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Christina Animashaun/Vox; IMDB

Why romantic comedies matter

Vox’s Culture team examines the past, present, and hopeful future of the rom-com.

Until very recently, it felt like romantic comedies — at least the big-budget Hollywood kind — finally might have died. The culprits blamed for the genre’s decline ranged from the death of mid-budget movies to the genre’s reputation for being “unserious” to, uh, Katherine Heigl.

But this summer, it’s come roaring back, specifically thanks to three movies that made waves with audiences: the big-screen hit Crazy Rich Asians, and the Netflix sensations Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. All three hew to romantic comedy conventions but with a twist, and suddenly it feels like rom-coms may be back after all.

Vox’s culture writers love a good romantic comedy. So to celebrate the burgeoning rom-com renaissance, we sat down to discuss the limits and possibilities of the genre, the hang-ups that hold it back, how rom-coms can be more inclusive, and what (and who) we’d like to see in rom-coms in the future.

Ingredients for a great rom-com: time-honored tropes, charismatic leads, and a lot of joy

Alissa Wilkinson: Some of the most beloved films of all time are rom-coms, but the label is often used as shorthand for “unimportant,” “fluffy,” and “inconsequential.” There are a few reasons for that, one of which is that rom-coms are seen as geared toward a female audience, and films for women have often been considered less important or less substantial than “prestige” films. Couple that with the lasting sense, in some quarters, that comedies just aren’t as worthy of serious consideration as dramas and you end up with rom-coms being sidelined.

Yet I believe, and I think you all do too, that there’s a lot of value to rom-coms, and a reason they endure as one of the oldest and most beloved forms of storytelling. What, in your view, do rom-coms do well? What makes them have so much staying power?

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail.
Warner Bros.

Constance Grady: I think any defense of rom-coms has to begin with the idea that it can be enjoyable and worthwhile to watch two attractive people trade banter, face complications, and eventually fall in love, and there is nothing wrong with that. That basic plot template is not inherently less valuable than the one about the sad, mean man who is really good at something and so has no excuse but to be terrible to the people around him, or the one about the people who fight in a war and are very brave. The fact that we treat rom-coms as frothy nonsense for dumb people stems from the fact that romantic comedies are generally marketed to women, whom our culture does not like — not from the genre’s inherent value.

At their very best, romantic comedies are sheer joy. They are about forging human connections and people changing each other for the better — all of which is complex stuff that is worthy of sustained aesthetic attention — and they approach their subject matter with glee.

I was reminded of that fact when watching Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, two of the best rom-coms of the summer and the result of Netflix’s decision to try to fill the long-ignored rom-com market niche. Romantic comedies are about happiness! It’s a joyous experience to watch Set It Up’s Charlie and Harper accidentally fall into a slow dance and then painstakingly drag a pizza up a New York fire escape. It’s a joyous experience to watch To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’s Peter Kazinsky bashfully splash water at Lara Jean because he can’t quite bring himself to tell her he likes her.

This is a genre that’s about delivering joy to the audience, and what is wrong with that?

Genevieve Koski: It’s also a genre whose success is heavily dependent on charisma, which is the sort of cinematic juju that’s tough both to define and to replicate. Note, charisma is not the same thing as chemistry — I’d argue that a lot of the most successful rom-coms of the past 30 years or so feature leads with chemistry that’s lukewarm at best. But at least one half of your romantic duo, and ideally both halves, need to possess that tricky balance of relatable and aspirational qualities that makes it possible to engage with and care about characters whose narratives are usually, but not always, defined by contrivance. (See: the notorious “meet-cute.”)

Rom-com nonbelievers love to roll their eyes at this kind of narrative, characterizing it as cheesy or clichéd while willfully ignoring the fact that this type of storytelling has been around since the days of Shakespeare’s comedies. But with the right character(s), played by the right actor(s), those contrivances become a path to the sort of joyful human connection Constance is talking about. You need to care about the characters; even if you don’t necessarily like them, you need to be invested in them, and by extension their journey. And while that starts on the page, with the writing, it’s ultimately dependent on the people who bring those characters to life onscreen.

