What Happened to Romantic Comedies?

While listening to the podcast on the Digitalisation in the Movie Industry by Emily and Pratik—which, among other things, covers the usage of CGI and the quality of modern film-making—there was one point brought up in particular that caught my attention: the disappearance of romantic comedies or the tonal shift they underwent in the recent years. I am certain that, when asked to name 3 romantic comedy movies, most of us could do so in a heartbeat:

Love, Actually. 10 Things I Hate About You. My Best Friend’s Wedding

However, naming 3 rom-coms from the past 5 years proves to be a much more difficult task. It seems as though the popularity of this classic movie genre slowly fizzled out in the 2010s, save for a sporadic new romantic comedy hitting the big screens, albeit with much less fanfare than before. I decided to take a look at potential reasons why rom-coms disappeared from the theatres for a while, as well as the shift in mood or direction that accompanies the newer releases.

Stuck in Rom-Com Purgatory

With a plethora of rom-coms coming out in the ’90s and the early ’00s, it was not uncommon to see familiar faces between one movie and another. Actors such as Matthew McConaughey, Cameron Diaz, and many more were regularly starring in romantic comedies, effectively becoming the faces of the genre. This, while building up their image, also confined their artistic repertoire to cliché love stories for large portions of their careers. A headliner of rom-coms was hardly considered an appropriate candidate for more serious projects, and for many actors, only a departure from the genre allowed them to break away from that mold.

Another limitation is that of the genre itself. Romantic comedies across the decades consistently follow a certain plotline and reach a certain conclusion—boy meets girl/girl meets boy, comedy ensues, they fall in love, the end. There is not much more to it, not that there needs to be—there are plenty other genres that are complex and thought-provoking. However, with little to no variety to this formula, rom-coms started lacking substance. Girl is overworked and does not have time for love until she meets boy, boy cannot settle down and goes through women like gloves before he meets girl, and there is always a gay best friend in there somewhere—the genre’s use of archetypes causes all the movies to blend together. While predictability is a lovable aspect of rom-coms, it can be a double-edged sword when movies get so stereotypical that they start becoming caricatures of themselves.

Focusing on the Rom, not the Com

One romantic comedy that I do recall watching in the past few years, and one that was quite successful (according to Box Office Mojo, it is the 6th highest grossing rom-com of all time), is Crazy Rich Asians, directed by Jon M. Chu and based on the 2013 book of the same name by Kevin Kwan. This 2018 movie tells the story of Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu), a Chinese NYU professor who is thrown into a completely different world when she finds out her boyfriend’s family is one of the richest in Singapore.

I bring up this movie not only to showcase that the genre can still produce well-loved releases, but also to examine the tonal shift happening within it. Admittedly, Crazy Rich Asians still plays around with classic clichés such as poor girl/rich boy, but as The Wrap puts it, “[u]ltimately, Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t need to subvert all its predictable elements, because even if we know where it’s going, we’ve never seen that story told this way”. It is refreshing in its way of retelling the age-old love tale with a touch of emotional complexity not so common for a movie of this kind, and an added cultural layer, highlighting the identity struggle Rachel went through as a Chinese immigrant.

All this to say, romance is not dead! And neither are rom-coms. The Cosmopolitan compiled a list of rom-coms coming out this year and we can see each title comes with some little twist—a hostage situation in Shotgun Wedding, a possible polyamorous relationship in Somebody I Used to Know, or a healing journey through grief in Love Again. Directors are trying to make romantic comedies attention-grabbing, and as a rom-com fan, I cannot wait for this new wave!

Do you enjoy rom-coms? What do you like about them, and what do they lack, in your opinion?