Romantic comedies are about a lot of things: meet-cutes, misunderstandings, rain-soaked declarations of love, pratfalls, sassy and put-upon best friends, steady-but-boring boyfriends who aren’t as compelling as the hero, unexpected run-ins, makeover montages, grand gestures, glamorous careers that leave plenty of time for hijinks, highly detailed speeches about lovable quirks, and sometimes—if we’re lucky—a musical number. At their big, gushy heart, however, they’re about one thing: female wish fulfillment. There’s the wish that the girl and (usually) the boy will overcome the adorable obstacles and fall in love, of course. But there’s also the wish that everyone will look and feel fantastic doing it. In real life, these levels of fantasticness usually cost a lot of money. So how does money function in romantic comedy?
Over the years, rom-coms have evolved; by design, they reflect the gender politics and social concerns of the day, even when they’re attempting to provide an antidote to them. The screwball comedies of the ’30s gave way to musicals of the ’60s leading eventually to the high-concept Meg Ryan-y blockbusters of the ’90s. In 2014, the traditional romcom hasn’t exactly died, but it’s mostly moved, to television and independent film. And while TV’s crop looks a whole lot like the ’90s-era ones with upwardly mobile attractive people, the indie rom-coms reflect an indie sensibility: namely, that broke-ass people can fall in love, too.
Here’s a look at the evolution of the rom-com, via your wallet:
The Screwball 1930s
My Man Godfrey
For Love: Wealthy Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) comes across a “forgotten man” named Godfrey (William Powell) and hires him to be her spendthrift family’s butler, promptly falling in love with him. Or Money: Thanks to secretly highborn Godfrey’s crafty investments, the Bullock family is saved from their reckless spending. Godfrey’s windfall is so great that it even allows him to open a swinging nightclub called The Dump, on the spot where he lived when he was homeless. This is where, in the last scene, Irene marries him against his will.
Bringing Up Baby
For Love: Flighty socialite Susan (Katharine Hepburn) falls for paleontologist David (Cary Grant) and schemes to keep him from his imminent wedding by involving him in the care and then the search for her brother’s leopard, Baby. Or Money: David goes along with Susan’s hijinks only because he wants her old-moneyed aunt to donate $1 million dollars to keep his museum open. In the end, the aunt gives the money to Susan, who in turn gives it to David as they declare their love for each other. Fun fact: Today that $1 million would be equal to about $17 million.
The Philadelphia Story
For Love: As Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), Philadelphia society girl, prepares for her wedding to George Kitteridge, her ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and newspaperman Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) show up to complicate matters. Or Money: On the eve of her wedding, Tracy is torn between her self-made fiancé, her social-equal ex-husband, and a wealth-despising tabloid reporter whom she has only just met. In the end, even the poor newspaperman admits that Tracy’s ex-husband is a pretty great guy, while her jealous fiancé condemns Tracy, Dexter, and their “whole rotten class.”
During a time (the Great Depression) when money was a devastating problem for pretty much everyone, all three of these films feature heiresses who don’t have to give it a second thought. Who knows how much Tracy Lord — based on real-life Philadelphia railroad heiress Helen Hope Montgomery Scott — was really worth. But it’s a decent guess her father probably hit the $1 million tax bracket.
In both Baby and Godfrey, beautiful, wealthy women are repeatedly rejected by the men they pursue. Sure, okay, these guys just aren’t that into them. But, no matter, because wealth has also given them the ability to be deeply silly women with no regard for social rules, and thanks to their entitlement and lack of common sense, they persist. While it may seem retrograde (because, you know, it is) that these women are often unfathomably stupid and subservient (Katharine Hepburn, acting a fool!), it is actually only through their wealth and corresponding power—even if that power comes from willful daftness—that they’re able to manipulate their less well-off men. Wish fulfilled!
