We’ve gathered together what we think are 10 of the most original films to challenge the conventions of the genre. Some have happy endings, some end in tears or confusion — yet all work an unfamiliar, offbeat magic on the romantic comedy template. There’s no Hallmark rubbish to be found here…
Based on Mary Gaitskill’s critically-acclaimed short story of the same, Secretary is a dark and deviant romantic comedy about the subjectivity of love, focusing on the idea that love doesn’t necessarily have to be predictable and pain free. It’s a coming-of-age love story about the journey of sexuality, shame and innocence. Like American Beauty and other dark comedies of its sub-genre, Secretary explores taboo concepts in an accessible way that still manages to tease out its controversial messages light-heartedly. It’s understandable, then, that critics might be have been a little divided by a movie that glorifies S&M, self-harm and — perhaps worst of all — inter-office dating.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love tackles the love story between the socially-impaired, emotionally-disturbed Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) and the sweet Lena Leonard (Emily Watson). Barry is not your average male protagonist, spending his days selling toilet plungers and collecting trolley loads full of pudding in order to accrue the attached frequent flyer coupons. He also gets himself into some unusual circumstances, such as calling a phone sex line run by con artists who then pursue and attempt to bully Barry into giving them all of his money. The romance in this film is unique as it speaks its own language; quite unlike that of any rom-com. At one tender moment Barry whispers to Lena: “I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it with a sledgehammer… and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.” Isn’t love sweet?
When people develop relationships with unusual characters in a movie, it’s usually received by the majority of audiences in one of two ways: support or disgust. In rom-com Lars and the Real Girl, we found ourselves encouraging Ryan Gosling to fall in love with his life-sized doll. However, in the case of Harold and Maude, we’re challenged with a love much more confronting than that of a man for his plastic girl. Eccentric and shy young Harold (Bud Cort) passes his time by faking his own suicide attempts and attending funerals at his leisure in his very own hearse. It’s there he meets 79-year-old spontaneous and carefree Maude (Ruth Gordon), who teaches Harold new experiences. No doubt Harold and Maude is a one of a kind, a romantic comedy that tackles the social constructs of ageism behind a clever mask of dark humour and a fascinating (to say the least) love story.
Marion (Julie Delpy) and Jack (Adam Goldberg) have been together happily for two years, but it’s not until a trip to her home in Paris that the relationship is truly tested. Jack becomes jealous and paranoid about Marion’s friendship with her ex-lovers while struggling to relate culturally. His neurosis is compounded by his inability to speak French and his misfortune in some disastrously uncomfortable situations. Channeling both Woody Allen’s ranting comedies and the freeform New Wave cinema of her national pedigree, 2 Days in Paris sees Delpy deconstruct the drama of a modern romance within the guise of an acerbic, off-the-cuff comedy.
You want offbeat? Plenty of the magic behind the enduring love for this movie can be put down to the eccentricities of its lead characters. Consider that style icon Audrey Hepburn, playing the free-spirited Holly Golightly, is a young runaway living in Manhattan where she gets drunk, goes to strip clubs, stays out all night and lives an independent life completely devoid of responsibility. “We belong to nobody, and nobody belongs to us,” she says. Oh, and she’s also a call girl; lest we forget. Holly sparks up a friendship with her mysterious neighbour (George Peppard) — who also turns out to be a prostitute — and together they tumble into a rocky relationship, in which two commitment-phobes are slowly forced to admit they might have feelings for each other.
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) has a flair for imagining France in a twisted and peculiar light, and it’s on full display in Amélie — the story of a young recluse played with a mesmerising childlike quality by then little-known Audrey Tautou. Amélie is a shy girl who delights in skimming stones, cracking crème brulee and imagining how many people in the world are orgasming at any given moment, while she loves carrying out kind-hearted pranks on the people around her. She’s quite content living in her own fantasy world until chance hitches her fate to Nino Quincampoix (Matthieu Kassovitz), whom she begins to pursue around Paris like the world’s cutest stalker. Amazingly, Amélie was rejected by the Cannes Film Festival because one of the selectors found it “uninteresting”. Go figure.
Basically, the story goes like this: boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy discovers girl is actually a lesbian. Typically, boy thinks he can “convert” girl. Trouble ensues. Kevin Smith’s highly quotable and unusual take on modern day expectations of love flirts with the idea of sexuality and relationships in a humorous and honest manner. It’s the ultimate tale of unrequited love, dealing cleverly and carefully with some pretty complex and controversial topics. Who could forget gay, black-power advocate Hooper’s wisdom on why he doesn’t feel obligated to stick up for lesbians? “Screw that ‘all for one’ s***, alright? I gotta deal with being a minority in a minority of the minority, and nobody’s supportin’ my ass!”
Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Academy Award-winning teen pregnancy comedy is one of the quirkiest — in the best sense of that word — high school flicks in quite some time. Rather than the usual teenage movie caricatures, the movie’s characters reflect the sarcastic but emotionally vulnerable life of real high schoolers (or at least Cody’s imagination, anyway). That is until 16-year-old Juno becomes unexpectedly “Fo’ shizz up the spout” by Michael Cera’s goofy Paulie Bleeker. Romantic comedy of the most offbeat kind results, as the characters try to negotiate both their burgeoning puppy love and Juno’s baby-adopters… all framed within Reitman and Cody’s original little universe.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a story conjured up by two of the most remarkably imaginative and individual filmmakers working in movies — screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry. Together they take us on an almost voyeuristic journey inside the fraying relationship between the reserved, nervous Joel (Jim Carrey) and the unpredictable, outgoing Clementine (Kate Winslett). Frustrated, Clementine impulsively has her mind erased of all of her memories of Joel; and the forlorn Joel follows suit. Gondry and Kaufman’s dive into Joel’s subconscious as he tries to cling to his evaporating memories of Clementine is alternately comedic and heart-wrenching — who hasn’t felt the desire to rid ourselves of a painful memory, the hurtful things that we have said, or the vulnerable moments we have shared? Eternal Sunshine challenges our beliefs on love, and asks us if ignorance is indeed bliss…
Arguably the quintessential Woody Allen comedy and certainly one of the great romances in movies, Annie Hall is also our favourite offbeat rom-com — and one that’s inspired so many others, for both better and worse. Allen’s film retrospectively questions where a failed relationship has gone wrong. As Alvy, a comedian who is re-examining his break up with the frivolous Annie (played by Diane Keaton), Allen overanalyses the ups and downs, the screw ups and the bonds, in a way that attempts to find an upside to the failure of his one true love. Ultimately, Allen’s humour lies in his comedic ability to mock himself. As Alvy says, the reason why he lets his relationship fail is like that “Old Groucho Marx joke” — he doesn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.