I’ve always been someone who tends to disregard whether or not a movie is considered high art or in particularly good taste. Last week, I watched “Penelope” again, even though it’s labeled as one of the “movies for ages 11 to 12” on Netflix. I love it regardless. I love the way Penelope (Christina Ricci, “Z: The Beginning of Everything”) weeds out her undeserving suitors and the way the final kiss makes me feel like I have sparklers sizzling through my chest. There’s a feeling so integral and inherent to movies like “Penelope” — movies that exist to make you feel something, anything, good. “Penelope” is a romcom.
Every time I start to think I’m a parody of myself, I remember two things:
One: I am.
Two: It doesn’t matter.
I don’t care that the line I’ve been holding in my heart for eight years now — “It makes me so sad that people like Kostas and Bridget who have lost everything can still be open to love, while I, who have lost nothing, am not” — came from a franchise founded upon a pair of blue jeans (“Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”). I don’t care.
I love these movies with all that I am because they make me feel good. It feels good to watch two people want each other so much that they hate each other, even though they don’t hate each other — not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.
And they’ve taught me things, you know? They’ve taught me how to stress-scrub my stove, and to speak up even when I feel like the smallest person in the room. They’ve taught me the power of a boot-cut. They’ve taught me that I should never — not ever — settle for anyone or anything that doesn’t absolutely thrill me. We’ve all got glitter in our blood and love in our very bones.
There was a period in the mid ’90s-2000s (what I like to call The Romcomaissance) when romcoms did nothing short of thrive. 1999’s “She’s All That,” 2001’s “The Wedding Planner,” 2008’s “Definitely, Maybe” — they’re sweet in the easiest of ways. Laney Boggs deserved better and Mary Fiore could dance. Ryan Reynolds — comedy bro and incredibly violent superhero — was ours first.
Speaking of fine fellas with roots in the genre, I’ve compiled a short (and surprisingly incomprehensive) list for you:
Mark Ruffalo? Ours. Keanu Reeves? Ours. Patrick Dempsey? Ours. Tom Cruise? Ours. Leonardo DiCaprio? Ours. Tom Hardy? Ours. Three of the four Chris-es? Ours. Brad Pitt? Ours. Orlando Bloom? Ours. Hugh Jackman? Ours. Greg Kinnear? Ours. Matthew McConaughey? Ours.
The Romcomaissance saw movies like 2002’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and 2004’s “50 First Dates” — movies that never tried to be anything more than exactly what they were. That’s all romcoms are, really: At their barest bones, they’re movies that are made for their audiences. They’re algorithmic and predictable, and they’re not made for the people that won’t like them or won’t get them. These movies are good because of the feelings they monopolize, not because of their stellar plots or cinematography. They’re good because of The Look.
The Look doesn’t say, “I want to lunge at you,” and it doesn’t even say “I want to kiss you.” The Look says, “I think that if I were to never stop looking at you, I’d be OK.” It’s Heath Ledger staring at you as he asks if it’s quite alright that he loves you, baby. It’s Hugh Dancy in the firelight proving, once and for all, that consent is sexy. The Look is an exhale, when you finally get what you always knew you deserved.
Romcom ladies were always perfect to me — cutely clumsy, magnetically manic. And they’re still perfect to me, but as I’ve grown with them, they’ve shaped me in more ways than just making flared-jeans my forever go-to. When Hilary Duff tears into the locker room in “A Cinderella Story” to tell the most beautiful boy in school (see: the world) that waiting for him is “like waiting for rain in this drought,” she’s nervous and embarrassed. This is also the one moment in the movie that she holds her head the highest. She fills her life with all the love she’ll ever need, and she walks out of that locker room, one thumb hooked firmly in her belt loop, alone. She — like all the very best romcom gals — knew her worth.
In 2004’s “13 Going on 30” — possibly my favorite romcom ever — there’s this scene where Jennifer Garner’s character is telling a bunch of 13-year-old girls about love, and how it’s a battlefield. And then they danced. The movie is a romcom, yeah, but it’s about a girl breaking in her pink dream-house, growing up, teaching her co-workers how to dance to “Thriller.” It’s one of the most profoundly romcom-y romantic comedies I’ve ever seen because, at its very core, the movie is hers. All of it. “13 Going on 30” belongs to this girl who’s not quite sure who she is, giving her the space to hold the hands of other girls who aren’t quite sure who they are and talk about the night with the Razzles.
Romantic comedies are holy ground. I’m built from them, and I know they’ve built a lot of other people, too. I know I’m never going to dance to “Bennie and the Jets” on a bar table in the middle of nowhere after hydroplaning with James Marsden. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to see Katherine Heigl do it. I’ve watched that scene at least 27 times (sorry), and it gets me every damn one. There’s just this feeling of knowing that I’m always going to get the chest-clutching, knee-curling, doubling-over-in-glee kind of warmth that I’ve sustained myself on for a solid two decades now. These stories aren’t mine, but they are, and they always will be.