This past week various friends and acquaintances sent me a link: The Atlantic's Christopher Orr on Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad? Guys, are you sending me this because you think it's news to me somehow, or because you recognize that Orr is saying what I've been saying on this blog for like, nearly eight years now?
The idea that "romantic comedy is dead" is so 2003, and for that matter, so 1973, and 1953. The genre's death and subsequent resurrection has been celebrated (or reviled) many times since its screwball heyday - and hey, given that Howard Hawks' divine Bringing Up Baby was dissed by critics and a box office dud in 1938, there were probably people going "this romantic comedy thing is over" back then.
So to Christopher Orr, with whom I couldn't agree more, I say, Welcome to my world, and I'm glad you're putting in establishment print what I said in the blogosphere over two months ago: Silver Linings Playbook and Moonrise Kingdom were indeed the best romantic comedies of 2012. Therein lies the theme that I've been going on about, oh, ever since my Writing the Romantic Comedy was published in the year 2000.
Because if romantic comedy is dead, how come a romantic comedy starring an actual dead person as its male lead (Warm Bodies) has just become one of 2013's great successes?
For about a decade or more, there's been a common misperception at the core of this issue. When most people think "romantic comedy," they're thinking either of acknowledged classics, and/or of the kind of standard chick flick movie that had its peak popularity in the '90s and waned in the 2000s: studio-designed programmers starring the usual suspects (e.g. Reese, J-Lo, Cameron, Heigl, et al).
Such formulaic cookie-cutter pictures generally conformed to what I call the Career Girl Gets Alpha Guy (CGGAG) model. Their female protagonists tended to be underdogs, seeking success in a chosen field, who ended up winning the man who either came with, or trumped, their livelihood victories. When these movies were good, you got Bridget Jones's Diary, and when they were bad or merely mediocre, you got... practically everything else.
It is these kinds of movies, their plots rooted almost solely in their straight-up girl meets, gets, loses boy conflicts, that eventually oversaturated the market. In this decade, as New York magazine's Vulture has aptly pointed out, they've begun to tank so regularly that yes, this particular kind of romantic comedy really can be declared "over" as a viable box office proposition.
What continues to be summarily ignored, meanwhile, is that the larger rom-com genre has been doing pretty well, thanks, meaning: movies that feature "Will these two people become (or remain) a couple?" as their central narrative question.
Yes, Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy, as is Moonrise Kingdom. So is 2011's Midnight in Paris (rom-com fantasy), 2010's Tangled (animated rom-com), 2009's Up in the Air (rom-com-dramedy), 2008's Mama Mia (musical rom-com) and 2007's Knocked Up (raunchy male POV rom-com). While many of these are more accurately termed "hybrids" (i.e. they merge other genres with romantic comedy, like Ted's high concept rom-com gambit), many a "pure" rom-com has been a hit within the past few years, e.g. Crazy Stupid Love.
The romantic comedy will never die, because audiences will always want to see movies about the absurdities of human mating games. It's one of the most inexhaustable plots there is. The key here (I'm talking to you, screenwriters) is that it's harder to get it right and to strike a cultural chord, than ever before.
In this regard, Atlantic's Orr is spot on (e.g. true obstacles to both sex and commitment are tougher to construct, in 2013) and Vulture's Brodessor-Akner is astute (e.g. the studio system has tapped out its formula, and for the moment, its conventional rom-com stars). But as Warm Bodies, Playbook and others have recently demonstrated, the romantic comedy as a larger genre is alive and kicking. What's required, on the part of its writers and producers, is some imagination and risk-taking.
That's what's been going on for a while now on the smaller screen (witness Girls and Louie), and it's what's going on in the best genre minds we've got: Richard Curtis's forthcoming About Time is a time-travel rom-com (and I predict, based on its I-laughed-I-cried screenplay, the sleeper hit of his career).
What, in this messed-up, who knows what a relationship is? cultural moment, is the kind of rom-com story that says hello to a new generation of lovers who no longer have a traditional path to follow? What appeals to a present and older generation that's aware of the awesome complexities that actually follow "boy gets girl?" What's unique about your personal take on love and romance, that can be delivered in a story that doesn't comform to the dated CGAG rom-com box?
Warm Bodies isn't half as funny as Shaun of the Dead (2004), but it's got heart, humor, and a neat, timely irreverence that's evidently speaking to today's audience. And it achieves this by not following the tried and true, but by tweaking what's been tried, with a skewed sort of truth.
Getting outside the box is what's required, and thinking hard about how our current collision between a reality-based culture and the wish fulfillment fantasies of the movies can be mined. Classic rom-coms like Tootsie, Groundhog Day, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have transcended genre and hit such zeitgeist sweet spots in the past. So why don't you stop worrying about the romantic comedy being over, and write something, well, fresh, as we lurch uncertainly into the future?