Alicia Silverstone in clueless
Ugh, as if!
Paramount Pictures

So when we talk about the rom-com drought (and possible resurgence), for me one of the biggest issues at the heart of the trend is, as Vox’s own Todd VanDerWerff put it, many actresses’ reticence to do rom-coms. This is all tied up with a lot of other issues facing the genre, like the perceived lack of prestige that you note, Alissa — and which I definitely want to come back to, since some of the most beloved and respected films of the 1940s and ’50s are rom-coms, directed by legendary directors and featuring some of the biggest movie stars in history!

Somewhere along the way, they took on negative (and, yes, gendered) baggage, thus limiting the pool of actors who are both capable of and willing to bring life to this kind of story. The fact that this baggage has denied us the Rachel McAdams-led rom-com wave we all need and deserve is a grievous wrong that must be righted.

Aja Romano: I think another significant factor in the denigration of the rom-com is that they are built so heavily on tropes; their predictability is a huge part of their appeal, but like every other genre that relies heavily on genre tropes, the rom-com has been treated contemptuously by “serious” creators and authors for decades.

The mainstreaming of geek culture has gradually granted legitimacy to all the other heavily trope-based genres — comics, fantasy, sci-fi, video game narratives, horror — because they appealed to men, and male nerds have been ascendant. Yet trope-heavy genres dominated by women, which are mainly rom-com, erotic romance, and young adult at this point, have continued to struggle to gain any kind of cultural legitimacy.

I think it’s significant that a lot of the most critically successful recent films in this vein (Silver Linings Playbook, Young Adult, Lady Bird, Eighth Grade) generally attempt to layer a rom-com structure onto another kind of narrative — the teen comedy or the family dramedy. It suggests to me that Hollywood is most interested in giving these tropes attention when they’re approached ironically or at angles.

That makes the recent immediate success of Netflix’s rom-coms, as well as Crazy Rich Asians, an ebullient reminder that the audience for these tropes is mighty and vocal, and they know what they want and are very interested in owning it, being positive about it, and having it delivered unto them. I see Jupiter Ascending as a significant precursor here: Female fans lost their minds over that movie precisely because it was so open and unabashed about embracing its romance tropes and catering to viewers’ desire for self-indulgent id-fantasy — which, of course, was the very same reason it was critically trashed.

This also plays into the huge dominance of fanfiction culture’s sincere embrace of tropes, where fans are very upfront about wanting endless repetitions of coffee-shop meet-cutes and high school teen romances and office rom-coms, and there’s no high/low cultural divide, or any shame attached to loving these tropes. There’s a huge overlap between these transformative fans and the audiences turning out in droves for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Crazy Rich Asians, and that is, I hope, a sign that the female-dominated side of geek culture is finally starting to make inroads toward the cultural mainstream, and that its desire for these kinds of stories is starting to become more widely understood and accepted.

Todd VanDerWerff: Allow me to say a few words in favor of my beloved television, where the romantic comedy has migrated in these recent years of trial. You’re the Worst has had its rough patches, but whenever it turns its eyes toward being a straightforward rom-com with an acerbic point of view, it’s aces. Similarly, Jane the Virgin has had, like, 17 different rom-coms stuffed into its candy-colored confines, and that’s only a slight exaggeration. And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend deconstructs rom-com tropes better than almost anybody else.

You’re the Worst
You’re the Worst is one of TV’s most acerbic — and funniest — comedies.
FX

But there’s also something to the idea that the best format for a romantic comedy is a movie, because you get to have the happy ending climax of the lovers walking blissfully into the sunset without any of the complications that follow, which TV inevitably has to get into. You also get to see attractive people enacting those tropes, which gives film a boost over novels in this regard. (At least for me. I’ll take the controversial stance of saying that I like pretty people.)