In The Philadelphia Story, social order is restored when a high society woman nearly weds a self-made man, but by breaking down the social(ist) defenses of a muckraking reporter, she realizes it is her alcoholic, good old boy ex-husband she truly loves. And honestly, it is super romantic. I mean, Cary Grant! Still, not only wealth but class is the topic of this movie, and how much of it the truly already-rich have. So, while absolutely everyone is in love with the heiress—despite politics, despite divorce—in the end she is able to reject the safe, stable choice and even the romantic, impoverished choice and run off with the handsome, super rich mistake she’s already made, back to the yacht they both loved so much.
The Meg Ryan Era (1989–1997)
Sleepless in Seattle
For Love: Journalist Annie (Meg Ryan) hears architect Sam (Tom Hanks) on a radio call-in show talking about his deceased wife, realizes her upcoming wedding to allergic, awkward Walter (Bill Pullman) is lacking a certain “magic,” and writes the stranger a letter proposing they meet at the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. Or Money: Sam is able to impulsively quit his job in Chicago at the start of the movie and move to Seattle, while Annie uses the cover of her job to pay for stalking Sam.
For Love: When destiny-obsessed Faith (Marisa Tomei—she’s no Meg Ryan but she might as well be) is just a little girl, she asks a Ouija board for the name of her soulmate, and it answers: Damon Bradley. Decades later, as her wedding to her mild podiatrist fiancé approaches, a Damon Bradley calls out of the blue. On impulse, she takes her best friend and sister-in-law Kate (Bonnie Hunt, the perpetually underrated best friend and Judy Greer of the ’90s) to Italy to track him down.
Or Money: Faith, a teacher, and Kate, who is in school, take a last minute flight to Venice, rent a car to drive to Rome, and stay in a series of lavish hotels (including one Joan Collins stayed in) on Kate’s husband’s credit card. At one point Faith suggests renting a truck with a loudspeaker.
You’ve Got Mail
For Love: Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) are pen pals who met in an AOL chat room. Or Money: Unbeknownst to either, Kathleen and Joe are business rivals—his Barnes & Noble-esque megastore is opening around the corner from the small children’s bookshop she owns.
In Sleepless, Meg plays a journalist; one who uses her position at the Baltimore Sun Times to finance the full-scale stalking of Tom Hanks’s Sam. She puts a background check, a private eye, and a flight from Maryland to Washington state on the paper. (Good to know: A journalist in Baltimore in 1992 made about $31, 297, which today is approximately $53,098.05.) How does her editor (Rosie O’Donnell) not yell at her for that? She doesn’t even interview him, she just stares at him from the middle of the street and then flies home. Meanwhile, Sam is able to pick up his young son and move to a houseboat in an entirely new city. Very reasonable choice! The film’s attitude toward money could probably be summed up by one scene: Tom Hanks needs to steal a stranger’s cab to chase his son, Jonah, to the Empire State Building. To get the cab, he yells, “Money, all right? Money, money, money!” while throwing bills in the air. Money: People want it and this can be annoying, but it’s plentiful, never a problem to come by.
Only You, a forgotten classic that I will hype forever even though Robert Downey Jr.’s fast-talking charmer is named Mr. Wright, is awash in pricey grand gestures. Faith’s expenditures include a spur-of-the-moment flight to Venice, a rental car, multiple gorgeous hotel rooms in different cities, and a handful of dinners in lovely, expensive restaurants. Also, on her teacher’s salary—$35, 813 in 1992, about $57,520.95 today—she apparently already had a wardrobe full of stunning, often-backless gowns. Her Mr. Wright is a lower-level shoe salesman who: gifts a woman who already rejected him a pair of fancy shoes (not knockoffs); hires an actor at the last minute in a country he’s never been to; outfits said actor with a wig and gold medallion; and rents hotel rooms for them both—in a hotel Joan Collins stayed in, no less. The phone calls alone must have cost him a fortune. The planning, the scheming, the cost!
