The debate about whether romantic comedies are — or ever were — dead is an old one by now. In fact, I wrote about it five years ago.
It's a sad but true fact that genres that fall between giant big-budget tentpoles and itty-bitty indies have receded in the last 20 years or so: the adult drama, the sports movie, the live-action family movie, and yes, the romantic comedy. It's not a complete vanishing: Rom-coms continue to be made, and they continue to be recognized. 2017's The Big Sick is an example that managed both a sizable audience and an Oscar nomination (for best original screenplay).
But we certainly don't have the abundance of sunny rom-coms that we did from, say, the late '80s through the early aughts: When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, yes, but also While You Were Sleeping and Clueless and Bridget Jones' Diary. Maybe it's changes to the business, maybe it's the declining quality of scripts (does the genre have a new Nora Ephron? — of course not, nor could it ever), or maybe it's that we don't have the durable stars we did then who want to work in such a likability-driven form.
Come to think of it, maybe we've even made it nearly impossible to have those stars. To quote that piece from five years ago that's even truer now:
... We're not going to enter another "golden age" until we address the epidemic of weirdly aggressive actress-hating that seems to befall anyone who trades on straight likability. Right now, you can get away with being a sort of cool-girl likable, like Emma Stone and Mila Kunis are, and like Jennifer Lawrence is. (This is no knock on any of them; they're all immensely likable, at least to me.) But the classic romantic comedy trades on audiences not having already decided that they hate the actress, so if we're going to devote full-time journalism beats to hating Anne Hathaway (and Jennifer Aniston and Lena Dunham and Katherine Heigl and Sandra Bullock and Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts and Kate Hudson), we're going to have trouble asking audiences to embrace the kind of low-cynicism energy that good romantic comedy requires. I mean, Katharine Hepburn had haters as it was, and that was the 1930s. If she — or even Audrey Hepburn — had existed in the age of the internet, do you really think they could have remained so loved? Or, in Katharine Hepburn's case, come back from the early sense that people didn't like her?
Take note: Jennifer Lawrence is no longer neatly on the right side of this equation. Neither is Emma Stone. In fact, Lawrence recently interviewed Stone for Elle and — guess what! — it wasn't universally received as adorable.
Still, we find ourselves in the middle of what many of us hope is a rom-com resurgence. The current box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians is partly a romantic comedy, though it's not the classic meet-cute kind. It's the meet-the-parents kind. What it does have is swoon-worthy beauty, wacky friends and a makeover, all of which are classic rom-com elements.
Much of the action at the moment, though, is on Netflix, where they're cranking out what a lot of us loved in the '90s — straight-up, unapologetic, sparkly-eyed rom-coms.
Note well: this isn't to say they're all good. The runaway winner for quality is To All The Boys I've Loved Before, adapted from Jenny Han's YA romance, starring Lana Condor and Noah Centineo. It's impeccably cast (which is half the battle), it's well written and directed, and it has brought out in viewers what Alanna Bennett at BuzzFeed has cleverly — and accurately — termed "radical softness."
Set It Up, which was released in mid-June, was also chatted up favorably on social media, although it's not nearly as deeply felt or as well executed as To All The Boys. Its story of a couple of assistants trying to force a romance between their bosses was appealing mostly because it was such pure romantic comedy, such pure artifice that you rarely see anymore in service of the real center of any rom-com, which is Cute People Flirting.
The Kissing Booth, starring Joey King as a girl stuck between a possessive best friend and his possessive older brother, has its partisans. Given that its story romanticizes both violent tempers and boys fighting for control of a girl's sexuality, I am not one of those partisans. (By which I mean to say: It's very bad.)
But! The good and the bad often appear together. If Netflix is going to crank out original movies along these lines — thus dropping what once seemed to be its plan to make its reputation for original films on the back of Adam Sandler — then they won't all be successes. Theatrically released romantic comedies weren't either, which you know if you ever saw The Ugly Truth. (I hope you didn't.) What matters is staying in the game.