I wouldn’t say that the rom-com completely disappeared in the past 10 years, so much as its many tropes got submerged into different movies. Judd Apatow’s entire oeuvre is based on transplanting rom-com tropes into movies aimed more explicitly at the guy-heavy raunch-com audience. (I like a lot of his films too! I’ll even stan for Funny People, which I realize isn’t his most popular title.)

And a lot of the very perfunctory romantic subplots in superhero movies feel ripped directly from the rom-com playbook. Like, it’s really easy to imagine a version of Iron Man that’s just Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow falling in love, with him occasionally flying off to fight evil. That’s how much fun it is to watch them banter.

But I look at rom-coms and see something similar to what happened to horror, where the genre got laden down with a bunch of relatively unpleasant movies in the mid-2000s, which turned off a more general audience, and it went into hiding. But where horror has experienced a resurgence, thanks to the rise of a whole new indie horror aesthetic and the relentless work of horror super-producer Jason Blum, rom-coms are still searching for their next big launchpad. My hope is that the rom-coms of summer 2018 are that launchpad, but I’ve been burned before.

My question has always been why some Jason Blum wannabe doesn’t just make a deal with a studio to make a bunch of cheap ($5 million and under) romantic comedies, just as Blum did with Universal and horror. But my fear is that for a variety of reasons — including the genre’s perceived appeal only to women, and the fact that its dependence on strong actors means studios have to pay those actors more, which adds up quickly — this is unlikely to happen.

That leaves Netflix. And while I love some of its movies, a lot of its rom-coms are kind of reprehensible. And a bad rom-com too often isn’t just a bad movie; it’s also propping up some pretty toxic worldviews. So I want to believe in Netflix as a savior, but I have my doubts.

Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch star as two put-upon assistants in Set It Up
Will Netflix save the romantic comedy with films like Set It Up?
Netflix

Can rom-coms become more inclusive?

Alissa: What we’ve been saying, in many ways, is that what makes a rom-com great has a lot to do with who is in it and how it uses (and sometimes messes with) the tropes of the genre, many of which have been around for centuries. The rom-com is surprisingly durable, and as Genevieve pointed out, some of the most respected films of the 1940s and ’50s are rom-coms — it’s just that they’ve attained such canonical status that people talk about them as “classics,” not “rom-coms.” (As if “classic” can be a genre anyhow, but I digress.)

That does lead us down an interesting path, though: If the story and the stars are a lot of what makes great rom-coms work, and Hollywood is feinting toward more inclusive casting and storytelling, how will rom-coms evolve going forward? The rom-coms marketed at the “mainstream” audience have often starred white actors portraying straight characters. Is that going to change? And are there films, maybe some that have flown under the radar for some moviegoers, that have already challenged those rom-com conventions?

Constance: For my money, part of what makes this year’s rom-com revival so exciting — and what gives me hope that it will have some sort of enduring effect on the industry — is the kind of stars it’s making.

We’ve talked a little already about how vital the charisma of a star is to making a rom-com work, but the reverse is true as well. The rom-com and its stars are in a symbiotic relationship: The right stars will make a romantic comedy sing, and the right romantic comedy can jump-start its stars’ careers. Because when you watch a really good romantic comedy, you fall a little bit in love with the actors involved. You want them to succeed. You might even be willing to go to a different movie just to see them again.

Landing the leading role in a good romantic comedy can transform a working actor into a household name. And right now, the stars that the rom-com revival is making aren’t just white people.

One of the biggest narratives of the summer has been that with movies like To All the Boys and Crazy Rich Asians, Hollywood is finally letting Asian people fall in love. It’s hard to say for sure if this is a blip or a genuine sea change (way back when The Joy Luck Club came out in 1993, the narrative was that Hollywood was finally telling stories about Asian people, and then no one made another Asian ensemble film for 25 years), but while this moment lasts, it’s putting incredibly talented and previously overlooked actors into the spotlight.

