Butler is doing these days, and, it's true, some of that stuff earns its reputation as dreck. But writing off an entire genre just because a handful of its most popular examples are bad would be like refusing to listen to rock because you don't like Nickelback.
The fact is that cinema history is chock-full of great romantic comedies, the latest example of which is this weekend's They Came Together, starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, which is virtually made for the rom-com-phobic. But any one or two of the truly outstanding romantic comedies ought to convince even hardened skeptics to give them another chance. So whether you want to impress the rom-com fan in your life by happily watching one by choice or you'd just like to see a good movie on your own, check out this list of some of the best options, from the thirties up to the present day.
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
German-born director Ernst Lubitsch was the uncontested master of comic romance, and the fizzy, irresistibly risque charm of Trouble in Paradise proves it. Produced two years before the Hays Production Code rendered Hollywood sex-free, this urbane heist comedy pushed the limits of good taste and became something of a scandal in its day, and for good reason. It's been more than 80 years and yet nobody has made movie romance seem sexier. And Herbert Marshall does the smooth criminal bit a half-century before George Clooney stepped foot in a casino.
Available on DVD
Libeled Lady (1936)
William Powell and Myrna Loy shared one of the most beloved onscreen romances in Hollywood history, and in Libeled Lady it's easy to see why. Powell plays Bill Chandler, a debonair reporter hired by the New York Evening Star to seduce a wealthy high-society woman (played by Loy) after she sues the paper for libel. Naturally, Powell soon falls for his mark in earnest, and he must decide how best to tell the love of his life that he's been assigned to all but ruin her. It's classic screwball romance at its most hilarious, emphasizing biting wit over sentimentality.
Available on iTunes and DVD
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story takes nearly every element common to romantic comedies of the period — a fast-talking socialite, a pugnacious newspaperman, an impromptu wedding, and several pairs of star-crossed lovers (among them Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katherine Hepburn, a dream cast in any era) — and throws them together to make a rom-com that's widely considered to be the platonic ideal of the form.
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
Screwball comedies were always known for rapid-fire dialogue and outrageous situations, but Preston Sturges took those qualities and dialed them up to eleven. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, one of his best films, boasts maybe the highest quips-per-second ratio ever recorded, and there's a good chance you'll be laughing so hard you'll miss about half of them. Skip the latest Adam Sandler movie and go to Sturges instead. It's about 10,000 times funnier.
Pillow Talk (1959)
A breezy Technicolor star vehicle for Rock Hudson and Doris Day, Pillow Talk more or less invented the template modern romantic comedies would follow for years to come. Day plays a fiercely independent decorator forced to share a phone line with Hudson, a notorious playboy tying up the line night and day with his sweet-talking. The most conventional rom-com on this list, it's also one of the most instantly likeable, with Hudson especially pulling off the charming rogue better than any star could today.
Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen single-handedly reinvented the romantic comedy, suddenly making an outmoded genre cool again for hipsters and nebbish intellectuals. Annie Hall remains the go-to choice for anybody with a sense of humor craving the customary pleasures of rom-com convention, because for all its wit and self-awareness, this is still a film about a likeable and unlikeable match falling in and out of love. Come for the one-liners and stay for the deep truths about love.
Modern Romance (1981)
Albert Brooks may not be as widely recognized as Woody Allen, to whom he's always been compared, but Modern Romance makes a compelling case that he is in fact the greater talent. Like Allen, Brooks plays the rom-com lead as chiefly neurotic, but his genius lay in transforming anxiety and doubt into outright agony. Modern Romance isn't as quotable as Annie Hall, but something about it will stick with you all the same. If you've ever suffered a bad breakup, you'll find it almost painfully familiar.
In the 1990s Whit Stillman made a trio of literate romantic comedies that are the closest we have to modern-day versions of the classic screwballs. The best of them may be the least well-known: Barcelona, his love letter to Spanish charm about two American idiots abroad. A salesman and a naval officer on leave bumble around the streets of Barcelona trying in vain to charm the local women. The result should be relatable to any guy who's ever spent time in a bar outside this country.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Only the Coen brothers could make a traditional romantic comedy co-starring two of the biggest leads in Hollywood in which an asthmatic hitman accidentally shoots himself in the head. With them, you learn to expect the unexpected. George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones play a pair of evenly matched hucksters — Clooney a divorce lawyer, Jones a professional divorcee — out to fleece one another of their respective fortunes. The Coens deliver a legal comedy made in the spirit of a 1930s screwball, but with a dark touch that's distinctly their own. More Fargo than Bridget Jones, it's somehow both romantic and bleak.
They Came Together (2014)
It should come as no surprise to fans of director David Wain's spot-on teen film parody Wet Hot American Summer that his latest spoof, They Came Together, with Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, gets everything about the romantic comedy exactly right. Wain understands that parody only works if the jokes ring true, and to that end he's clearly done his homework: Every trope, no matter how small, comes under scrutiny, from the contrivances of backstory to the precise degree of Jewishness required of the lead. They Came Together is made for anybody who has ever had to suffer through a romantic comedy they hated, which is probably a lot of people reading this right now. It manages to vindicate your time lost to the genre.
In theaters June 27, 2014