The Summer of the Romantic Comedy

Maggie Flaherty ’20

Chief Features Editor

Years have passed since the classic Nora Ephron era of the romantic comedy. It has been a while since critically-acclaimed romantic comedy darling Meg Ryan inspired a sandwich order in a New York deli, since Julia Roberts reproached a snooty store worker for her big mistake – huge – and even since Judy Greer graced our screens in her frequently reprised niche role as “female protagonist’s best friend.”  The genre suffered a drought in Hollywood until this summer, when the success of multiple romantic comedies proved the movie-watchers of the world evidently realized they were ready to fall in love again. Netflix’s buzzed-about original movie releases were the summer’s biggest blockbuster surprise. Combined with the box office success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” it is clear the Rom-Com renaissance has begun.

The rise of streaming services are perhaps to thank for this boom in popularity. Netflix’s multifaceted business roles of studio, distributor, and streaming service all in one grants the company the unique opportunity to choose the entertainment it creates from analyzing the most popular content their customers stream. With this knowledge, they allotted higher budgets than Hollywood was likely willing to bargain for hit-or-miss genres such as the romantic comedy, yielding the perfect storm for the 2018 summer of the rom-com. Netflix found itself home to some of the most buzzed about movies of the summer in “Set it Up,” “Sierra Burgess is a Loser,” and “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.”

A fault many people (cynical, jaded people, that is) find with the romantic comedy is with its formulaic structure. Yet the formula is what makes the genre so great; when done right, the inherent inevitability that two complex characters will fall in love is what makes viewing romantic comedies so fun. With that formula in the back of our minds, audiences watch the narrative unfold at an omniscient angle. They will fall in love, we think gleefully to ourselves as we watch our screens,  and they don’t know it yet – but we do. The formulaic structure does not yield stale and archaic plots, either. The three Netflix movies released this summer all capitalized on common romantic comedy tropes, thus proving that screenwriters are capable of breathing in fresh new life to the genre. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” riffs on the fake-relationship plot. The protagonists pretend to date, reality and fiction blurs, and the faux-couple eventually realizes they fell in love with each other in real life somewhere along the way. This narrative also unfolds in timeless romantic comedies such as “Pretty Woman,” “The Proposal,” and “Can’t Buy Me Love.” “Set it Up” is an inversion of this fake-relationship trope; the movie focuses on two assistants that deceive their bosses into a relationship so they can get more time off of work. The classic hijinks of “The Parent Trap” combined with the workplace comedy banter of Jim and Pam in “The Office” creates an instant romantic comedy classic. Modern retellings of older pieces of literature also yield some of the most successful and critically acclaimed romantic comedies of the 21st century: “Clueless” is a modern retelling of “Emma” by Jane Austen, “10 Things I Hate About You” is a high-school take on Shakespeare’s The “Taming of the Shrew,” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary” (this author’s personal favorite)  retells “Pride and Prejudice” from the perspective of a twenty-something woman in London. “Sierra Burgess is a Loser,” a modern retelling of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” proves that the concept behind romantic comedies is enduring and universal: audiences throughout centuries related to the plot regardless of the century the story unfolds in.

The critics that attack the formula behind a rom-com overlook the key feature of the genre: the romantic comedy intends to reflect a more polished, perfect version of our lives. The life of a rom-com is the life we wish we lead: the protagonists are better looking, wittier versions of ourselves, who wake up with no bed-head and always say the right thing (that is, the right thing that also moves the plot forward in a narratively cohesive way). Peter Kavinsky acts the way everyone wishes their high school crush did. He rejects his mean, popularity-obsessed ex-girlfriend for the much cooler and charming Lara Jean. The cute puppy-love dynamic that unfolds throughout the movie allows the audience to experience a wish fulfillment re-write of their own teenage romances. Romantic comedies are successful because of, not despite, their escapist idealized narrative.

Box-Office darling “Crazy Rich Asians” proved that audiences will not only stream rom-coms from the comfort of their own homes, but they will also shell out ticket and concession stand money to go see them in theaters. “Crazy Rich Asians” grossed $150 million since its August 15 release, making the message loud and clear to Hollywood’s most powerful that the market for a romantic comedy is ready to be harvested.

The success of “Crazy Rich Asians” also yields crazy influential potential for the future of the genre. Not only do audiences love to see two straight white people fall in love, but the love audiences root for in rom-coms instead transcends race or sexuality. It will be fascinating in the future to see how studios respond to this past summer and create a more inclusive rom-com world. Cinephiles everywhere can point to the summer of 2018 as the start of the Rom-Com revival.

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

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