Sundance hit The Big Sick lands in UK cinemas on Friday. This relationship comedy is unconventional for at least two reasons. First, its tale of illness renders the leading lady (Zoe Kazan) comatose for a significant portion of the runtime, and secondly, rather than seemingly being cooked up by an automated Hollywood romcom generator, it’s based on the real life experiences of comic Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, who wrote the screenplay together. A romcom which resembles real life? Now that’s unconventional.
The countdown of the 10 best unconventional romcoms that follows is necessarily wide-ranging. The films may surprise stylistically, or through their engagement with other genres, yet they all – with one notable exception – share a romantic throughline. Some don’t even resemble a traditional romantic comedy at first glance, and neither Katherine Heigl nor pre-McConaissance Matthew McConaughey make a single appearance. Prepare to leave your comfort zone.
10. How to be Single (2016)
Like its immediate predecessor A Bigger Splash, How to be Single features Dakota Johnson in a luminous performance. Sure, this gross-glitzy tale of paralegals Alice (Johnson) and Robin (Rebel Wilson) is shallow and problematically unfeminist in many ways, yet it’s great fun. It ends on a surprising and refreshing note, which, in keeping with the title, shows Alice actively choosing to maintain her singledom where lesser films would have paired her off.
How to be Single is an underrated, underseen version of the film Trainwreck was promoted as. Like Trainwreck and Bridesmaids, perhaps more obvious candidates for this list, it licenses and revels in women ‘behaving badly’, which is to say, behaving how men in romantic comedies, and life, have behaved without fuss for years.
Yet while Trainwreck and Bridesmaids ultimately fold their messy, ballsy heroines into cosy monogamous relationships, the final scene of How to be Single more closely resembles Wild, showing Alice embarking on independent travel and disavowing a need for romance. It’s this that’s memorable, not the faintly drawn men she considers as romantic possibilities.
9. Passengers (2016)
To argue that Passengers is unconventional is a tough sell. It’s structured around an extremely familiar romantic comedy narrative, moving through courting, love, and conflict to resolution (kind of). It just happens to take place in space.
Just as The Notebook combined romance with historical drama and The Age of Adaline juxtaposed romance with fantasy, Passengers mashes up a traditional trajectory with the trappings of science fiction, lending the final product a level of suspense and visual splendour not usually found in romantic comedy.
8. The Parent Trap (1998)
One of the few remakes to deservedly be celebrated as much as the film that preceded it, the Nancy Meyers-directed Lindsay Lohan starrer will always hold a dear place in my heart. Meyers is better known for romcoms featuring later-life leads such as Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, yet in The Parent Trap she conveys the perspective of children with grace, wit and heart.
It begins as an adventure story in which long-lost twins Annie and Hallie (Lohan and, er, Lohan) meet at camp and transmutes into an ersatz body-swap comedy as they conspire to reconnect their divorced parents. Ultimately, it’s a romance of the whole family, for all the family to enjoy. Love really is more than just a game for two.
7. Before Sunrise (1995)
Where Passengers is a romcom in space, the opener to Richard Linklater’s time-lapse trilogy gives us a comedic romance that more than straddles the generic line between comedy and drama, a quality shared by many films on this list. Before Sunrise – and indeed, its sequels – is far more stylised than traditional romcoms, and visually and structurally more naturalistic.
Basically a 100-minute walk-and-talk, Before Sunrise is dialogue driven, allowing characters Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) to become more lifelike than archetypal romcom leads, and as a result you’re likely to take different things from it on subsequent viewings. Thankfully, it’s a treat that stands up to rewatching better than interchangeable studio fare (No Strings Attached, Sleeping With Other People, I’m looking at you).
6. Don Jon (2013)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first and (so far) only feature as a director is a romcom about men. Perhaps due to this, it’s far smuttier and much less sentimental than the romcom is often allowed to be. It’s as much a break-up movie about a man’s relationship with porn as it is about beginning new relationships and losing romantic illusions.
Don Jon actually makes a mockery of the 21st century romcom, satirising it as Will Gluck’s Friends With Benefits does, but with far more commitment. Gordon–Levitt deconstructs the fallacious attitudes about romantic relationships that romcoms propagate, and ultimately side-swipes the caricature-like love interest deliciously played by Scarlett Johansson for a more human character (Julianne Moore).
5. City Lights (1931)
Though this may be more of a slapstick comedy than a romantic one, City Lights does include an affecting romance between Charlie Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ and Virginia Cherrill’s ‘blind girl’. If you haven’t seen this silent era classic, it’s time you did.
4. Maggie’s Plan (2015)
Maggie’s Plan is a whip-smart send up of romantic comedy clichés that have been popular since Shakespeare. A prominently-placed street performer in the first act becomes a conscious signal of this intertextuality. Writer-director Rebecca Miller harks back to a former type of ‘romantic comedy’; one associated with Old Hollywood, dry humour, and continual reference to English theatrical traditions.
Maggie’s Plan contains great depths of observation and character, yet it remains a light, unchallenging viewing experience and makes excellent use of its ensemble cast – Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph – all of whom are more than capable of headlining a film themselves.
3. Roman Holiday (1953)
Audrey Hepburn’s most charming film is an odd-couple romance between Hepburn’s fish-out-of-water princess letting her hair down in Rome and a hapless reporter, played by Gregory Peck, who stumbles across her. Hysterical physical comedy and gradual character development allow this absurd premise to win you over.
2. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Although in many ways it is the ultimate romcom, this triumphant realisation of Nora Ephron’s screenplay is structurally wayward.For similar reasons – as well as the failure of the initially mooted couple to stay together – it would have been all-too-obvious to include Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer on this list. Yet it’s a film that becomes increasingly less satisfying with repeat viewings, tarnishing its claims to be truly romantic.
It’s more of a think piece, a surefire fuck-you to the traditional romcom, yet also to those who know and love the form. When Harry Met Sally, however, is unabashed about its mushiness, and through the monologues which are interpolated with the main story, it celebrates the coincidences, near-misses, and second chances of love. In short, it’s a narrative about love, and a rumination on love as narrative.
1. Frances Ha (2013)
A romantic comedy so unconventional that it doesn’t really even feature a concrete love interest for its protagonist, Frances Ha is nevertheless hung around the quintessential romcom frame. It’s the first in a burgeoning trend of films which examine female friendship through a rough version of typical romcom structure (Paul Feig has taken up the baton with Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters).
Frances Ha opens with establishment of the central relationship; in this case the platonic friendship between Frances (Gerwig) and her roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Somewhat deceptively, Frances and Sophie’s relationship, and the question of Frances’ overdependence on their friendship, is a continual thread that weaves in and out of focus throughout the film’s runtime, reverberating through Frances’ other misadventures even when it appears absent.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach lays a trail toward the film’s conclusive remark on Sophie and Frances’ relationship with what at the time seems an unexceptional and typically eccentric outburst from Frances.
Although this list ranges across cinematic history and diverse genres, it is disappointingly limited to the US industry and heterosexual relationships which have traditionally been the home and focus of romantic comedies. Increasingly, though, traditional moulds are being broken. We look forward to being able to make a more inclusive list in the future.