Photo credit: Tim Coburn
Evvie Drake Starts Over
is steeped in my love of Maine’s MidCoast region, my love of baseball, my love of weird entertainment that happens between innings of baseball — and, more than anything, my love of romantic comedy. Not all of the book is all that funny, given that it opens with an abrupt and unexpected death, but I could easily have made it 50 pages longer simply by letting my rom-com brain carry on writing and rewriting every exchange between Evvie and her new tenant, Dean, until I got tired. Instead, I tried to stop before you, the reader, got tired.
While I certainly read plenty of romantic comedies, I have to admit that throughout most of my teenage years and young adulthood I poached myself in rom-com television and movies. Therefore here, in no particular order, is a list of romantic comedies of the 1980s and 1990s that I will watch practically whenever they appear in front of me. Did I just come across it on Netflix? I will watch it. Did I just remember a line from it? Gotta watch it again! Oh, look, there's a DVD of it that I bought on sale at Circuit City back when there was a Circuit City! Nostalgia demands that I watch it! These are my formative texts.
This is candidly a very white list. This fact is a reflection of both my limitations as a teenager and young adult and the limitations of Hollywood. By which I mean to say: Black romantic comedies, in particular, absolutely existed in these years, but they didn't tend to be served up with the marketing vigor they deserved. So I could have sought them out. But reader, I did not. If you also did not, I encourage you to look up some of the most beloved, like Brown Sugar
and Love Jones
, as well as my treasured Love and Basketball
, which isn't quite a romantic comedy but is more like a romantic drama — and a great one.
The Sure Thing (1985)
This was my first grown-up favorite movie. I saw it in Boston in 1985 when I was 14, and without knowing it was essentially a riff on It Happened One Night
, I fell for it hard. Gib (John Cusack, playing a college freshman several years before playing a high school senior in Say Anything
) and Alison (Daphne Zuniga) get stuck sharing a ride from their New England college to Los Angeles so she can see her boring boyfriend and he can hook up with a "sure thing" he doesn't even know. When the couple they're riding with (played by Lisa Jane Persky and Tim Robbins, both hilarious) get tired of their bickering and kick them out of the car, they're on their own. There is hitchhiking, there is awkward hotel sharing, and there is, of course, the losing of all their money at the worst possible time. Will they fall in love? Of course.
The American President (1995)
There are very few couple meetings in popular movies that I enjoy more — that I more reliably rewind to watch again — than this one. Michael Douglas, playing the president, overhears Annette Bening, playing a lobbyist, talking about what a weasel he is. (She's kind of right.) He waits until she finishes her indignant thought, then strolls in and says, in quite good humor, "Well, let's take him out back and beat the s*** out of him." She is terribly embarrassed while also believing she's right, and they go on to experience a film defined by what I think of as the Good Aaron Sorkin. The banter-writing Aaron Sorkin, who just wants to write a freakishly idealized version of the government and have some people chat about it! The American President
is the pre-West Wing
proof of concept in many ways (Martin Sheen plays a role similar to the one that would become Leo McGarry on television), and it's the most I've ever liked Michael Douglas, who really got into the whole "dangerous sexy women" business for a while there in a way that was not pleasant for any of us.
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
1995 was a very good year. Sandra Bullock was just post-Speed
, really being tested out to see if she could carry a big movie. Bill Pullman, who had played a lot of nice but dorky husbands and boyfriends (in movies including Sleepless in Seattle
), got to play Jack, the romantic lead in one of the most patently ridiculous plots of all time. Bullock plays Lucy, who rescues Jack's brother, Peter (Peter Gallagher, whose eyebrows went to 11 at the time), from the train tracks and is then mistaken for his fiancée. (Seriously... the preposterousness is a lot to ignore. Do your best.) This one runs on pure charm; it certainly doesn't run on plausibility.
Notting Hill (1999)
This one slips in just under the wire. Generally, I prefer the Hugh Grant films where he plays a lovable jerk, but among the ones where he's a floppy-haired charmer, this is my favorite. As William, the travel bookstore owner who falls in love with visiting actress Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), he's nervous but not inept, bumbling but still sexy. The sequence in which, hoping to speak with Anna, he sneaks into a press junket claiming to be representing the magazine Horse & Hound
is a classic, and I'm freshly impressed every time by the final montage, in which it's clear that while William has learned to love a movie star, he's not entirely comfortable with it. That feels honest. And this was also such a clever use of Julia Roberts at this point in her career — rather than run away from what was her towering star power, they made it part of the story. Extra points for all the great actors playing Will's friends, including Downton Abbey
's Hugh Bonneville.
Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
The romantic comedy swirl within the Nora Ephron Cinematic Universe has three stars that shine like Orion's belt: When Harry Met Sally
(1989), which she wrote but did not direct (Rob Reiner did), Sleepless in Seattle
(1993), which she both wrote with some other folks and directed, and You've Got Mail
(1998), which she wrote with her sister Delia and directed. While all are indelible and I've memorized parts of them, of the three, Sleepless
is my lasting favorite. It has gentleness, grounded in sadness, that probably is part of what I wanted Evvie Drake
to have. Despite my general distrust of magical elements in romance — which is really what it is to suggest that people can be in love without ever having communicated with each other — I somehow am always right with this one, right through its loose relationship with reality. And I cannot be the only one who, whenever I hear the word "horses," chants "horses, horses, horses, horses" the way Meg Ryan does in the car.
21st Century Bonus: 27 Dresses (2008)
For some reason, this film became a point of reference for everyone who wants to say "bad romcom." But I like it! I really do! Maybe it's because it was unpopular to like anything Katherine Heigl ever did for the rest of her life because she said a couple of pretty unarguably true things that were considered impolitic, but I love the portrait of her here as a woman who gets wrapped up in helping her friends and loving all over everybody else because she's afraid any efforts on her own behalf will end in disappointment. She's funny in it and Malin Åkerman is funny in it and James Marsden is so cute in it, and they get drunk and sing "Benny and the Jets"! Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada
, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
) wrote this one, and I will stick up for it whenever anybody is looking for a fight.
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is a pop culture correspondent for National Public Radio and the host of the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour
, which has held sold-out live shows in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and elsewhere. She appears regularly on NPR's radio shows including Morning Edition
, All Things Considered
, and Weekend Edition
. Before NPR, she wrote for New York
magazine online and for TV Guide
, as well as for the influential website Television Without Pity. In her free time, she watches far too many romantic comedies, bakes bread, watches her nephews get taller, and recently knitted her first hat.