Oxygen Mask People: Rom Coms and the Special Realm of Soulmate-dom
Recent rom coms like ‘I Want You Back’ modernize the turbulent, complicated friendships-turned-romance trope that was made so iconic in ‘When Harry Met Sally.’
In the 2022 film I Want You Back, Emma (Jenny Slate) has just been kindly, but firmly, dumped over brunch by her boyfriend, Noah (Scott Eastwood). In the moments before he walks away, she reaches out and weakly clutches at his jacket. “I just.. I don’t want you to break up with me.” It’s a silly, stupid thing to say, simply because we are silly and stupid in the aftermath of a break-up. Peter (Charlie Day) has just been told by his girlfriend of six years, Anne (Gina Rodriguez) that they’re going to have to end things — in the middle of a children’s birthday party. He sobs as he sings happy birthday to the little kid he bonded with at the party, because he’s great with kids, probably ready to be a father, which is what makes him so wrong for the existentially antsy Anne (Gina Rodriguez). Thus begins this unconventional romantic comedy about strangers who join forces to try to sabotage their exes’ new relationships.
Sally (Meg Ryan) of the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally has handled her break-up with total ease — her and her partner of six years did not have the same ideas about having a family, and so it made sense to end things. It is only when she finds out that he is getting married to another woman that she truly mourns in a snotty, messy meltdown, turning to comfort from her best friend, Harry (Billy Crystal), who’s been handling his respective, separate break-up in his own way (mainly by dating and having sex near constantly).
When Harry Met Sally and I Want You Back, though decades apart, exist in the realm of the romantic comedy — the world of meet-cutes, quirky adventures, the stumbling into of soulmates. They shill the same fantasy that their romcom contemporaries do; that any of us can stumble into new love in our office’s fire escape or on a cross-country road trip with a friend of a friend, that maybe it’ll be someone like a funny, bright-eyed Charlie Day, a witty and charming Billy Crystal or a pretty, peppy, quirky, and curly-haired Jenny Slate or Meg Ryan.
Like other romcoms, one knows where Harry and Sally’s, and Peter and Emma’s, relationships are heading from the start. As you hear Emma platonically comfort Peter about his unlucky breaks so far in love by describing him as a “slow burn” kind of guy — the kind of person you don’t realize you love until time has passed and you suddenly can’t be without him — you can tell he is already inching his way under her skin. Harry’s firm announcement that men and women cannot “just be friends”, and Sally’s insistence that it is of course possible seems to seal fate, to ensure that both protagonists will be proved delightfully and simultaneously wrong and right.
But beyond that, the fantasies peddled in I Want You Back and When Harry Met Sally are often unexpected. They exist first and foremost in the ugly space of being recently dumped — both duos spend the early portions of their friendships fixated on their past relationships, glad to have someone with which to pick apart, to tread and retread, over their longing for their past loves.
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