It's Not Too Late to Save the Rom-Com From Itself


Most everything you ever wanted to learn about relationships you learned from having your own, but everything else you ever wanted to learn about relationships, you learned by watching other people have them. And there is no better, easier more $3.99-kind-of-way to watch other people have them than vicariously, thanks to the movie genre known as the rom-com. Yes, yes, I hear your protest rattling through my Wi-Fi as I type this: But rom-coms are ridiculous! They aren’t even “good”! The characters are (literally) thin stereotypes of men and women pushing stale, tarted-up notions of romance, distorting everything in their path from how the damn things start to how they end, down to the exact number of blocks a person needs to run at the end of a relationship to demonstrate real determination/love (approximately six). But rather than throw the rom-com out with the rose-petal infused cucumber water, perhaps we can save them.

First, I didn’t actually know we needed to save them until I read this Atlantic piece asking “Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?” which happens to feature the best subheadline ever, “The long decline from Katharine Hepburn to Katherine Heigl.” Holla!

Suffice it say though, rom-coms, on the decline over decades, are in the shitter. They “ran out of box-office steam in 2012.” Producer Lynda Obst, who you know from Sleepless in Seattle and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, the piece says, told New York magazine’s Vulture blog in December, “It is the hardest time of my 30 years in the business.”

This recent Valentine’s Day, everyone wondered, where was the big rom-com?

A range of explanations have been offered, from studios ever more obsessed with blockbuster franchises to a generation of moviegoers less starry-eyed than their predecessors.
But this line of inquiry misses the point. The proper question isn’t Why have romantic comedies suddenly stopped being profitable? but rather Why have they been so lackluster for decades? The fact that the 2009 Katherine Heigl vehicle The Ugly Truth made a great deal of money in no way alters the fact that it was atrocious. I am not by nature a cinematic declinist, and it’s true that classics of the genre have been sprinkled across the years, from the bittersweet doubt of Annie Hall, to the ascending optimism of When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman, to the raunchy resuscitations of Judd Apatow. But when one thinks back on the works reliably churned out by the likes of Tracy and Hepburn and Grant and the other Hepburn (apologies, Audrey-you, too, were one of a kind!), it’s rather hard not to get dispirited.

Yes, everything was better Back Then; we know. And nevermind that most action movies are crap formulas too, not to mention most sci-fi movies, sports movies, buddy movies — we can’t expect something from this one genre but not other, equally fluffy ones, when what is true of one is true for all of them: great movies of any genre are in a class of their own. Besides, it’s worth pointing out here that rom-coms can be good even when they are bad, sometimes especially when they are bad, because the breezy optimism and reliable resolution is exactly what you want when you feel like dropping out of Ambiguity World, AKA, reality. That said, there’s always room for well-done relationship movies that tell us something about ourselves.

But moving on, the Atlantic piece asks why the “genuine stars” of today like George Clooney can’t be bothered to do rom-coms, aside from a few examples here and there, like Will Smith in Hitch. But it settles on another possible culprit:

It’s not just them; it’s us.
Among the most fundamental obligations of romantic comedy is that there must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome. And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by. They used to lie thick on the ground: parental disapproval, difference in social class, a promise made to another. But society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds. Love is increasingly presumed-perhaps in Hollywood most of all-to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status….Perhaps the most obvious social constraint that’s fallen by the wayside is also the most significant: the taboo against premarital sex. There was a time when carnal knowledge was the (implied) endpoint of the romantic comedy; today, it’s just as likely to be the opening premise. In 2005’s A Lot Like Love-a dull, joyless rip-off of When Harry Met Sally-Amanda Peet and Ashton Kutcher meet cute by having sex in an airplane lavatory before they’ve spoken a single word to each other. Where’s a film to go when the “happy ending” takes place at the beginning?
So new complications must be invented, test-driven, and then, as often as not, themselves retired. (The idea that geography posed a substantial challenge to true love seemed a stretch all the way back in 1993, for Sleepless in Seattle. In the Internet age, it doesn’t pass the laugh test.) The premises grow more and more esoteric: She’s a hooker. He’s a stalker. She’s in a coma. He’s telepathic. She’s a mermaid. He’s a zombie. She’s pregnant. He’s the president.

But what about a telepathic stalker mermaid zombie hooker who is coma-pregnant with the next president! Cha-ching! Anyway, while it’s true that most of the external reasons relationships don’t work out in rom-coms of the past are less automatic deal-breakers today in terms of stigma or taboo — mermaids are free to date whomever they please, finally — there are still TONS of reasons people breakup or almost don’t work out these days that are ripe for rom-com mining. He’s a riot grrl; she’s a prom queen. She’s a bad artist; he’s a critic. He’s a feminist; she’s a Hooters girl. She’s a chef; he only eats kid food.

