We’re all familiar with Hollywood’s basic rom-com mould. Two young, beautiful people meet and are apparently destined to be together, but are held back by some sort of social or comical circumstance, or even an intense mutual ‘dislike’, until they eventually realise they’re actually soulmates. Cue dramatic declarations and the obligatory wedding. Then the decidedly less-beautiful singletons in the audience are left hurling their popcorn at (most likely) Cameron Diaz’s face, enviously howling: “WHEN WILL THAT HAPPEN TO ME?”
Occasionally, though, there might be an oddball romance or two that will go an extra mile to show how there really could be someone for anyone. Unlike the usual fare, aspects of their narratives are so unconventional that they create refreshing, slyly comic takes on a worn-out formula. Here are six offbeat romantic comedies that show how love might be found in the weirdest situations.
Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, 2007, USA)
A painfully withdrawn, lonely young man (Ryan Gosling) introduces the girl of his dreams to his family. She’s raven-haired, half-Brazilian and apparently a missionary – check, check and check. It’s just a shame she doesn’t have a pulse, seeing as she’s, well, a life-sized sex doll. That he bought from the internet. Thankfully the potential creepiness of the situation never makes it past the quirkiness, as the whole town joins forces to keep the delusion going, getting her engaged in all sorts of roles for the local community. Even his actual love interest (who is, incidentally, a real girl) gets involved. See, nothing like thinking outside the (literal) box to find the love of your life.
Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002, USA)
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s timid typist deliberately makes spelling mistakes so that her boss (James Spader, go-to guy for pervy weirdo roles) can spank her over his desk as punishment. His sadomasochistic commands increase and start to radically transform his gawky, repressed secretary’s life: as he takes control of her posture, hairstyles and food portions, she blossoms into a poised, self-assured young woman. Even among the shifting power dynamics and the tongue-in-cheek surrealness of the affair, the two are drawn to each other just like the leading roles in any regular romantic comedy. The only difference is that they live in a world where nothing says “I love you” quite as creatively or cheerfully as biting down on a carrot, getting down on all fours and being saddled.
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004, UK)
In every epic romance there are always obstacles that a love match must overcome so that they can be together. Legends dating centuries back depict knights battling monsters for damsels in towers. Fast-forward to 2004, where in Shaun of the Dead, the eponymous slacker (Simon Pegg) wants to win his ex-girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) back by showing he can change his ways. He’s stuck for ideas, until the perfect opportunity suddenly presents itself: a zombie outbreak hits the neighbourhood overnight. It’s the ideal moment for him to swoop in, whisk her away to a safe place, be the hero and prove himself, right? So he takes on the shuffling undead on his way over to her’s, frantically warding them off with kitchen utensils, stacks of (mostly) unwanted LPs, cricket bats and anything else lying around. Ladies, don’t all fight at once.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (Park Chan-wook, 2006, South Korea)
Park Chan-wook’s asylum-set romance tells the story of Young-goon (Lim Su-jung), who is convinced she is part combat robot. She wanders around an institution chatting to vending machines and listening to broadcasts about proper cyborg conduct on a little radio. Her circuitry apparently rejects food, so she licks batteries to recharge herself. She soon bonds with a fellow patient (Rain) who likes to wear rabbit masks and steals people’s attributes, such as someone’s ping-pong serve or another’s manners. When she collapses as a result of her ill-advised Duracell diet, he convinces her to eat by telling her he can install a food-to-energy processor in her back. It’s all very charming, if you like your rom-coms a bit bonkers.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004, USA)
In Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s sci-fi brainchild Jim Carrey stars as Joel, a shy and introverted guy who, on his way to work one day, acts on an inexplicable urge to jump on a different train instead. He meets free spirited Clementine (Kate Winslet) in his carriage and they click immediately. It’s almost as if they already knew each other. Of course, it turns out they actually sort of do, because they used to be lovers. But they’ve forgotten this since their rocky relationship, and a nasty fight, led to both undergoing a medical procedure to have their memories of each other wiped. Then the narrative unfolds like someone flung Annie Hall, Total Recall and Being John Malkovich into a blender. Not that it’s a bad thing, mind.
The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987, USA)
Pirates. Magicians. Wordplay. Sword fights. Fire swamps. Mutant rodents. And, of course, lots of stuff about “wuv, twue wuv”. This adult fairy tale has nearly everything you could want in a meta rom-com. Staged as a bedtime story read by the granddad (Peter Falk) to a sick boy (Fred Savage), the narrative concerns a young farmhand’s attempt to rescue a beautiful girl from eccentric outlaws and the obnoxious prince she’s engaged to. It’s a swashbuckling storybook romance for kids of all ages, even if the young grandson makes a terrible discovery about the nature of Grandpa’s tale. “Is this a kissing book?” he interrupts at one point, repulsed. You bet it is, son.