Romantic comedies don’t win awards. Rarely are they rapturously received, and they’re an easy cinematic target for the average armchair critic. Formulaic, clichéd and predictable, much of the criticism lobbed their way is justified… but ultimately misguided.
We might all have known five minutes in that Sandra Bullock was going to hook up with Hugh Grant at the end of Two Weeks Notice and we definitely twigged that Harry was meant for Sally, but we kept watching because we wanted to be wooed too. Since their cinematic predecessor of the screwball comedy hit screens in the early 1930s, the romcom has been a reliable box office draw, providing studios with a consistently bankable genre.
But in the last four years there’s been a romcom drought: as The Daily Beast declared in 2014, the romance comedy is dead. After a steady stream throughout the nineties and noughties, Hollywood has stopped being able to crack the romcom code. Why? Because, much like the rest of us once we attempt to grow up, they started trying to be cool.
Romantic comedies aren’t cool. After all, they’re about indulging in the very thing that supposedly renders even the most badass of bad boys into big balls of schmaltzy declarations and baby talk: love. With the rise of hipster culture, internet snark and a valid desire on the part of filmmakers to do something original with the genre, romantic comedies of late have tried to distance themselves from their cheeseball past.
What If (2014), Daniel Radcliffe’s debut as a romantic lead, dealt with the traditional will-they-won’t-they trope with Radcliffe’s Wallace falling for Chandry (Zoe Kazan) who, unfortunately for Wallace, has a boyfriend. As a romantic comedy it was just a little too wry and a little too self-aware with tropes being deconstructed all over the place. Chandry and Wallace were just too realistic: they weren’t the music montage kind, suspended in their own particularly dreamy version of reality. See also 2012’s The Five Year Engagement – watching a realistic couple throughout five years of engagement just isn’t the stuff of romantic fantasy and really should be left to Richard Linklater. Hollywood was mistaken in thinking modern audiences wanted to see a romantic comedy that grappled with reality; we all have to deal with that enough in our day to day lives.
Writing for The Atlantic, Christopher Orr suggested modern society has meant romantic plots are bereft of the obstacles that would have previously plagued lovers: “Love is increasingly presumed,” he wrote, “to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status.” Though no one’s claiming we’re living in an egalitarian utopia, our increased equality does appear to leave Hollywood struggling to drive lovers apart. But that admittedly never stopped romcom drama before. It’s more that as part of a connected Western world that is more self-analytical and introspective than ever before, not only do we get past these obstacles but we are constantly actively engaged in a global, online conversation about them.
Cynicism then seems the natural response to modern romance – and cynicism in a romantic comedy is fine. Noughties romcom queen Katherine Heigl has made an art of eye-rolling her way through her many roles as a gorgeous woe-is-me spinster. But in striving to be cool and remain relevant to an increasingly clued-up world, the Hollywood romcom is caught between a rock and a hard place: trying to reflect on its own shortcomings while consistently buying into them.
Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached are two of the best of 2011’s meagre romcom crop and both deal with the same thing. Two sets of single yuppies are caught between their desire to work on their careers and their desire to satisfy their sexual appetites, and both reach the same conclusion: who needs the messiness of love and relationships when you can just have sex with your friends? Surprise surprise, both couples find themselves falling for each other in spite of themselves and the romantic comedy formula resolves itself.
As veteran romcom director James L. Brooks remarked in to Vulture in 2012, finding someone to spend your life with is “not nearly as important [now]; lives are more complicated and the fundamentals have changed”. There are only so many movies you can make about trying to fall in love in a modern, career-obsessed world. Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached might just about manage to convince but it’s not surprising two films about the same thing were released in the same year. Studios were trying to find a way to make romcoms relevant for a modern audience and instead of finding new, imaginative meet-cutes and complications for plots, they settled for simply using modern life as the complication.
The genre lines have also become blurred. Was Bridesmaids a rom-com or just a ‘com’? Was This Means War an action-rom-com? And after films like Knocked Up, Just Go With It and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, the target audience is just as unclear. 2014’s That Awkward Moment continued the trend of turning the romcom around on the guys. Zac Efron meets the girl of his dreams just after his band of merry douchebags vow to stay single after a friend’s marriage breaks down. Beginning with a decent concept, the “I don’t do relationships” trope quickly runs tired and the title was clearly working just a little too hard to win over the millennials – leaving it in its own awkward situation: dude comedy or chick flick?
Ultimately, whether you find it depressing or not, romantic comedies were never at their best when they had something to say about the world around them, or when they tried to drastically deviate from the norm. The romantic comedy is there to fulfil a specific vicarious purpose, suspending reality for audiences so they could fall in love for an hour or two. It doesn’t need to be cool, or tap into modern internet culture, or be too self-aware, just have two characters who are perfect for each other and who are driven apart by something deliciously, cruelly contrived.
After all, all you really need at the end of the day is just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.