Julia Roberts' Rom-Com Hiatus And The State Of The Genre

When "Ticket To Paradise" finally opens in theaters this October, it will reunite Hollywood royalty. George Clooney and Julia Roberts will share the screen once more and in a romantic comedy, no less. As though that's not applause-worthy in its own right, the upcoming film also marks Roberts' grand return to the romantic comedy, as the leading lady we all know her to be. It's hard to believe that she's gone this long without reprising her girl-next-door persona or flashing her winning smile at an unsuspecting love interest, but it's been 20 years since Julia Roberts last took the lead of a rom-com. Talk about a shocking truth bomb! But Julia Roberts is a rom-com icon, so what's with the extended break?

Why America's sweetheart is back

Back in 1990, a wealthy businessman and a stripper with a heart of gold fell in love — the rest is history. Julia Roberts leapt into superstardom with the runaway success of "Pretty Woman" and has since been crowned one of the reigning queens of the genre for taking the lead in romantic followups like "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Notting Hill," where she steals the show with great hair and even better speeches. Her success in the genre branched off into a career that includes worldwide acclaim, an Academy Award, and so many more acclaimed performances. But surprisingly, you'd have to rewind back to 2001 for the last traditional Roberts-led romcom. Sure, she's filled roles here and there that make use of her rom-com past — like minor parts in the Garry Marshall ensemble pieces, "Valentine's Day" and "Mother's Day." She's even found onscreen love in romantic dramas like  "Eat Pray Love" and "Erin Brockovich." But all of these are a far cry from the Julia Roberts who once flashed her tear-filled eyes at Hugh Grant to deliver the "just a girl" speech. 

So what's kept her away for so long? No need for speculation. The significance of "Ticket To Paradise" isn't lost on Roberts, who has already offered an explanation for her rom-com absence. Speaking to the New York Times, Roberts said:

"People sometimes misconstrue the amount of time that's gone by that I haven't done a romantic comedy as my not wanting to do one. If I had read something that I thought was that 'Notting Hill' level of writing or 'My Best Friend's Wedding' level of madcap fun, I would do it. They didn't exist until this movie that I just did that Ol Parker wrote and directed."

In her own words, Julia Roberts stayed out of the rom-com game simply because, "There wasn't a single good script." Otherwise, she has lots of love for the genre and told the NY Times, "If I'd thought something was good enough, I would have done it." 

Parker's "Ticket To Paradise" is set to star the A-lister as one-half of a divorced couple that travels to Bali to stop their daughter's hasty wedding plans. Desperate to make sure she doesn't make the same mistake they made 25 years ago, the duo team up, and no doubt, lots of chaotic/romantic antics ensue. Coming from the writer/director behind "Imagine Me & You" and "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again," and with a script so good it apparently prompted Julia Robert's return to an entire genre, this is a promising proposition. But will it be the first great romcom in two decades? I wouldn't go that far.

The romantic comedy isn't dead — it's just had a makeover!

If swooning over romance is a hobby of yours, then Julia Roberts' assessment of the genre won't surprise you. She isn't the first to hint that the rom-com is dead — in fact, she was pretty nice about it! Most just openly declare the entire genre full-on deceased and past the point of saving. Back in Julia Roberts' heyday of romantic comedies, this genre had it all! Movie stars flocked to lead their own tale of love, studios were thrilled to back a genre that saw steady returns and audiences were eating up the familiar yet captivating recipe. Believe me, you already have this memorized: the story kicks off with a meet-cute, the romance slowly builds, there's a miscommunication/falling out and then a grand gesture saves the day, capping the movie off with a happily ever after. Every now and then we'd get a swerve — like a "My Best Friend's Wedding" to poke fun at the cliches — but for the most part, the blueprint was consistent and successful. Romantic comedies were so popular, that cracking $100 million in sales wasn't unheard of. And we all know what happens when something works — it gets run into the ground.

