The one rom-com trope that's still affecting our love lives

by Clem Bastow - 30/09/15, 12:15 AM


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Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in <i>When Harry Met Sally</i>: "The movies tell us if you don't meet cute, you don't get ...

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally: "The movies tell us if you don't meet cute, you don't get together, right?"Photo: Supplied

No matter how many times someone tries to reinvent the rom-com, they always seem to end up making, well, a rom-com.

From 500 Days Of Summer and The F Word to this year's Sleeping With Other People, these films may tiptoe around the "will they or won't they?" question and attempt to lull you into a sense that things will turn out differently (hint: they won't), and they may ditch the 'running through an airport' scene to prove that this film is different, man, but there's an element that runs through all of them: the meet cute.


Meet cutes depict the moment the couple at the heart of the film meet for the first time, typically in a memorable or entertaining way. As a character in George Axelrod's play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? put it, "Dear boy, the beginning of a movie is childishly simple. The boy and girl meet. The only important thing to remember is that - in a movie - the boy and the girl must meet in some cute way. They cannot [...] meet like normal people at, perhaps, a cocktail party or some other social function. No. It is terribly important that they meet cute."

Think Harry and Sally driving to New York from college in When Harry Met Sally, William upending an orange juice on Anna Scott in Notting Hill, or Susan crashing David's golf game in Bringing Up Baby (incidentally the greatest rom-com of all time; if you've never seen it, please do yourself a favour).

Hell, Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd's satirical rom-com They Came Together was built around the idea. Writer and director David Wain described the rom-com tropes both skewered and celebrated by They Came Together as "their own brand of genre comfort".

Not surprisingly, given we've spent, culturally thinking, nearly a century marinating in the tropes of romantic-comedy, we're often disappointed when our own relationships don't involve a meet cute of some description. After all, the movies tell us if you don't meet cute, you don't get together, right?

Time and time again, the relationships celebrated as most memorable or touching are the ones that move within these tropes. Witness this New York Magazine gallery of "real-life meet cutes": "I was bartending, and Ric came in. It's a dive bar, so it's a pretty crazy place to meet the love of your life. We live on our sailboat in Manhattan". Or this New York Post list of similarly adorable relationship catalysts: "She was leaving a party at Studio 54; he was heading home after a Gloria Vanderbilt Christmas bash".

(Evidently, New Yorkers, marinated in decades' worth of Woody Allen and Nora Ephron films, are especially tuned in to the meet cute vibrations.)

Inevitably, the more we invest in the notion that the way we met our partner was evidence of fate or destiny, the more disappointed we feel if things don't work out. More than once I've howled through floods of tears, "But it was just like one of the stories the old couples tell in When Harry Met Sally!" to a patient friend, "I thought finally everything was going to be okay!"

While it's true that some couples enjoy fruitful relationships following an amusing or unusual meeting (many moons ago, I saw a cute guy on a train, then posted about it on a music forum, only to find he was also a member of said forum; we dated for about five minutes), just as many, if not more, find the engine of their initial meeting is little more than an introduction from a friend or family member, or a message sent via a dating site.

Yes, it's fun to muse about things like fate and destiny ("We'd never have met if I hadn't gone to the supermarket for a can of baby corn on that night of the full moon!"), but ultimately this form of magical thinking strips us of the ability - or perhaps more correctly, willingness - to do the hard work that fuels a healthy relationship. Anyway, who wants everything to be controlled by destiny? It's like being in the driver's seat of a runaway car, only there's no steering wheel.

So, though it sounds like the sort of thing that would be said via voiceover in a subpar "alternative rom-com" script, I propose that we relegate the meet cute to the annals of cinema history along with all the other rom-com tropes we now accept as myth. It might be less memorable, but it'll be more real - and that's something worth treasuring. 

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