Romantic comedies have been a storytelling staple ever since Shakespeare introduced the world to Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, but the genre really found its footing in film with It Happened One Night in 1934. Frank Capra’s simple tale of a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) and an ambitious reporter (Clark Gable) was the first of only three features in history to sweep the Academy Awards in all major categories.

Clearly, a humorous spin on a romantic story resonated with audiences and the genre continued to thrive through the days of Hepburn and Monroe. However, the modern rom-com we know and love today really found its stride in 1989 with Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally. Nora Ephron, the godmother of rom-com writing, asked one simple question in her script, “Can a man and a woman just be friends?” and an entire era was born.

From ’89 to ’09, the cinemas were booming with clumsy, career-obsessed women who found a love they weren’t even looking for by simply bumping into an unsuspecting man with an alarmingly handsome face. For two whole decades, we were blessed with Hanks and Ryan, Julia Roberts and whoever, Nancy Meyers vehicles, and the firm affirmation that Christmas was the most romantic time of year.

The formula for these movies was simple, but we couldn’t get enough. They’d start with a meet-cute (perfectly explained in The Holiday), a budding romance or friendship, a falling out, and then a grand gesture that typically ended with public smoochies. Julia Roberts didn’t win over Dermot Mulroney on one occasion (My Best Friend’s Wedding), but ultimately we were dealing with a very predictable yet soothing blueprint.

The rom-com course seemed to be moving steadily through 2009, the year that brought us The Proposal, 500 Days of Summer, and It’s Complicated, but once Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds rode off into the Alaskan sunset, the genre pretty much ran dry.

The Dreaded 2010s

During the past eight years, we’ve seen a drastic decrease in romantic comedies and an even more drastic decrease in watchable ones. If you Google “Best Rom Coms 2010s” the first movie to pop up is Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day, which (sorry, Garry, we miss and love you) is rather pathetic.

Not to give too much power to Rotten Tomatoes, but a movie with an 18% rating should not be the most popular film of a once-thriving genre. Admittedly, I own Valentine’s Day because Jennifer Garner is America’s Sweetheart (side note: America’s Sweethearts is a highly underrated rom-com) and because we get a 20-second glimpse of Bradley Cooper and Eric Dane as boyfriends (more on queer representation in the genre later). Other than these two redeeming factors, the movie is messy, features a cringe-worthy acting attempt by Taylor Swift, and ultimately lacks one-half of the fundamental elements required in a romantic comedy: the comedy!

One of the best by-the-book rom-coms to have a theatrical release in recent years was Crazy, Stupid, Love. This charming, sweet, and funny movie features a killer cast (Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone) and focuses on multiple love stories during different stages of relationships without overloading the audience with 25 overly similar characters to follow (re: Valentine’s Day). I say “by-the-book” because there have been some decent films of late to feature romance and comedy, but none of them really fit the mold of the genre.

For the most part, these other movies are more rom-com adjacent. For example, Bridesmaids is a straight-up comedy that happens to have romance. Silver Linings Playbook and The Big Sick could be chalked up to rom-coms, but they featured enough drama and Oscar attention to be set apart. There’s also the beloved subgenre to consider: the teen movie. While the teen rom-com thrived during the rom-com era, the last delightfully funny teen flick was Easy A in 2010. Since then, the genre has taken a more dramatic shift, with the popular films such as Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Edge of Seventeen, Love, Simon leading the pack.

One of my favorite filmmakers of the last decade is Leslye Headland, who wrote and directed Bachelorette and Sleeping With Other People. While I’ve often referred to the latter as a “raunchy When Harry Met Sally”, even those films are more friendship-focused and layered than your average rom-com. This, of course, is a welcome change but it brings us back to the big question, “What happened?”. Did we get too cynical? Did online dating taint the whole concept of romantic love? Have we moved passed the ability to enjoy things that are simple and silly? 

Now that some time has passed, a resurgence seems to be underway and while many of us are happy to see the classic rom-com return, we need to be wary of heading in a disappointing direction: backwards.

Set It Up

Netflix recently released Set It Up, a back-to-basics rom-com starring Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell as Harper and Charlie, two overworked assistants who concoct a scheme to set up their overbearing bosses, played by Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs. As their bosses become more involved, Harper and Charlie grow closer. Naturally, neither realize their romantic feelings until a huge fight brings about a passionate realization. The home audiences went crazy for it, and that included me.

