The Romantic Comedy As An Endangered Species: How Can The Romcom Genre Be Saved?


Fans and former fans of romantic comedies know damn well that Hollywood doesn’t make them like they used to. Whereas the genre used to be flush with idealistic offerings, back when the careers of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts were riding high, the current supply hitting theaters has slowed to a trickle. How did this happen, and can anything be done to stop the downward slide?

Two UPROXX writers, Alyssa Fikse and Kimberly Ricci, debate the current state of the genre and whether it’s worth saving. Alyssa enters the discussion as a diehard romantic comedy fan who holds out hope for a return to form, whereas Kimberly would be perfectly fine fossilizing the genre as it stood back during the glorious 1990s, as a golden age for the genre, if you will. The following discussion searches for a knight dame in shining armor, which might be found in the most unlikely of places.

Kimberly: Romcoms are having a do-or-die moment, and I can’t help but sort-of blame the dearth of willing talent. Ever since Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn — wow, he’s the closest thing we had to a male rom-com lead for a few years — stopped doing them, things have been dire, and directors aren’t lining up either. Even Judd Apatow, who was cranking those puppies out, has lost interest. And studios seem fine with this. They’re thrilled to mostly make bazillion-dollar ensemble superhero movies or low-budget horror films, with precious little in between. Is there still room in people’s hearts for romcoms?

Alyssa: Yikes, is Vince Vaughn really our best option? Can’t we claim, like, Mark Ruffalo or Ryan Reynolds? Cusack? I am, admittedly, a pretty shameless romantic comedy fan, but even I can recognize the problems in the genre. However, I really think that we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater in this situation.

Kimberly: Ryan Reynolds … you got me there, and Fluffalo as well. I think part of the perception, though, is that brotastic romcoms kinda took over in terms of major box-office success. Jon Favreau and Judd Apatow created projects that dudes didn’t mind watching with their dates. So yeah, Vaughn and Seth Rogen were romcom kings, as weird as that sounds. We have to face that reality.

Alyssa: I like Seth Rogen, so I can accept that. I’m not quite sure what happened between Nora Ephron and whoever wrote something like Failure To Launch, but it’s safe to say that people got lazy. What once was charming and fun became formulaic and painful. There have been a few here and there that are fun and hearken back to an earlier era, but going back and rewatching most of what came out in the aughts is a practice in disappointment.

Still, at the same time, I always come back to this argument: there have been countless terrible action films made in that period, and they still keep making them. I don’t want to immediately throw out the “Hollywood doesn’t want to make movies that most appeal to women” argument, but why not? I’m throwing it out there. While there are plenty of women who enjoy an action film and men that enjoy romcoms, that outdated binary still exists.

Kimberly: Is the binary outdated, or are our expectations too high? I mean, the laziness on Failure To Launch was palpable, like someone figured that tossing Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey into a film would be good enough, no matter the script. And the Apatow trend led to studios shoveling several heaping servings of Katherine Heigl in the most formulaic stories possible. Moviegoers stopped paying for those tickets, but they’ll still show up to watch Liam Neeson in whatever formulaic action movie he’s doing. So maybe the problem is that audiences don’t care either. That’s disappointing … kind of?

Look, the last time I fell in love with a mainstream romcom was 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. And if I need to scratch that itch, there are indies to stream, and I can curl up with a box of wine, rather than buy a ticket and sit through several formulaic trailers. What I’m saying is that I’d be okay with burying the romcom as it exists now. Otherwise, things need to change because studios aren’t focusing on making female viewers happy unless they’re rebooting something like Oceans, which simply refashions male content through a female lens.

Miramax Films

Alyssa: Bridget Jones’s Diary is truly one of the greats, and while Bridget Jones: Edge Of Reason is heinous, I genuinely did enjoy Bridget Jones’s Baby. Not as much as the original, obviously, but it was a fun way to spend a couple of hours. But you may be right. People seemingly aren’t paying for tickets for smaller budget films like that, usually. Tickets cost an arm and a leg, so I guess people tend to save that for spectacle films.

At the same time, I think that there is still a space for these movies. Netflix is having a romcom moment with The Kissing Booth (an objectively terrible movie) and Set It Up (a genuinely charming throwback) being huge successes. I saw Book Club (shut up, don’t judge me) in a theater packed with swooning and cackling women. I’m telling you, you could pinpoint the exact moment when every woman in attendance fell in love with Andy Garcia. If these films are finding success, wouldn’t that indicate that people are looking for a little romance again?

Kimberly: Well, I would hope that folks want a little romance, or love might truly be dead! However, and I’m not trying to sound ageist here, but the target audience of Book Club was definitely a mature one. Maybe this is symptomatic of the genre’s (perhaps unconscious) theater-borne attitude toward the future. They’re not courting the young adults or teens.

Netflix seems to get it with The Kissing Booth, but studios are basically ignoring the incoming generation for romance-related purposes. There’s no Sixteen Candles or Pretty In Pink to be found in theaters these days, so teens may not grow up with the same romcom nostalgia as we have. If big studios want to make a move, now would be the time.

