This summer, filmmakers are grafting all kinds of unnatural things onto the ailing genre of romantic comedy, to try to revivify it – “Hey, imagine Dr. Frankenstein and Gregor Mendel crossed with Sleepless in Seattle!” There’s a zombie romcom (Life After Beth, starring Aubrey Plaza), an abortion romcom (Obvious Child, which Jenny Slate co-wrote and headlines), a supernatural dramedy (The One I Love, with Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass) and a middle-aged sex farce (Sex Tape, starring Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel).
So it’s a delightful surprise that the freshest, most glowing-with-health rom-com I’ve seen in ages – The F Word, which opened in select cities on Friday – has a straightforward plot. Chantry (Zoe Kazan) and Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) become friends, and begin to fall in love, but there’s a hitch: Chantry has a perfectly interesting boyfriend. Simple, yes – but it works. And unlike many films that purport to be rom-coms, this one is both romantic and comedic.
Added bonus: It’s set in Toronto, which increases its unusualness – because, let’s admit it, romantic comedy is not the genre that springs to mind when you think “Canadian film.” (Note: In the United States, censors deemed the title too risqué for a PG-13 rating, so the title there is What If.)
At last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and again this summer, I spent some time with The F Word’s director, Michael Dowse; its screenwriter, Elan Mastai; and its leads. Not only are Kazan’s eyes like blue crystal balls in which one can ponder the mysteries of life, while Radcliffe’s eyebrows are as thick and friendly as Muppet fur – they also helped me figure out three important romcom rules. They’re worth following, because the genre can be insanely lucrative: When Harry Met Sally, for example – another look at friends who fall in love – grossed $93-million (U.S.) back in 1989. That’s, like, $2-trillion in today’s dollars. Well, close.
Rule No. 1: Men fall in love, too. Why do so many filmmakers treat this genre as if only women care about relationships? Isn’t “two” the minimum number required to qualify as “a relationship”? Too many romantic comedies are built on the premise that Chicks – basically, Gorgons in eyeliner, who spend their days glugging pink cocktails, mainlining pedicures, shrieking rather than speaking and believing that heaven is an eternal shopping montage – must devote their 20s to scheming, in order to trick men into marrying them. The men I know, however, are not unconscious dupes. They are willing, in fact eager, participants in love.
Radcliffe agrees. “I think men are more romantic than women, frankly,” he says. “The feeling of falling in love is great on both sides. In my experience, it’s mainly my male friends who go, ‘I love her, I don’t know what I’d do without her.’ It seems to me that women can function well without men. But as soon as a man has been in a relationship for a while, if that’s taken away, all functioning goes.”
To summarize: Include men in your rom-coms. Not only is it true to life, it could double your box office.
Rule No. 2: Don’t cheap out on the details. Classic romantic comedies generally feature swoony shots of the city in which they occur. Toronto, on the other hand, “is usually treated coldly, in greys and blues,” Dowse says. So he sought out and shot romantic locations, water views, street life, sparkly lights. Seems obvious, right?
The F Word is a summer movie, so Dowse, well, shot it in summer. While this doesn’t sound radical, financing a Canadian film is a Kafkaesque labyrinth, so films often shoot in November. But leafless trees and grey skies do not scream “romance.” “It just doesn’t look good,” Dowse obvious-states.
Dowse offers more useful advice: Don’t cut the extras. “In a restaurant scene, you want 40 people, not two,” Dowse says. “You’re better off to take less money yourself and keep that $20,000 in the extras budget. And never cut the production designer’s budget.”
In other words: Make your film look great, and it will pay you back.
Rule No. 3: Don’t omit the falling in love part. In a baffling number of romantic comedies, the section where the leads fall for one another is glossed over in a Generic Love montage: wordless scenes
of walking along the beach, feeding ducks in a park, etc. In The F Word, that montage is actually the movie. Only with words in it. And jokes.
And because Mastai bothered to write the love stuff, we viewers can see why these two particular people like particular things about one another, and we become invested in this particular relationship. It is the opposite of The Bachelorette, where ciphers in nice clothes pose against pretty backdrops, but have nothing to say to one another. Chantry and Wallace fall in love by talking. Like people.
“That’s what I loved about the script,” Radcliffe says. “It’s so hard to write those moments of falling in love, to write the connection. Why do these two find each other so funny? Why do they want to hang out so much? We’ve all been through that first flush of, ‘This person likes me, I like her, this is great.’ Being allowed in, as an audience, to watch that intimate, fun process unfold is a gift.”
If you squander the falling-in-love part in a montage, Radcliffe continues, when the course of true love runs momentarily rough, as it must, the audience “won’t have anything to latch onto about what makes this love special. You’ll be indifferent to it.” And that’s bad.
Furthermore, because the script takes the time to create two realish-feeling humans in a realish-feeling relationship, it earns the right to posit a Big Idea: that by falling in love with someone, you’re choosing who you are, as much as choosing who you want to be with. I don’t recall anything that thoughtful in, say, Bride Wars.
It’s also important in a rom-com that the “com” is organic rather than tacked on. Remarkably, no one in The F Word needs to fall into a puddle to get laughs. “The characters use the comedy as a way to flirt and get closer,” Dowse says. “The more they take the piss out of each other, the more they’re saying to each other, ‘I love you’ or ‘I forgive you.’ Instead of trying to build the moment with editing, we tried to capture the moment with writing and acting.”
“Watching people connect is endlessly fascinating,” Mastai says. “In the absence that, we’ll take other stuff – car chases and explosions and nudity. But to me those merely fill in the gaps of what we actually want, which is to watch people try to communicate.”
So please, filmmakers, spread the love. Because I don’t think I can watch another rom-com in which a Mean Girl behaves dementedly until, I don’t know, a bird poops on her, which humbles her into earning the love of a featureless Mr. Right – but only after she buys just the cutest pair of teal snakeskin stilettos.