Tropes and cliches galore, when this genre hits, it's like magic. But with the blueprint established, along came the cheap imitations that lacked the earnest beauty of their predecessors. A scenario can only be copied so many times before the charm gets lost in the process and the wit well starts to run dry. The golden age of the 1990's and early 2000's led into the lackluster 2010's and suddenly the "Death of the Rom-Com" became common knowledge. But just because it's harder to find romantic comedies that harken back to the greats (and do it well) doesn't mean the genre as a whole has ceased to excel. It's just taking on different forms.

So here's a common argument for the rom-com being dead: "There are no romantic comedies that are up to par with the greats of the golden age! When will someone recapture the endless charm of Heath Ledger in '10 things I Hate About You' and deliver a teen story that's hilarious and subversive? Where are the slow-burn romances with the poignance and chemistry of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal?" 

Just for the record, all of this is nonsense. The great romcoms of today look completely different from the ones we remember, but that's part of what makes them so good. There are certainly romcoms that take the more traditional approach. Just this year, we got Jennifer Lopez (a great big movie star) in "Marry Me," a movie easily mistaken as a relic of the 2000s. But (forgive me, J.Lo) that movie is serviceable at best. In its attempt to recapture that long-gone magic, it's utterly okay. For greatness, you have to look elsewhere. 

Where to get your rom-com fix

When we talk about great romantic comedies of the past few years, we look in all sorts of different places. More frequently today, it's TV series, streaming services, and indie movies. With mid-budget comedies on the decline, rom-coms aren't showing up where they once did. Indies have been laying on the charm with gems like "The Big Sick" and "Obvious Child," while TV has been putting an entirely new spin on the genre. "Starstruck" is like "Notting Hill" for a new generation, following a slow-burn romance between a normal person and a famous actor. Hulu's "High Fidelity" went far beyond just gender-bending the 2000s film of the same name and used it to explore Black girl angst and millennial heartbreak through Zoe Kravitz. The newly released "Heartstopper" is quite possibly the loveliest show of the year and a dream come true for anyone craving queer love stories. It also points to another place where recent rom-coms have thrived: high school.

For a while, it seemed that Netflix had cornered the market on the entire genre, and it's partially because the streamer dove headfirst into the YA boom, targeting younger audiences with high school hallways, kissing booths, and love letters galore. "To All The Boys I've Loved Before" was a gift that kept on giving, with two sequels and renewed interest in young love stories. Netflix has also turned elsewhere for love stories, going all out when it comes to K-Dramas that include popular titles like "Crash Landing on You," "Love Alarm," and "Business Proposal." Perhaps because they don't have to please 90s major studio standards with the "mass appeal" of a straight white couple falling in love, these stories can reach farther. They've become more diverse, more experimental, and more off-kilter. 

The traditional romcoms haven't completely disappeared, of course. It isn't that long ago that "Set It Up" swept in, with its quippy, lighthearted charm and all the trappings of a 2000s workplace comedy. Plus, it offered delightful commentary on the millennial experience. This year's "The Lost City" is a bit of a by-the-numbers adventure rom-com, but with a lot more self-awareness, actively commenting on and defending its genre. And "I Want You Back" is a familiar tale of two heartbroken souls concocting a ridiculous scheme but instead falling in love with one another. 

Broaden your horizons!

If you care to look for them, there's a rom-com to suit basically every need. Did you want a workplace comedy but with a little more raunch? Try "Love and Leashes," a South Korean comedy about two co-workers who spend their downtime on BDSM. Need a whirlwind romance? Try "Catastrophe," a depraved look at grown-up romance. HBO's "Love Life" tells entire life stories through tales of failed romance. "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" is a musical masterpiece that starts as a commentary on rom-com tropes and evolves into absolute brilliance. "Our Flag Means Death" is 50% rom-com, 50% workplace comedy and 100% about pirate adventures.

Broaden your horizons, because this genre certainly has! The rom-com isn't dead, it just goes back to high school sometimes. Or wears a pirate hat. Or sings. Or it's a lot raunchier than you remember. It's refreshing! These stories look different, and it's for the better — it keeps Hollywood from getting trapped in the cycle of recreations because there's room to experiment, poke fun at the tropes, and dig into the archetypes. All the while, romantic comedies remain dreamy, swoon-worthy, cliche, and dazzling, and isn't that all that matters?