Constance Wu has been killing it on Fresh Off the Boat for five seasons, but after Crazy Rich Asians, now she’s a movie star. Lana Condor has spent years languishing in action movies, not even daring to hope that she could get placed in a romantic comedy, and now she’s the face of one of the buzziest hits on Netflix.

For as long as Hollywood continues to make romantic comedies that center on marginalized people — and there’s no way of knowing for sure how long that moment will last — it’s going to keep giving actors from marginalized communities the chance to make audiences fall completely in love with them. And that means there’s a shot that they’ll become genuine stars.

Aja: I think, too, that we’re seeing a renewed awareness that you don’t necessarily have to subvert rom-com tropes to create fun and enjoyable stories that people respond to — you can just have fun retelling them again and again, because so much of the validation does come from watching charismatic actors carry the storyline.

And that makes the rom-com a really fruitful space, I think, for marginalized communities of actors and creators who’ve traditionally been barred from telling stories like these, because now there’s nothing stopping anyone from remaking It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby with a whole new ensemble. There’s every indication that the audience will be there — for instance, look how successful K-dramas, with their shameless embrace of rom-com tropes and their tendency to retell well-known storylines, have been, both overseas and in the US.

Kazan and Nanjiani in The Big Sick
Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani starred in The Big Sick in 2017.
Amazon Studios

I also want to mention Love, Simon and perhaps even Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name here, because while those latter two aren’t rom-coms, and Love, Simon might be arguably more of a teen comedy than a rom-com, they collectively indicate an emerging positive space for queer romance. It pains me endlessly to realize that the last queer rom-com I can remember making a mainstream splash is 2005’s Imagine Me & You — which is also one of the few really pure, trope-a-licious queer rom-coms.

That film capped a decade starting in the mid-’90s when indie queer rom-coms (Jeffrey, Trick, The Opposite of Sex, But I’m a Cheerleader, Big Eden, Touch of Pink, the long-rumored original cut of Bend It Like Beckham the world deserved, sigh) were pretty easy to find but often deeply flawed, tinged with understandable sadness and sociopolitical edge, and more than a little weird. We are overdue for a queer romance renaissance in which the gays just get to have fun and fall in love without having to undergo a social reckoning.

That’s a huge part of why Love, Simon is so important — and I’m hopeful the love and support queer romances have been getting lately will open the field for more mainstreamed queer and genderqueer rom-coms that allow queer people to participate in universal love stories. In other words, I want to see queer and genderqueer remakes of His Girl Friday and The Women, let’s do this, Hollywood!

Todd: It’s also exciting because this is really one of the first times in Hollywood history where you can just make a rom-com around LGBTQ themes, aimed at a large audience, that doesn’t need to be explicitly about the larger experience of being LGBTQ.

Even 10 years ago, there was at least a minor expectation that these stories needed to be filtered through a cis/hetero lens, and they always contained a certain element of, like, “being gay, explained.” There’s less of that now. A movie like Love, Simon can just exist, can just be thoroughly adequate. That’s revolutionary in its own way, but we’re rapidly approaching a point where it won’t feel revolutionary, which is even more impressive.

Love, Simon
Love, Simon garnered mixed reviews, but that’s part of why it’s important.
20th Century Fox

But I think the larger point I’m nodding toward here is cultural specificity. There’s far less need to indulge in explaining things to the audience over and over again, out of fear that not everybody will “get it.” The mahjong scene in Crazy Rich Asians simply flies by, trusting you to get the emotional impact of what happens even if you can’t explain all the machinations within the game itself. It works because we’ve all freaked out about pleasing the parents of someone we really care about.

Similarly, The Big Sick trades on a conflict rooted in incredible cultural specificity — the main character’s desire to choose his romantic partner, rather than his parents getting a say in the process — that broadens out to a more universal consideration of the way family can make it harder to fall in love.

This means a lot of the old rom-com tropes feel ripe for exploration again. And thus, I hope more actors try their hand at the genre. Which performers would you like to see appear in a romantic comedy? I’d love Michael B. Jordan to get a shot at one after seeing the romantic scenes in Creed. I suspect we’d all fall in love with him.