Money is just water in these films. It’s everywhere and therefore not particularly notable, and this functions most strangely in You’ve Got Mail. In the film, which is a flawless and charming example of the parallel reality of rom-coms, Kathleen Kelly is being run out of business by Fox Books. Of course, of course, this is their central conflict. But never are finances mentioned. A small business owner was making about $47,064.78 in 1998 (about $68K today), but this impending closure is a tragedy for sentimental reasons only: the loss of Kathleen’s store is equated to the loss of her late mother—who founded it—and the loss of her beloved, oddball employees. But unemployment, financial ruin: these things are never on the table. She’s not in danger of losing the apartment she used to share with her now-ex-boyfriend (double rent and no income, no problem!) or any of her sweater sets. It’s also worth mentioning, that in this film it is Tom Hanks’s father— not Tom Hanks—who owns the houseboat. But of course, there is a houseboat.
Recession Romance (2013–Present)
For Love: After a devastating breakup, comedian Donna Stein (Jenny Slate) has a one-night stand with finance guy Max (Jake Lacy), resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. As Donna struggles with her upcoming abortion, Max tries to prove himself to be a real candidate for her affections. Or Money: Besides her breakup, Donna is also reeling from the closing of the bookstore where she works. Although she is attempting to make it as a commercial actress, she occasionally borrows money from her mother and has outstanding student loan debt. A struggling comic like Donna pulls in about $500 a year from standup, and about $20,000 from a part-time job. As such, her abortion is a financial hardship as well as an emotional one, although the particulars are not discussed.
For Love: Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) meets Albert (James Gandolfini) at a party where she also meets Marianne (Catherine Keener)—a new client, a new friend, and Albert’s ex-wife. Or Money: Eva works as a massage therapist after her divorce, and makes frequent comments on the fabulousness of other people’s homes, clothes, and lives. Meanwhile her best friend Sarah (Toni Collette) struggles with such issues as how to fire her maid.
For Love: Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party and falls for her, before discovering she has a boyfriend. When she asks him to be her friend, he says yes, determined to keep this fantastic woman in his life, convinced they can be “just friends.” Or Money: Wallace dropped out of medical school after a bad breakup, works a menial job, and lives with his sister. Chantry is a well-regarded designer, but resists a promotion thanks to a fear of change and success.
In What If, Daniel Radcliffe’s Wallace lives with his sister and Chantry relies on her lawyer-boyfriend to fund their standard-issue gorgeous, rom-com apartment. Neither have the high-powered careers of rom-coms past. In Enough Said, Eva falls in middle-aged love with television historian Albertt, whose ex-wife calls him a loser. That ex-wife is also Eva’s client and new friend, Marianne, a wildly successful poet with a gorgeous house and impeccable style and Catherine Keener’s face, hair, and cool-lady voice. Meanwhile, Eva carries her massage table up steep staircases and deals with her clients’ bad breath. She doesn’t want to be a loser, no matter how much she might feel like one, so she finds herself picking at Albert’s flaws and hiding her connection to him and Marianne.
Donna Stein (Jenny Slate), from this summer’s Obvious Child, is younger than Eva and still working on a dream, but is nonetheless, a bit of a “loser,” in standard movie terms. She’s unemployed (when the bookstore she works in closes down, it’s bad for the employees—for more than purely sentimental reasons), saddled with student loan debt, and in need of $500 for an abortion. She wears her roommate’s clothes and her mother’s shoes and borrows money from her parents. Like the ’90s movies, Donna’s financial situation is just the water, but now the water is boiling. Getting the money for her abortion isn’t a plot point (does she borrow it from her best friend, Sleepless in Seattle’s Gabby Hoffman? Her parents? Who knows.), but we are made to understand that it’s part of a growing financial burden.
So. Are we less ambitious today, less interested in money and privilege? Not if the ambitions and interests of these characters are any indication—Eva never passes up an opportunity to covet and Donna plugs away at her stand-up career, even during times when nothing seems funny. In the end, even What If’s Chantry takes the promotion she was so afraid of. These women don’t already have it all; they are still trying, they are still on their way. It’s not that women want less, we just want our fantasies to meet us halfway.
The wish being fulfilled in these movies isn’t rebooting entirely as a flighty, irresponsible heiress or even determined small business owner, but experiencing the thrill of the accidental run-in, the pain of that first misunderstanding, and the joy of the big, corny “I love you” speech all alongside our credit card debt and career struggles and pull-out futons. The wish is being good enough already.