I love a romcom. Place me in front of a Richard Curtis film for the 100th time and I am more than happy. Teach me how to Forget Sarah Marshall, Lose a Guy in 10 Days or just be a girl, in front of a boy, asking him to love her and I’m sold.
But here’s the rub. I’ve never seen a Nora Ephron movie. Well, none of the classics; the troika of American romcoms that set the template producers have followed for the last 30 years.
Why? Well I always assumed they would feel outdated. It’s relatively easy to watch Frank Capra’s screwball comedies without imposing a 21st-century social lens on to them, but it’s harder for products from the late 1980s and 90s.
Much like the elements of Friends that have aged badly, I was concerned that Ephron’s world would feel glib and caught between times. Caught in an era when technology – something that has undeniably changed the way we experience romance (and everything else besides) – was neither non-existent nor pervasive. I feared there would be one too many stereotypes, one too many references that flew clean over my mid-90s head, and that the film would fail as both rom and com.
Then I watched Sleepless in Seattle.
How is it so sad, but so happy? It takes the avatar for Hollywood’s hope – Tom Hanks – but makes him jaded and completely resigned to a future without love. It takes the sparky Meg Ryan and places her with a fiance who is … well, fine. Yet, it is the balance of melancholy and fizzing optimism that underpins every word of Ephron’s gorgeous screenplay.
In case you are also in the dark, Sleepless in Seattle tracks Sam Baldwin (Hanks) as he attempts to create a new life for himself and his son, Jonah, following the death of his wife. Meanwhile, Annie Reed (Ryan) is a journalist who is in a perfectly serviceable relationship with the earnest, if bumbling, Walter (Bill Pullman).
When Jonah calls up a late-night radio show and asks the host to help his father find love, Sam is forced on to the airwaves. Sam hasn’t been able to catch a wink in Washington since the death, but it’s something he’s accepted. Love came for him once and that’s enough.
After hearing this by chance (or fate), Annie is snapped by a moment of pure electricity. She then proceeds to stalk Sam and Jonah, using an undeniably creepy private investigator, but that is beside the point and really misses the heart of the film so I think we should just move on.
One of the bravest things about the film is that the protagonists don’t meet until over an hour in. Their connection is played out on a deeper level. Much like the way Joe and Kathleen connect during You’ve Got Mail, Ephron leans into the idea that love can be at first sight, sound or email.
After completing the trilogy (When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail), a few things become clear. Yes, Ephron’s world is indeed a narrowly middle class and privileged one. It is full of New Yorker-reading New Yorkers leading successful and materially fulfilled lives. But the desire to find something else, the thing that will push them from surviving to truly living, is irresistible.
Ephron’s elegance stems from her ability to put words and actions to the oldest aphorism in the book, “when you know, you know”. Often, this is a result of the smallest details. It is to Ephron’s – and Rob Reiner’s – enormous credit that when you go back to the beginning and see the inception of so many tropes, that they still shake with such human emotion.
Perhaps the issue is that romcoms since have taken away the wrong message. Harry’s final speech to Sally is note perfect but has become the template for how you finish a romcom. The statement of love, even though the protagonists drive each other crazy. Bad romcoms overly focus on the performative acts of love as opposed to the muted.
Ephron (and Curtis in Britain) defined the romcom world for 30 years and only now is it changing. The Big Sick, Love Simon, Always Be My Maybe and more have shifted the focus of what a romcom should be, and have done so wonderfully. There will always be space for Ephron’s world, but the reality is that Love, Actually is all around (sorry everyone).