Recently, Vulture writer Claude Brodesser-Akner wrote an article posing a terrifying question: “Can the Romantic Comedy Be Saved?” First, who knew the romantic comedy was in peril, and second, why does he spend fifty percent of his article questioning studio executives? In this day and age studio execs are mostly business school graduates, not Creatives who understand the subtle nuance of the Rom-Com Genre. He could have asked a bona fide Romantic Comedy Expert. What makes someone a Romantic Comedy Expert, as opposed to, say, a fan of romantic comedies? I will tell you. An expert never uses the term “chick flick,” as it disparages the genre and is derogatory. She has seen 27 Dresses no fewer than 27 times because it feels like her duty to watch it every time it comes on TBS (and because, James Marsden…duh). An expert hates Hugh Grant and Gerard Butler but loves Colin Firth and believes Tom Hanks is some type of deity. She adores Sleepless in Seattle, tolerates Pretty Woman and knows Larry Crowne is indefensible. So I offer you an expert response to how we as a country can come together and save romantic comedies.
R.I.P. Nora Ephron
Brodesser-Akner cites failing box office numbers and diminishing audiences for the reason why romantic comedies are in peril. The studio executives spend quite a bit of time blaming you, the audience, as well as unwilling actresses. But to get to the heart of what is really wrong with the modern day romantic comedy, we need to go to the late 1980s/early 1990s — The Golden Age of Rom-Com — and look at the Queen of the genre, the late Nora Ephron.
Nora Ephron is to the romantic comedy as John Hughes is to coming-of-age movies. Invariably, when you think of romantic comedies, you’re thinking of one of Ephron’s most famous films: Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally or You’ve Got Mail. Ephron had a knack for writing about the magic of falling in love, the fear that comes with being vulnerable and the clumsiness of the beginning of relationships. Instead of being slick and sexy, her characters often said the wrong things and tripped on their words: they were human. She captured all of the nuances that modern day rom-coms miss. Now characters meet and sleep with each other within twenty minutes of the opening credits and fall instantly in love. Before the first act has concluded they have all this investment, these impossibly high stakes. Then like clockwork, forty minutes before the film ends it all falls apart, but comes back around just in time for boy to chase girl through the streets of Big City A and fix everything. It rings false, yet studio execs keep shoving that same formula at us with different packaging. That is why Ephron’s films and one or two of Gary Marshall’s remain the most beloved of romantic comedies — and why there hasn’t been a truly great romantic comedy since 1998, the year You’ve Got Mail was released.
Indie Is Doing It Right
Though I remain the genre’s biggest fan, it’s a sad fact that the romantic comedy has lost imagination. Two people meeting several times in their lives before they realize they’re meant to be together — that’s creative. A recently widowed father set up by his son on a radio show to meet his soul mate in the style of An Affair to Remember — that’s genius! What isn’t genius is the plot device of two men fighting over the same woman. That same premise has been repackaged in many ways. We loved it most as Bridget Jones’ Diary but really have to draw the line at when it comes to spy vs. spy in This Means War. Studio romantic comedies have started playing to the lowest common denominator. They’ve shamefully bought into the premise that the genre is little more than a date movie and they do not need to try very hard to entertain. They could stand to take a cue from independent filmmakers who are making beautiful forays into the romantic comedy world. (In indie film, they’re called “relationship films.”) Indie filmmakers have the imagination to make a story about a divorce romantic, funny and heartbreaking (Celeste and Jesse Forever). They have the creativity to create a world where a novelist accidentally writes his dream girlfriend “to life” and then must deal with the consequences (Ruby Sparks). I don’t want to say that indie filmmakers are better than studio executives at making solid stories to which people can relate, but they are.
In Living Color
One thing can go the furthest to save The Romantic Comedy from a fate worse than The American Western: Studio executives, producers and casting directors must to begin to acknowledge that people of color have relationships and fall in love. I understand that this is a novel concept as Tyler Perry’s on-going string of misogynistic portrayals of African American women in films like Why Did I Get Married portrays them as nagging, cold, career focused bitches. And we’re hard pressed to find evidence in any film that Latinos or Asians ever fall in love except for maybe Jennifer Lopez, but she’s somehow always cast as an Italian woman. But consider this: The most successful romantic comedy last year was Think Like a Man, which brought in $33 million its first weekend. The film has a predominately African American cast but is technically multi-ethnic. An unnamed studio executive in Brodesser-Akner’s piece dismisses the numbers out of hand because it “never truly broke out beyond its predominantly African-American target audience.” This is grossly inaccurate. Think Like a Man only opened in 2000 theaters its opening weekend. The film brought in $91 million dollars at the box office domestically and the audience breakdown was 37% males and 63% females; 38% were under 30; and 62% were 30 and over, according to market research firm CinemaScore. By these numbers, only black audiences saw Think in the same way that only black people voted for Obama.
Only in Hollywood is segregation still legal. Studio executives would be wise to start diversifying their casts when it comes to romantic comedies, and I don’t mean token characters. I mean real people with real roles. Look what it’s done for television. Bonus points if you have an interracial couple. Double bonus if you stop calling films with predominantly African American casts “urban.”
Save the romantic comedy by making smart films about real people in real relationships with a couple of laughs in between. Until you can figure it out, I’ll still be watching — but I’m probably the only one.