Genevieve: I’m going to table that question for just a moment, Todd, because this is probably a good place to acknowledge that the past 20 years or so have seen their fair share of black romantic comedies, very few of which have been able to break out of that unfortunately niche distinction but have collectively established a roster of black actors with a proven history of carrying a rom-com.

Taye Diggs, Gabrielle Union, Sanaa Lathan, and Queen Latifah have all had multiple go-rounds in a subgenre that has produced a handful of “surprise” box office successes in the past decade or so, some of which trade in exactly the sort of cultural specificity Todd is describing.

I’m thinking of 2011’s Jumping the Broom, which “overperformed” in its debut and went on make back five times its production budget; 2012’s Think Like a Man, a cameo-festooned adaptation of a Steve Harvey book that took in $33 million its opening weekend — that’s right around what Crazy Rich Asians pulled in — and produced a 2014 sequel that opened nearly as big; and 2013’s The Best Man Holiday, a sequel to Malcolm Lee’s beloved 1999 film The Best Man, whose $30 million-plus opening weekend debut “trounced all expectations.”

The box office performance of The Best Man Holiday in particular started a dialogue about the assumptions around these films that lead to these “surprise” big openings, assumptions that combine misconceptions about the rom-com with misconceptions about black films: that mainstream audiences don’t show up to black films, and that, as one studio executive told Brown Sugar screenwriter Michael Elliot, “Love does not really resonate with black people. Comedy does.”

Think Like a Man was a big box-office hit in 2012.
Think Like a Man was a big box office hit in 2012.
Screen Gems

What exactly am I getting at here? I’m honestly not entirely sure, and I don’t want to suggest I’m some sort of expert on black romantic comedies — I’ll guiltily admit that I haven’t seen most of the films I just mentioned, though I am quite aware of how they are often misperceived by the industry, and of how my ignorance of them contributes to those misperceptions.

But I think if we’re talking about the broad assumptions surrounding romantic comedies, and if we’re talking about more inclusive storytelling, and if we’re talking about bankable romantic leads who aren’t white, and if we’re talking about whether romantic comedies can succeed at the box office, we can’t not talk about the lack of consideration that’s been afforded to black romantic comedies over the years by the broader film community.

When Vulture published its 2015 list of the best rom-coms since When Harry Met Sally, a list that included no films with black or LGBTQ leads, it did so with the admission of its own “blind spots,” conceding in its intro that “there are movies this list needs.”

All that said, there has not been, to my knowledge, a financially successful black rom-com film since 2014’s Think Like a Man Too, which came out almost five years ago at this point. (Diggs co-stars in Set It Up, but he’s more of a romantic antagonist there, and I don’t think anyone would dare categorize it as a black rom-com.) If we are indeed in the midst of a rom-com renaissance, I hope those looking to revive the genre remember the legacy-within-a-legacy of the black rom-com, if for nothing else than to help correct what might be the mainstream rom-com’s biggest, most shameful blind spot.

Anyway, please cast GuGu Mbatha-Raw, of Beyond the Lights and Black Mirror’s “San Junipero,” in a romantic comedy, thank you.

How we’d set up future rom-coms for success

Alissa: Speaking of dictums aimed at Hollywood! Suppose a studio executive approaches you at a cocktail party and says that they think the rom-com is about to have a resurgence, and wants your best piece of advice for making a great one.

What do you say?

Constance: I’m going to take my inspiration from To All the Boys and get really earnest here: I think the most important thing for a romantic comedy to have is emotional honesty.

Part of what killed the romantic comedy in the mid-’00s was that the biggest studio rom-coms, your How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or your Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, were getting increasingly slick and smarmy and cynical. They followed the formula of a rom-com on a surface level — aspirational jobs, fancy clothes, beautiful people — but they were made with a palpable contempt for both their characters and the people who enjoy watching romantic comedies. These movies didn’t care about their characters or why they should fall in love; they were just putting them through the motions. And watching them didn’t feel escapist and joyous and fun. It felt gross and slimy.