What's more, Netflix's first best rom-com meant a lot to another underserved audience: The one that doesn't want romantic comedies to be dominated by white casts and writers, as they were in previous "golden ages" (which is not to dismiss films that broke that pattern, like Brown Sugar and Hitch). Jenny Han wrote a lovely piece for The New York Times that was in part about how hard it was to find a production company that wanted to have her heroine, Lara Jean — who was Asian-American in the book — played by an Asian-American actress. Netflix does some things well and some things poorly, but it does seem to have an interest in wriggling into spaces where more content would be welcome (as with comedy specials and baking shows). If that — and the success of To All The Boys — brings a broader variety of love interests to the screen, then all the better. (So far, this little mini-run has entirely heterosexual couples; there's no reason that needs to be the case in the long run, and I'd bet it won't be.)
So fear not for the future of the romantic comedy — the collision in a public place where people drop their possessions, the mistaken identity, or the idea of pretending to date your obvious perfect match. Don't worry about the encouraging sidekick, the wise older person with their own rich history, or the fight that takes place in the rain. The meaningful glance, the misunderstanding, and the fancy party where the person who seemed ordinary suddenly seems extraordinary? They will all do fine. They will all persevere. The screen might get smaller, but the heart will swell, just the same.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Here's a recipe for romantic comedy. Take two people...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY...")
MICHELLE NICASTRO: (As Amanda) Sally, this is Harry Burns. Harry, this is Sally Albright.
BILLY CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) Nice to meet you.
SIMON: ...Then put up an obstacle to keep them from falling in love...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COMING TO AMERICA")
SHARI HEADLEY: (As Lisa McDowell) What about the woman you're supposed to marry?
EDDIE MURPHY: (As King Jaffe Joffer) I do not love her. Why do you think I came to America?
HEADLEY: (As Lisa McDowell) Your father told me to sow your royal oats.
SIMON: ...And emotion.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT")
CLARK GABLE: (As Peter Warne) A normal human being couldn't live under the same roof with her without going nutty. She's my idea of nothing.
WALTER CONNOLLY: (As Alexander Andrews) I asked you a simple question. Do you love her?
GABLE: (As Peter Warne) Yes.
SIMON: And voila - box office gold - that was "When Harry Met Sally...," "Coming To America" and "It Happened One Night" - all classic rom-coms. But Hollywood's love affair with love affairs has had its ups and downs ever since Clark Gable went on the road with Claudette Colbert in 1934. There were no major studio rom-coms released in 2017. But like any good love affair, love always wins. And boy, is the rom-com back with success of "Crazy Rich Asians" and Netflix's "Set It Up" and "To All The Boys I Loved Before." We wondered. We wished. We hoped. Is the rom-com back? To answer that, we call in Linda Holmes, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour and a romantic yourself. Aren't you, Linda?
LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: I really am. What a wonderful introduction and group of clips. Now I want to go watch them all.
SIMON: How do we define the rom-com?
HOLMES: I think you have your totally rom-coms like "When Harry Met Sally..." But actually "Crazy Rich Asians" has some other elements. It's also a family story. It has some drama in it. So it really does vary. And I think you have your meet-cute, which is your - they bump into each other, or they meet under strange circumstances. Then you have your terrible obstacle that keeps them apart, which can be anything from she falls in love with his brother while he's in a coma. That's "While You Were Sleeping..."
SIMON: Right. Yes...
HOLMES: ...One of my favorites.
SIMON: ...Sandra Bullock - it's a great one, too. Yeah.
HOLMES: One of my favorites - or something more kind of normal, like differences in class or in profession. Like in "You've Got Mail," she's a little bookstore owner. And he's a big bookstore owner. Then you have a bunch of banter and conversation. And then at the end, they get together. And that gets you a romantic comedy right there.
SIMON: Yeah. I'm tearing right now.
HOLMES: I know - me, too - me, too.
SIMON: And it's a genre that's helped create some of Hollywood's biggest stars - right? - I mean, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Rock Hudson. We could go on.
SIMON: Meg Ryan...
SIMON: ...Tom Hanks, for that matter.
HOLMES: Absolutely - Julia Roberts. Absolutely.
SIMON: What led to this slow slide of the rom-com?