Glen and Zoey are incredibly charming and the film’s writer, Katie Silberman, deserves tons of credit for her quippy dialogue and relatable look at the millennial experience. Additionally, Claire Scanlon (who recently directed “The Box”, one of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s best episodes), did a seamless directing job while pregnant, which is pretty fucking awesome.

That being said, there was nothing especially spectacular or original about about the movie. Set It Up works because it happened to come along when people needed it most. It’s not innovative filmmaking that made it instantly popular, but rather its ability to fill a void. It had been way too long since we were able to take comfort in two people’s ability to overcome minimal obstacles in order to find love. No gloom and doom or real-world drama needed! Set It Up was the lighthearted fun we were missing. However, it’s not necessarily pushing the genre in a fresh direction.

Representation

Despite its success and whimsy, there is one major problem with Set It Up, and that is the treatment of Kristen (Lucy Liu) and Rick (Taye Diggs). Despite the fact that these characters are harsh and lack basic empathy skills, we still want them to end up together. This is a rom-com, after all. We entered this movie expecting to see a romance bloom between two people of color, but it turns into another basic straight, white love story. On one hand, sure, Rick is trash and Kristen deserves better, but it didn’t need to go down that way. Rick was only written to behave badly because we needed a catalyst for Charlie and Harper’s big fight, but there is a myriad of things they could have argued over.

Ultimately, Set It Up had the potential to begin a rom-com turning point by allowing the POCs to become the center of the romance instead of just being the bosses or best friends or wise neighbors. There is also the question of whether or not Pete Davidson, who played Charlie’s best friend Duncan, was the right choice to play a gay character. Personally, I found him hilarious and likable in the role, but many people would have understandably preferred to see an actual gay actor on screen. Of course, representation in rom-coms is not the sole responsibility of Katie Silberman and Claire Scanlon. It’s not fair to put the entire history of a genre on these two women, but as important figures in this resurgence, I wish they had done more to elevate the genre.

Yes, POC rom-coms and queer rom-coms exist, but they’re rare and tend to be set to a higher standard. If you’re a queer woman, there is no way you’ve managed to live your life without seeing Imagine Me & You, but despite its great performances by Piper Perabo and Lena Headey, it’s really not that good. Sorry, ladies, but it’s true. We love it because it’s all that we have, and that’s not completely fair. There are numerous well-made, beloved rom-coms that star the SAME TWO ACTORS. If there is enough room in Hollywood for multiple Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore vehicles, there is enough room for people of color and people within the LGBTQIA community to fall in love and be happy on screen.

Since Set It Up did not provide the turning point so many of us were hoping for, the pressure is going to fall on Crazy Rich Asians, the rom-com based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel. This is the genre’s first anticipated summer release in a long while, and I beg all fans of romance to see it ASAP. It’s no secret that Hollywood has a whitewashing problem and helping this movie triumph could be a step in the right direction. Monetary success could also lead to adaptations of the book’s sequels, something everyone will crave after seeing Crazy Rich Asians, which is beyond delightful. In addition to the incredible performances, especially by Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh and the hilarious Awkwafina, the film is a beautiful spectacle. There aren’t many rom-coms that are so visually stunning that they make you wish you could jump into the screen.

For the record, I’m not advocating to abolish white romance in film. There’s no denying my immense excitement for Destination Wedding, the upcoming Keanu Reeves/Winona Ryder flick, but romantic comedies were being pumped out on a weekly basis for two whole decades. If we’re heading that way again, and I think we are, a little diversity isn’t asking for too much.

The Future

As a lover of the genre, I’m extremely excited to see where this resurgence is headed. A person can only watch When Harry Met Sally and Love, Actually so many times before needing to mix it up. While theatrical releases are making a comeback, streaming services are likely the main course for romantic comedies.

Set It Up was a great start for Netflix, and while they seem to be taking a strong interest in the teen subgenre with movies such as The Kissing Booth and All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (another book adaptation with a diverse cast), the genre is ripe for streaming. These films don’t typically require a big budget or the need to be presented in IMAX (unless you’re dying to see a 70-foot Dermot Mulroney) and the audience is practically built-in.

As long as the filmmakers and streaming services are cognizant of the need for queer and POC stories, I believe we’re heading in a positive direction. Is that too much to ask?

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