The novel is dead - at least according to the latest lit-crit screed that's been getting a lot of press this week (here's one review). The theater is dead. Weirdly enough, both forms have died many times before, and yet...
Now, what does this remind me of?
I've often likened the romantic comedy to that little black dress that never goes out of style. Time to update my metaphor. The present-day romantic comedy is like the Thing That Wouldn't Die in an old horror movie: pitch-forked, drawn-and-quartered, blown to smithereens, it nevertheless pops up grinning, ready to sing an old '80s tune, get tickled in a montage and go running to the airport in the end.
Everything That's Wrong With Romantic Comedy is such a familiar trope by now, that trashing what's laughably hackneyed in the form is old news. Doesn't mean it can't be fun, as evidenced by this blog post, How to Write a Hollywood Rom-Com in 10 Easy Steps, that's been making the rounds of late (thanks for the link, Kurt Liska).
Vince, writer of said satire, hasn't done all his homework; his "ten" can be boiled down to half that many steps, and the lack of the defining adjective "Bad" in his title tacitly points up the cheap-shot nature of his diatribe. But it's funny. And you won't catch me defending the Typically Awful Hollywood Rom-Com (e.g. "Hey, that [insert Matthew McConaughey title] was actually pretty great!").
There is such a thing, however, as a good romantic comedy - witness (500) Days of Summer, winner of this year's Spirit Award for Best Screenplay. Yet the scarcity of good ones suggests how hard it is to get this seemingly-simple form right. Meanwhile, the vile ones are ubiquitous, and they keep on coming. So for the sake of fair play and clarity, here's a name for the specific sort of movie that Vince is cheerily deriding: Let's call it the zom-com.
The Zom-Com (Zombie Rom-Com) is a movie that should be, for all intents and purposes, dead - yet lives on, eating the brains of millions (figuratively speaking) as it continues to make millions at the box office. Not to be confused with an actual zombie romantic comedy (i.e. a genre hybrid presently represented by Shaun of the Dead), the Zom-Com defies all logic in its gruesome hardiness.
Critics have been trying to kill it for decades (witness the critical nukes aimed at zom-com Valentine's Day). Its form has already descended into self-parody (e.g. Date Movie and the reflexive we're-in-a-rom-com-aren't-we? moments in recent hits like The Proposal), which is usually a surefire sign of any genre's imminent demise. And yet, the march of the living Zom-Coms continues. No big studio Zombie Rom-Com has received the fatal shot-to-the-head that would discourage Hollywood from churning out more of them.
The more intriguing and difficult question to answer, when we're not busy making fun of them, is why? One obvious reason is the business model: Romantic comedies continue to be cheap to make, and thus, so long as people are paying money to see them... who needs quality?
Lurking behind this is an uncomfortable truth that cineastes and Film-elitists hate to acknowledge: Many moviegoers still go to the movies to see movie stars. Rom-coms provide two for the price of one, and many moviegoers want little more than to vicariously enjoy the high jinks that ensue between them, in a wish-fulfillment fantasy about sex, love and gender roles that doesn't challenge their traditional, long-held belief systems. I know: The horror.
What I personally find most troubling about the prevalence of zom-coms is that they spawn copy-cat zombies, and here I must confess: I Walked With (i.e. Worked On) a Zombie Rom-Com!
This past January, Living RomCom regulars may have noticed the conspicuous lack of a Leap Year review. Truth is, I had to be recused: I was the studio story analyst who did draft notes on this project, throughout its development. And Leap Year... is a zom-com.
For better (commercial potential) or worse (its template was as formulaic and predictable as a Fox News talking point), the project added nothing new to the genre gene pool, and - despite subsequent revisions from an Oscar-winner - it was always going to be a "programmer": studio parlance for a straight-up genre, generally low-budget movie that'll hopefully slake its target demographic's ever-present hunger for One of Those (This weekend's She's Out of My League is a teen comedy programmer).
Studio notes couldn't turn Leap Year into anything other than It Happened One Night Redux. And the writers, you felt, were doing what they thought they were supposed to do. This is how the zombie virus is transmitted: when a zom-com does well, why fault any studio for attempting to hunt with the pack?
Fact is, Those Kind of Movies are still finding their audience. Yes, the discerning rom-com fan would prefer to see fresh, imaginative, more realistic and left-of-center romantic comedies. Yet despite dismal reviews and a middling initial box office performance, Leap Year is well on its way to turning a decent profit.
The take-away I offer from this is a familiar one: We have met the enemy, and it is us. Decry it, lampoon it, bomb the sucker - but so long as heartlanders and guilty-pleasure urbanites, like walk-ons in some national re-enactment of Dawn of the Dead, keep coming to the mall to greet it, the Zombie Romantic Comedy will keep lurching onward, moldy arms outstretched to wrap you in its ghoulish embrace.
Be afraid. Look oooout!!! That zom-com you were laughing at? It's alive.