Alyssa: It’s true, there hasn’t been a definitive teen movie since maybe Mean Girls, but this year did bring us Love, Simon, which was very cute and a genuine hit. It was romantic and funny, and because of the diverse cast and queer protagonist, it was a bit more reflective of the real world instead of the very white, very straight world of romcoms before. It is certainly a step in the right direction.

I think there is something to salvage in the romantic comedy, because there is value in the fantasy. If the Rock can fight a skyscraper or a giant gorilla and whatever the hell else and keep perpetuating this fantasy of the Ultimate Man, I don’t want to hear that romantic comedies are too ridiculous or unrealistic to be appealing. Things that are generally perceived as feminine are quite frequently dumped on as stupid and worthy of ridicule, and frankly, I’m over it.

Universal Pictures

Kimberly: I’m with you on hoping for the best but still jaded. Part of me also wonders whether The Rock’s continued success, even with the most ridiculous movies, is more about his charisma than the genre at hand. So he might not be the best example here, unless he’s planning on doing a romcom soon, which — come on — could be fantastic.

Seriously though, The Rock’s action movies are feeding escapism, and there’s precious little of that to be found in real-life romance now. Tinder and other online apps are making romantic foibles all too accessible in real life. Maybe, as a result, folks no longer find comfort in romantic disasters at the movie theater, when real life is even more disastrous? Please convince me otherwise, I do want to believe … and maybe The Rock can save us all?

Alyssa: Oh my god, now I wish that the upcoming action flick starring The Rock and Gal Gadot was a romcom. That would be almost TOO MUCH CHARM.

Kimberly: Goddamn, that’s true, maybe it would be overkill, and using The Rock to prop up romcoms could backfire. He obviously has a killer smile that can impregnate at will, but I think the delivery could be, well, off. (All apologies to The Rock, but you can’t be perfect at everything, pal.)

Alyssa: And, as someone who is trying to navigate the horrors of dating apps, sometimes it’s nice to watch two people meet and make it work outside of an app. While romcoms certainly don’t reflect reality, watching Mark Darcy tell Bridget Jones that he likes her just the way she is can be a bit of a balm.

Kimberly: That part of the movie still gets me, every time. As does him wrapping her up in his trench coat at the end. *Sighhhh*

Alyssa: Nice boys DO kiss like that! I die. And as I mentioned above, Set It Up on Netflix really felt like a throwback to ‘90s romcoms in the best way. Zoey Deutch was cute as hell and has the makings of being America’s Sweetheart if that ever becomes a thing again, and Glen Powell has already mastered the Romantic Comedy Look. He gazed at her with such conviction! I was into it!

However, it also felt modern in the way that it handled gender dynamics and careers. Harper’s (Deutch) career was given as much or more importance than her love life, and while Lucy Liu’s power bitch boss was initially set up to seem like the overbearing career woman of romcom yore, her ambition and acumen was praised and she eventually become a mentor figure. Progress! I am not saying that this movie fixed everything wrong with the genre, but it certainly showed that the tried and true formula can work with some updates.

Set It Up still via Netflix

Kimberly: As if by magic (not really, considering the success of Kissing Booth), Netflix will soon unleash a summertime romcom, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, which is geared toward the teen crowd. As with Kissing Booth, we might not receive a progressive romcom, per se, but maybe it’s better than nothing? I might be giving Netflix too much credit (this is the same streaming service that’s paying an ungodly amount for Adam Sandler projects), but perhaps the game plan is to reel in a new romcom audience, and then, perhaps, quality may follow as more filmmakers invest in the genre again? It’s possible.

Alyssa: I’m hopeful! Sitting on your cozy couch is probably the ideal way to watch a romcom, but I really do think there is an audience there for a theatrical return if the creators actually give a damn. I love a superhero movie as much as the next person, but I’m just as willing to see Chris Evans as a cute neighbor as I am as Captain America. I think that life is hard, and sometimes it’s nice to spend a couple of hours where things are breezy and “problems” are solved with hijinks. I don’t think that I’m alone in that desire.

That being said, as modern sensibilities have shifted, some of the more problematic elements of romantic comedies aren’t going to fly anymore. Like, as delightful as I find the Sandra Bullock/Bill Pullman dynamic in While You Were Sleeping, that movie is problematic as hell. I think the genre will have to grapple with these kinds of changes, but in the right hands, it could still work. I mean, let women write and direct these films. They understand the female gaze better anyway. Do you think romcoms could adapt to the #MeToo era?

Kimberly: Even in the #MeToo era, I remain cynical that studios will trust female filmmakers enough in non-guaranteed hits like the romantic comedy to give these films a chance to adapt. Whereas typical “male” genres like action can keep on failing, as mentioned above.

First, yes, women should absolutely land in the director’s seat, even if the movies are Netflix-based, and if the streaming numbers stay consistent, then studios might bring the romcom back to theaters. That’s a roundabout and uphill battle, but women have faced far more difficult struggles. Bringing back our own kind of escapism would be worth the battle.