The Golden Age Gang: Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally..., Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle.
Culture Movies

Who killed the American rom-com?

Our inveterate critic gives us a history of the contemporary romantic comedy and what happened 30 years after Harry met Sally.
Andrew Paredes | Feb 09 2019

I became an adult in the decade of Pretty Woman, When Harry Met Sally..., Sleepless in Seattle, and Notting Hill—the last Golden Age of the American romantic comedy. You could say my ideas of what constitutes romance were shaped by Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner; by Meg Ryan writhing, moaning and demonstrating how easy it is to fake an orgasm at a diner table; by Julia Roberts telling Hugh Grant she was just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her.

On its last breath: The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, was the rom-com hit streak holding on to dear life. Photograph from IMDb

But if you’re a hawk-eyed observer of pop culture, you could tell that the American rom-com as we knew it was slowly petering out by the 2000s. Hits like The Proposal, Hitch, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days kept the genre going for a while, but it was obvious—through interesting entries like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up—that romantic comedy had to go in a new direction. Still, studios didn’t heed the warnings these Judd Apatow productions were making, and after dismal late-aught entries like 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth, critics were pronouncing romantic comedies as dead as the Western.

Keeping the flame alive for a few more years: Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Photograph from Paramount Pictures

And in a way, it was true: After 2010, what was once a staple of a big Hollywood studio’s slate had ceded its place of prominence to superhero movies. In 2010, rom-coms accounted for nine major studio wide releases; in 2017, exactly zero. In 2010, studios released three comic-book adaptations; in 2017, they fielded five, with 2014 hitting a high of eight.

But I am here to posit that not even Katherine Heigl can kill a genre as essential as the romantic comedy; you just might not recognize a rom-com when you see one.

 

What killed the romcom

What essentially killed the big-studio romantic comedy, in my opinion, was a lack of imagination. Formidable writer-directors like Woody Allen, Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron took the romantic comedy out of its screwball beginnings by injecting drama and insight into it, but no remarkable names after them—apart from the aforementioned Apatow—really took up the cudgels to show ticket-buying audiences just where the genre could go or what it was capable of. It was always about the meet-cute, the grand gesture, the change of heart near the wedding day. It was always about the feisty leading lady getting her heart melted by the persistent Prince Charming…and moviegoers eventually tired of the rigid formula. So strict was the studios’ adherence to the genre’s “rules” that exactly 20 years after the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, industry insiders were still saying that Julia Roberts not snagging Dermot Mulroney at the end of My Best Friend’s Wedding was a huge gamble.

The guys who paved the way. L-R: Nora Ephron (Photograph from Vera Anderson), Woody Allen (Photograph from MGM) and Nancy Meyers (Photograph from IMDb).

According to the studios’ faulty thinking, romantic comedies were always about the courtship. But by the dawn of the 2000s, even the studios were slow to pick up on the changes in that particular human ritual. Thanks to social media and dating apps, people just weren’t falling in love the same way. Maybe you’d see a character onscreen texting here or there, but insight into this brave new world of commodified contact and instant rejection just weren’t forthcoming.

 

Indie love

But romance, like sex, will always sell. And so people started getting their fix away from the traditional big-screen romance. Audiences gravitated toward the less slick sensibilities of indie cinema, as exemplified in the 2009 indie hit (500) Days of Summer, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets his heart stomped on by Zooey Deschanel, or 2014’s Obvious Child, in which Jenny Slate finds love while contemplating an abortion. Smaller-scale successes, to be sure, but both entries spoke to people about love in a messier world.

Independent touch: Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer. Photograph from IMDb

Viewers were also migrating to cable and streaming. HBO’s Sex and the City was first to prove that you didn’t have to go all the way to the cineplex to get your Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response kicks (that’s the fancy term known as kilig in these parts). More than a decade later, Netflix was upping the game by producing titles both acclaimed (Aziz Ansari’s Master of None) and cult (the British hit Lovesick, in which the protagonist discovers romance while informing past partners about his chlamydia diagnosis).

 

Romcoms in camo

But in a deeper, more essential way, what all those titles have in common is a very specific viewpoint. Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday hit the nail on the head when she wrote that the romantic-comedy is “now less a function of mass entertainment than a hyperlocal cultural product”. Today’s rom-com is more particular, zoning in on the individual as a way at hitting on the universal. You would be hard-pressed to imagine a studio suit greenlighting something like Kumail Nanjiani’s 2017 Oscar contender The Big Sick, where a Pakistani man first breaks up with his girl, only to fall in love with her again while she’s in a coma.

Just as it would be inconceivable for a free-TV network like CBS to have approved Issa Rae’s Insecure, in which a woman’s quest for romantic fulfillment is inextricably bound to her identity as an African-American. Even the odd blip of a big-studio romance post-Katherine Heigl takes advantage of distinct perspectives. Judd Apatow, the patron saint of one-of-a-kind comedic voices, reaped the rewards when he threw his weight behind Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, in which a woman has to get her messy neurosis about her delinquent father squared away before she can find her happy-ever-after.

The new face of romance: Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. Photograph from Universal Pictures.

And sometimes, the romantic comedy dons camouflage, not flashing its romance bonafides at all. Nobody would immediately think to call the 2012 Oscar darling Silver Linings Playbook a rom-com, but strip away the elements that give it “gravitas”—specifically, its portrayal of mental illness—and you’re left with a guy (Bradley Cooper) who gets over his failed marriage by entering a dance contest with a quirky spitfire (Jennifer Lawrence). Or go back a year earlier to 2011’s Bridesmaids, which garnered Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo an Oscar nomination for original screenplay and Melissa McCarthy a supporting actress nod. There’s a wedding and a stumble into a functional relationship, to be sure, but it’s really a romance about longtime friendships and the bonds women form with one another. It can even work in reverse: Last year’s massive hit Crazy Rich Asians—which rejected a buyout offer from Netflix—may feel like a romantic comedy that follows the traditional rules, but could really only be an East Asian story because it tackles warring perspectives on female roles in society.

So, yes, there will always be a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her. You’ll just have to squint to find her.

 

Banner photos from Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., and IMDb