That’s part of why it’s felt so refreshing and exciting that this year’s best romantic comedies are suffused with sincere affection for the genre and for their characters. It’s because we can feel that these movies love their characters that we’re able to fall in love with them too, and that love is something that can’t be faked. It has to come from a place of honest respect and affection.

Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians loves its characters, so we do too.
Warner Bros.

Todd: I would double up on Constance’s suggestion: Sincerity is key. If you don’t believe in the love story, then there’s no good reason to tell it.

But I would also encourage this imaginary exec to continue exploring the ways that falling in love can feel universal, even when rooted in very specific experiences. A film I didn’t talk about earlier was Azazel Jacobs’s The Lovers, which is maybe a little too dark to be a classic rom-com but definitely has the trappings of one. What I liked about that movie was how it rooted its rom-com shenanigans in the very specific milieu of a long-lasting marriage, between two people exiting middle age for their elderly years who are just pretty sick of each other. It gave what could have been a tired story an extra boost of dramatic stakes, and that was all it took.

But really, so long as Matthew McConaughey is nowhere near this rom-com renaissance, we’re doing something right. Sorry, Matthew. Love your smarm, but not in this genre.

Aja: My suggestion is probably why I don’t wind up getting invited to many cocktail parties: I’d tell them to read more fanfic. Because in fanfiction, especially queer fanfiction, writers tend to simultaneously embrace and explode rom-com tropes. They do that by treating them extremely seriously and with that much-coveted sincerity, but also by centering them within very self-aware lived experiences, making conscious choices about how to either subvert the tropes they’re working with or reframe social issues in order to shamelessly leverage those tropes to create even more shameless fantasy.

Fanfiction is all about cultivating a fantasy version of reality where challenging romances can thrive, but fanfiction also never lets us forget that its creators are driven to build that fantasy version of reality because the real one sucks. I’m reminded of the 2009 sci-fi romance Timer, which is explicitly about that fantasy/reality divide. It’s not a happy movie, but it inadvertently created a massively popular recent fanfiction trope, because people who write romances have increasingly used the genre and its tropes to thwart socially imposed norms that tell us what love should be and look like.

I believe the way to keep this genre resurgence going is to keep writing it within that framework — by embracing romantic fantasy as a powerful palliative and social remedy. Tension between fantasy and reality makes romance stories more passionate, and the more people we have telling these stories, the more diverse and fascinating real-world experiences we can draw on as we create new fantasies for everyone to enjoy.

Genevieve: I’m going to second all of this, but conclude with some cold pragmatism that might seem to undermine what we’ve been talking about. Just bear with me, because studio execs in particular need to hear this: Please don’t think of rom-coms as potential blockbusters.

So much of Hollywood’s modern movie model is built on the quest for big openings and big international box office tallies, and those are not expectations that this genre is in a position to meet. The latter is particularly tough for a genre built on two things — comedy and romance tropes — that don’t easily translate between cultures (give or take the occasional cross-cultural property like Crazy Rich Asians).

I worry that a studio exec who’s deeply internalized this model might hear the words “rom-com resurgence” and be tempted to throw millions at these movies, paying through the nose for bankable international stars and big-name directors with the expectation of a return on investment that is unlikely to happen.

As previously mentioned by Todd, the recent indie/Blumhouse horror revival is the model to follow here: Think small but distinctive, cheap but memorable. Invest in lesser-known talents with a passion for the genre who are eager to bring something new to it while respecting its roots. At the very least, you’re likely to get a good return on investment; if you play your cards right, you might even get some prestige shine in the deal.

The rom-com could and should be a strong part of a studio’s portfolio, but overinvesting in a genre that tends toward the small and the intimate by design is a recipe for a resurgence that’s DOA. As I think we’ve proven with this discussion, there’s plenty of enthusiasm out there for the genre; if Hollywood wants to capture that enthusiasm, it needs to let the rom-com succeed on its own terms.

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