This Slate response piece takes issue with the idea that it’s only male actors avoiding rom-coms like a follow-up text after a one-night stand. Women aren’t doing them so much either, but that’s a good thing if it means that they are pursuing action roles or more interesting character parts. But it goes further:

But a point I think Orr misses is that the genuinely strong romantic comedies of the last decade or so have ventured inward for obstacles, rather than inventing ludicrous external ones. In romantic comedies as in third-wave feminism, the proliferation of choices has forced protagonists to figure out what they really want, leaving indecision, self-doubt, and even arrested development as rich fodder.
Part of what made Bridesmaids so wonderful was that Annie Walker (Kristen Wiig) wasn’t an essentially perfect woman barred by class or reputation from pursuing true love. She was a self-loathing mess grieving the loss of a relationship and her professional dream who had to fix herself before she was capable of loving someone, rather than overcoming external obstacles to be with someone she already loved. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Andy (Steve Carell) had to overcome his deep-seated terror of sex, and of growing up, to be able to form an adult emotional relationship. If romantic comedies have gotten harder to do well, maybe it’s actually not because so many barriers to finding love have fallen, but rather because modern love’s gotten more difficult, and more difficult to capture.

So are we not into seeing the realities of how modern relationships don’t work out because it’s all meh and whatever and I dunno and all that shit? Sure, maybe it takes more nuance to show “it just didn’t work” as interesting, but that’s a no less interesting premise to work with: the idea that men and women are free to be pickier than ever, opening up an entirely new gray area of antagonism between the sexes. Not so much a battle but a bicker. Love will still tear us apart, you guys, just not like it used to.

But complicated plot twists never seemed to stopped an action movie from failing terribly. Rom-coms could address the more complicated realities of the newer perils of modern love with a franker take on the ambiguity of gender roles if they wanted to, and still follow the familiar formula we’re all hungry for when we hole up for some brain candy. Like so:

Show women as love-resistant

As in Bridesmaids and also No-Strings Attached. The female protagonists had careers that were either going really well or not going at all, but rather than toss these ambitions or knotty issues aside to be totally available to a man, they held them at arm’s length while they worked on their shit.

Show women as immature and benignly fucked-up too

Imagine Knocked Up with Charlyne Yi as the prego? The aggressively grown-up woman nagging the overgrown manchild is but one hysterically unfunny way to show gender. Try flipping that script: Lots of women are bad money-savers and poor self-groomers who have no idea how shit works and have boyfriends who are literally cleaning the house while they lay on the couch smoking cigs watching Downton Abbey.

Show men as more sensitive and nuanced

The blustery macho man and the woman who hates him (at first) feels tired because it IS tired. Men are way more chilled out about masculinity these days, and the better relationship flicks show men as equal talkers and carers in a relationship (Jason Segal vehicles, Michael Cera flicks), not elusive alpha males. Could George Clooney play a high-strung sensitivo filled with self-doubt over his own appeal with a woman who was too busy perfecting her nail art to care? YES.

Show sex as modernly easy to get, but problematic to keep

Sure, premarital sex isn’t taboo anymore, but single-people-sex today in the age of hookup culture is not the giddy, carefree orgy of pleasure and freedom old marrieds always think it is. It is awkward, often boring, and sometimes just plain bad, not to mention often still more trouble than it’s worth. Have you ever tried to have a bunch of casual no-strings sex as a woman only to find out that every guy you’re sleeping with wants a relationship! That sucks! But it’s funny! Likewise, how many of us have spent months or years in great-sex relationships — sometimes even moving in! — that were never going to cut it emotionally? Comedy gold.

Show more modern relationships adrift

You know, like Blue Valentine, only funny. I thought The Five-Year Engagement was a pretty realistically funny take on what happens when two people stumble through life’s pitfalls and perks and grad schools along the way to equal career fulfillment. Sure, the big finish took longer to get to, but what happened along the way was way more interesting — a finding-yourself man beard, a brief flirtation with a psych prof, lots of pickling.

Show the humor in age-different relationships without the extreme cougarizing

An immature 40-something and a precocious 20-something might just sit around getting high making Doctor Who jokes in blissful mind-harmony. You don’t know!

Show the Sliding Doors phenomenon

Guys, I don’t know if I have told you this, but somehow, the movie Sliding Doors is the most relevant film in my life and I don’t even love it all THAT much. We have so many fuckin’ choices that sometimes when I’m really overwhelmed about it, I need to watch a well-paced film involving a modern gal, a few haircut options or a magazine job, learning about how my life could have turned out had I just missed the subway one morning or was really shitty to some guy I was best friends with in the sixth grade but who would have grown up to be MARK fucking RUFFALO. This NEVER ever gets old. See (13 Going on 30).

Show men and women as friends with benefits complications

Sometimes you meet a good dude and it doesn’t work out romantically but you end up being actual friends. But then you keep sleeping together and his new girlfriend knows this and she hates you but, let’s face it, you kind of deserve it because you won’t go away and are you using this guy or are you going to let him the fuck go so he can have an actual happy relationship out there without you showing up every time you sense he might be getting together with someone else? Just a thought.

Show the woman doing the grand gesture

Is there an entire movie shown from the perspective of the woman as the initiator, pursuer, fucker-upper, almost-loser, six-blocks-runner, winner-backer, and happy-ender of the whole relationship? Can we add Mark Ruffalo and a side plot about how her life might have been different had she just sat there looking pretty?

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