HOLMES: I think that most genres that are aimed at adults that fall between big-budget studio blockbusters and little, tiny indies - most of those genres have taken something of a beating in the last 10 to 20 years, whether it's live-action family movies or sports movies or adult dramas. And I think romantic comedies got somewhat bound up in that. I also think it's much harder to create sweetheart actresses who are a big part of this because there's a - kind of a brutal cycle of building up and then tearing down actresses. We don't like her. She has a bad personality.
SIMON: Oh, yeah - the Anne Hathaway stuff.
HOLMES: The Anne Hathaway stuff - also Jennifer Lawrence - a variety of actresses have really kind of been ground down by those kind of phenomena. And I think it makes it a lot harder to create the next Julia Roberts, the next Meg Ryan. And you'll notice that the two female leads of "Crazy Rich Asians" and "To All The Boys I've Loved Before" are both women of color who haven't been through this cycle yet - Constance Wu and Lana Condor. And it'll be interesting to see how they progress through that cycle that's been so hard on a lot of other actresses in the past.
SIMON: There were critiques that the genre was getting tired?
HOLMES: Yes. There's such a fine line between a glut and a golden age. And I think...
HOLMES: ...If you look at the time between the late '80s and maybe the very early aughts - the time that brought you "When Harry Met Sally..." and "Sleepless In Seattle, "The Princess Bride" and movies like that - but also a lot of really forgettable romantic comedies. I think there did come to be a sort of an expectation that certain stars were just churning them out. And I think that developed during the early aughts.
SIMON: We should note. The rebirth of the genre - if that's what we're looking at right now - is headed by diverse cast, isn't it?
HOLMES: Hundred percent - and I think that one of the things you see there is Netflix, in particular, is zeroing in both on the underserved romantic comedy audience and the underserved audiences of color. So when you get that put together, a movie like "To All The Boys I've Loved Before," from the book by Jenny Han, is both a high school rom-com for people who miss those, and it's also a movie with an Asian-American cast - and which also does something that Hollywood hasn't been doing enough. So Netflix in some ways is trying to fill those spaces where studios aren't making films.
SIMON: Can I tell you what my favorite rom-com is?
HOLMES: I will be so sad if you don't.
SIMON: Yes, exactly.
HOLMES: Scott Simon.
SIMON: And it has the advantage of being kind of gender-bending to make it ultimately contemporary. Yes.
HOLMES: It is gender-bendy.
HOLMES: How do you feel about Cleveland (laughter)?
SIMON: That's what the television cameraman says when he pulls back, taking in Dustin Hoffman dressed up as Dorothy...
HOLMES: ...To make her more attractive.
SIMON: Yeah. I love that film. They meet-cute because...
SIMON: Well, actually, he meets her at a New York party, and she wants nothing to do with him. And then when they meet later, he's impersonating as a woman. And that certainly is an obstacle to romance, isn't it?
HOLMES: Couldn't be meet-cute-ier (ph) - but I think that's a great example too of a film that has other elements. It has other pieces. But then that romantic comedy thread runs through the middle of it.
SIMON: While we have you and all of your expertise in our studio, any other rom-coms that maybe aren't as familiar you want to fill us into?
HOLMES: Well, if you haven't checked out the Netflix film "Set It Up," that's a very traditional rom-com that they put out a while ago that a lot of people were super into. I really liked "Trainwreck," which came out a couple of years ago with Amy Schumer and Bill Hader which didn't get a lot of play. But I loved that movie. And I think it has some great rom-com elements...
SIMON: And LeBron James is in that film...
HOLMES: LeBron James is great in that movie.
SIMON: ...Robbed of an Oscar, by the way.
HOLMES: Robbed of an Oscar - couldn't agree more - couldn't agree more.
SIMON: But he's genuinely good in that film.
HOLMES: Oh, he's extremely funny in that film, playing himself.
HOLMES: He could go have a totally successful comedy career any time he decides that he doesn't want to make a billion, swillion (ph) dollars playing basketball anymore.
SIMON: Linda Holmes, of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, thanks so much.
HOLMES: Thanks, Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISN'T IT ROMANTIC")
ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) Isn't it romantic? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.