Intelligent romantic comedies

From Breakfast at Tiffany's to Juno, rom-coms have been round for deacdes, but these days directors are once again infusing some intelligence into their love stories.

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Can you image the scene when Love and Other Drugs was pitched by its writer to the Los Angeles executives who funded it: "It's a tender and hilarious love story, you see, between a salesman with no heart and a woman with a crippling degenerative disease. We want to sign up some hot Hollywood property for the leading roles, release it in the holidays." It doesn't exactly sound like box-office dynamite.

But that's what happened, with the film getting a Thanksgiving weekend release date in the US and hit screens around the world over Christmastime and the New Year. Fusing the events of a non-fiction book with a fictional love story, it's got Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal as its stars and Edward Zwick - the man behind tough-minded movies such as Blood Diamond, Glory, and Legends of the Fall - at its helm.

The result is a rom-com that combines a conventional structure and the requisite ingredients of heart string-tugging, titillation and physically flawless actors with a bit of edge.

The rom-com is a genre that's had a patchy history, and it's heartening to see directors infusing the formula with some brains. The charm and comic timing of the noughties rom-com stalwart Katherine Heigl has brightened the otherwise run-of-the-mill flicks 27 Dresses, Knocked Up and The Ugly Truth, but it's a far cry from the golden age of Katharine Hepburn and Carey Grant exchanging quips and kisses.

The 1930s and 1940s were a great time for fans of cinematic romance, despite rules in Hollywood banning positive depictions of romantic love outside marriage. This rule was ducked by using divorcées as its protagonists or by depicting rocky marriages that finally settle down. And so we got sharp, smart, nuanced rom-coms with leads who had lived a little, such as Woman of the Year and The Philadelphia Story.

In Woman of the Year, made in 1942, Katharine Hepburn is a political columnist for a New York newspaper who speaks several languages and was educated at prestigious European universities, and the will-they won't-they aspect of the romance comes from the vicissitudes of trying to balance a marriage (to another, less-successful journalist) and a busy working life.

Of course, there are plenty of rom-coms starring tough, ambitious female characters - the lead's also a journalist in the Christmas-themed chick flick The Holiday, in How To Lose A Guy in Ten Days and in When Harry Met Sally - but it's hard to beat films of the screwball era for quick-fire dialogue and women playing trailblazers.

Another Hepburn - Audrey - also played her fair share of strong-minded characters in rom-coms, this time in the 1950s and 1960s. In Funny Face, she's a philosopher who reluctantly agrees to a modelling job so she can meet her intellectual hero in Paris (and has a romance with Fred Astaire along the way), while everyone knows her turn as the eccentric Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

While the 1970s saw Woody Allen re-invent the rom-com for an audience of cynics with films such as Annie Hall and Manhattan, the 1980s saw some great yuppie romances full of brat-packers (St Elmo's Fire, About Last Night..., which was also directed by Edward Zwick) and the 1990s reinvented the rom-com for the grunge era. Between them, Reality Bites, The Truth About Cats and Dogs and Singles launched the idea of the "indie rom-com", populated by slackers, sound-tracked by rock music and starring actors with quirky appeal. Recent indie rom-coms such as (500) Days of Summer, Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist and Juno owe a debt to these 1990s romances.

Sure, for every Sleepless in Seattle or Four Weddings and a Funeral there's been a Bride Wars or He's Just Not That Into You, but the romantic comedy isn't a genre that should be dismissed as pure pap, relying on gender stereotypes and fetishing the idea of perfect love and a big, white wedding. If you feel like curling up on the sofa and getting lost in a story of love surpassing hefty obstacles, there's plenty that should keep your brain, as well as your fluttering heart, occupied.