What happened to the romantic comedy?

I have a distinct memory of scrolling on my TV guide when I was about 10 or 11 in my living room when my mom came up from behind me screaming, “DON’T CHANGE THE CHANNEL!”

It was the beginning of When Harry Met Sally

Waitress: Hi, what can I get ya?

Harry: I’ll have a number three.

Sally: I’d like the chef salad please with the oil and vinegar on the side and the apple pie a la mode.

Waitress: Chef and apple a la mode.

Sally: But I’d like the pie heated and I don’t want the ice cream on top I want it on the side and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it if not then no ice cream just whipped cream but only if it’s real if it’s out of a can then nothing.

Waitress: Not even the pie?

Sally: No, just the pie, but then not heated.

Waitress: Uh huh.

Sally: What?

Harry: Nothing, nothing. So how come you broke up with Sheldon?

I made it until about when Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal are sitting down for lunchtime in some New York deli before my mom and dad uncomfortably changed the channel to avoid a *particular* scene. I was mad that they thought they could just interrupt this movie for me–I was invested–but I remember being absorbed into this story of two people running into each other every few years. 

Eventually, years later when I saw the entire movie, I remember saying to myself: “This is my favorite movie.” If you know me, I never say this, but it was true. This movie was excellent. Why in the world did it feel like it had the right to be so good?

Except for movies like The Big Sick and Crazy Rich Asians, I feel as though the romantic comedy genre has died in Hollywood in the last decade with little to no urgency to rescue it. In a real-world analogy, making a rom-com in today’s climate is the same as opening a restaurant on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, NC: it makes everyone wish they would finally cave in and open a Cook Out instead. 

Rarely are rom-coms successful at the box office and rarely do they rise to become classics. They’ve become a waste of money for studios to take on and are just…risky. So why are they worth making? What did we lose in the Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts-era that we are so desperately misplacing? 

I’ve got a few ideas:

Writing that pays attention to the supporting cast

Yes, romantic comedies are usually about two people getting together (two white, cis-gendered, straight people, might I add), but in the generic formula for making these kinds of movies, “the best friend” role is a given. 

Generally, these characters serve as a comparison to the lead. They are the ones who either have perspective, experience, lack of love problems, or are simply comic relief and are really in the movie to help their hopeless best friend figure out their love life. We see this in 500 Days of Summer, The Wedding Planner, The Wedding Singer, Pretty Woman…a lot of movies. 

While a lot of those are great rom-coms in their own right, their secondary characters are really…basic. And if we were to look at any of our close friends in our lives, I’d hope we’d say they’re anything but basic.

Sure, we all have friends who may be in relationships–and we may even go to them for relationship advice–but more often than not, those friends are also complex, confused, and make bad choices like we do. Movies that pay attention to this, and give those characters an arc, are precious gems. 

This is one of the reasons why When Harry Met Sally works in so many ways. It’s one of the only movies I can recall that gives the best friends–Jess and Marie, played by Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher, respectively–a storyline and a life outside the role of being best friends to the leads. 

Marie is constantly sleeping with a married man hoping he’ll leave, and Jess is a lonesome writer. They have their own meet-cute during a group date and we see their love story blossom alongside the will-they-or-won’t-they saga between Harry and Sally. We see them move in together, argue over a wagon-wheel coffee table, and eventually get married. They have a life. This says a lot when the most I can say about supporting roles in rom-coms is usually only their occupation and maybe one funny line they’re given. 

No Strings Attached and 10 Things I Hate About You are other great examples of this model. They stretch the “support” in supporting roles and help make a great story beyond those highlighted on a movie poster. 

Settings that are characters in and of themselves

We remember images. I give a lot of credit to cinematographers and screenwriters when developing the site and look for films. Not just for rom-coms, but for any movie, the setting can be the little extra something that makes a movie memorable. 

Los Angeles in La La Land, Seattle in Sleepless in Seattle, the Upper West Side in You’ve Got Mail–they are all intentional and integral parts of these classics. You take the story out of the setting and they might not be what they are without them. 

Many romantic comedies take place in the city–where the young, single people are. The challenge filmmakers have in this is making a city unique to a story. New York City is used time and time again as the setting for love and hope, yet when I think of my favorite rom-coms that take place in New York, they are the ones who utilized their surroundings and made important scenery even more iconic through strong dialogue and climatic story arcs. 

This is why you see people clamoring on their vacations to recreate scenes in a random New York Deli, at the Griffith Observatory, in a Tiffany’s, or at some store they can’t afford on Rodeo Drive. Attention to the setting can reappropriate the meaning of these popular places and create an emotional attachment for viewers–if the story’s good. Without utilizing a setting, rom-com filmmakers risk the possibility of their story not resonating with their audience. Yes, love can and does happen anywhere, but if there is not enough care and intention with choosing where that love takes place, an opportunity is lost to make a rom-com that much more memorable. 

The more normal-looking leads, the better

People like to relate. When it comes to rom-coms, people want to be able to relate to characters so that way they can imagine themselves falling unexpectedly in love with the right person in dramatic circumstances and all that jazz. Where this note can bleed into ethnic and racial representation on-screen–another extremely important feat–a more general factor that rom-coms should strive toward is representative beauty, or whatever that means.

Most people do not look like Ryan Gosling and Kate Hudson. Our country has more dad bods and stretch marks than we care to lead on in the media; we know this. But if we want people to believe in love and all its glory, why should we make it look as though only those with a side job as an Abercrombie model are eligible to obtain it? 

The “transformation scene” for the quirky-turned-hot female lead is overdone, unrealistic, and kind of…offensive. We’ve thankfully have begun to shy away from that narrative in recent years, but in its pique from the early 1980s up until the 2000s with movies like The Princess Diaries, Pretty Woman, She’s All That, Grease, and Miss Congeniality, it communicated that someone had to go through a dramatic physical transformation in order to be noticed. Do looks matter? Unfortunately, yes. But one reason this is our reality is that we have media–such as movies–that reiterate this example over and over to us. If we change the media, we can begin to break that barrier.  

We’ve seen this played to the advantage of male leads with actors like Seth Rogen, Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler, and Tom Hanks (pretty sure we don’t classify him as sexy, right?). They are the funny guys, the loveable guys–the guys with the best lines. But when it comes to female leads, it’s the thinner, angel-faced celebrities that dominate.

There’s been progress with actresses like Rebel Wilson in Isn’t It Romantic and Amy Schumer in I Feel Pretty, but these projects lost steam in that their sole focus was to protest how rom-coms get beauty standards wrong, rather than simply making a romantic story with average-looking leads that didn’t directly acknowledge they were average-looking. You know, like how most love stories are. 

The more rom-coms focus on their core purpose of finding love, and less about how hot someone is, the more we create long-lasting relationships with stories. 

We are unfortunately no longer in the days of Nora Ephron’s writing–God bless that woman–but there’s still time to turn this train around. Generation Z has begun to champion franchises like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Kissing Booth for the streaming age, but for theatrical releases, we kind of need to buckle down. 

Fewer teen idols, attention to the little details, and good–no, fantastic–writing. There are reasons why we go back to romantic comedies; the good ones make us believe that it can happen to us. And if we took the time to look at the stories that happen around us (*cough* *cough* New York Times Modern Love section) we could see this genre enter another golden age. We just have to write them down. 

One Reply to “What happened to the romantic comedy?”

  1. Don’t you dare come after princess diaries like that. But also a lot of what you’ve written can be applied to things like “friendship Comedies” like 50/50, Bridesmaids, Superbad and Breakfast club, stories where the setting and supporting characters complement the main story but are also independent of it.

    Jess says:

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