Deconstructing Classic Date Movies: Common Themes

Couple on a date at the movies

It’s February, and whether you’re in a relationship, casually dating or just enjoying the single life, you’re bound to be bombarded with Valentine’s propaganda.

Don’t get us wrong — we love a good Valentine’s Day movie marathon as much as anyone else. But let’s be honest. Have you ever noticed that these movies have a bit too much in common?

As many people have pointed out over the years, romantic movies seem to be the easiest to predict. Though their narratives may differ, the vast majority of date movies follow common themes. If you’re going to be taking in any romantic comedies or heartwarming love stories on TV or at the local theater this month, see if you can spot each of these core components.

The ugly duckling
It’s like clockwork: In almost every romantic film where a man is taken with a beautiful woman, there is another female in his life to fill the “ugly duckling” slot. She isn’t actually unattractive; she’s just far less sexualized than the other woman.

Meanwhile, the male lead can’t seem to see what’s right under his nose. The ugly duckling is firmly in the “friend zone” and has seen multiple women come and go from his life. She’s always there to comfort him when something goes wrong. They may even have little traditions, such as cooking waffles together at midnight on birthdays.

Once you’ve spotted the ugly duckling, there are usually only two possible outcomes:

  1. The male lead realizes she’s perfect for him and pursues her.
  2. Or she helps reconcile the conflict between him and the female lead.

Communication breakdown (“It’s always the same …”)
In fairness to romantic comedies and love stories, every worthwhile narrative requires some sort of antagonistic climax. In action movies this often means a final battle or massive explosion.

In classic date movies we usually see a communication failure. One person says something that was intended as either a neutral or positive statement, and the other misinterprets it as something negative. This leads to an inevitable downward spiral in which both people end up saying things they don’t mean. If you don’t catch on to this scene as it is building, you’ll know it has arrived when you hear something like, “Well, maybe we should then!”

The airport scene
After the communication failure comes the airport scene, which is almost always the buildup to the culminating happy ending.

Here’s how we usually get there: Whoever is feeling most jaded speaks with loved ones on the phone and decides it’s best they go home to figure themselves out. The other half of the couple then learns from a mutual friend that their now-angered lover has run off to LAX, ORD or JFK to board a plane into their future. This, of course, cues an incredible race against the clock that ends with a passionate public kiss in an airport terminal.

But hey, although rom-coms may be a bit repetitive, we still love them, right?