Love is all around, but the rom-coms have changed

  • By Ann Hornaday The Washington Post
  • Sunday, October 16, 2016 1:30am
  • Life

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that, as a genre, the romantic comedy is moribund, kaput, over, deader than John Corbett’s eyes in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.”

This is a lament most often heard among filmgoers of a certain age, viewers whose formative movie experiences were the classics of romantic comedy’s boomer-era golden age of the 1980s and 1990s, films that included “Moonstruck,” “Working Girl,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” A confession: I’m one of millions of middle-aged people, mostly women, who will watch Hugh Grant stammer his way through “Notting Hill” when it pops up on cable, no matter what the hour or how long the movie has been underway. Hearing a few bars from “Love Is All Around” in a supermarket is still enough to send me into a “Four Weddings and a Funeral”-inspired reverie.

It’s not that movies have entirely given up on the specific joys of the rom-com: the attractive stars at its center, the yummy wardrobes and soundtracks, the aspirational interiors, the reassuring plotlines of attraction, courtship, breakup, makeup and reunion with or without wedding cake. “Music and Lyrics,” the 2007 movie starring Drew Barrymore and Grant (doing a hilariously self-referential parody of ’90s nostalgia) still holds up over repeated viewings, as does 2009’s “The Proposal,” with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. And, bless her heart, Reese Witherspoon has reportedly signed on to star in “Home Again,” written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of none other than rom-com queen Nancy Meyers, who bestowed such riches as “Something’s Gotta Give” and “The Holiday” upon her grateful subjects.

These occasional beau gestes notwithstanding, the kind of rom-com we talk about when we talk about rom-coms seems to have largely disappeared from the cinematic landscape, a casualty of shifting audience expectations, a Hollywood business model predicated on comic books and video games, and social changes that make most of the classic boy-meets-girl plots seem hopelessly white, heteronormative and unforgivably retrograde.

Which is why, when “Bridget Jones’s Baby” opened last month, I and fellow rom-com fans dared to ask: After languishing for such a long time, could it be that our beloved genre had climbed its way back from irrelevance, with its frothy meet-cutes, pop-tastic montage scenes and glossy production values intact?

The answer, it turned out, was yes and no. And that equivocation itself contained a lesson about how the genre will probably survive in the 21st century.

While “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” the third in a series of movies centered around a lovelorn couple played by Renée Zellweger and Colin Firth, has been considered a non-starter in the United States, it’s become an unquestioned hit in the United Kingdom, where the movie is set, where author Helen Fielding wrote the original Bridget Jones books, and where Jane Austen wrote the novels that Fielding based her characters on. (The film has been such a smash that it recently made its parent studio, Working Title Films, the first British film company to make $1 billion.)

As such a geographically specific success, “Bridget Jones’s Baby” turns out to be of a piece with a wider trend, wherein the classic rom-com as we know it has become an increasingly homegrown commodity.

As American studios seek to win over huge foreign markets with movies that overcome the language barrier (goodbye flirty banter, hello big bang-booms), the rom-com is now less a function of mass entertainment than a hyperlocal cultural product, with individual film industries creating their own iterations of the classic wish-fulfillment fantasy according to their own mores, traditions, in-jokes and taboos.

In other words, the rom-com isn’t dead as much as it’s been appropriated, adapted and redistributed in a sort of sky burial across the cinematic universe.

In China, the holy grail of market-hungry Hollywood studios, recent hits include “Finding Mr. Right,” an ode to Nora Ephron’s classic “Sleepless in Seattle” larded with China-specific references to the Beijing wealth boom and “birth tourism,” and its semi-sequel, “Book of Love,” which earned a whopping $53.4 million when it opened in May. In South Korea, the rom-com blockbuster was 2001’s “My Sassy Girl,” which included nods to that country’s drinking culture and a classic Korean short story, and has been remade in several countries, including the United States; in Vietnam, the romantic comedy “Sweet 20” broke records earlier this year as the country’s highest-grossing local film ever. Nigeria produces its own versions of the rom-com, as do such robust film markets as India, Brazil and Russia.

Seen through one lens, this is good news: Rather than simply accept American movies as the only culturally imperialist game in town, it’s refreshing to see the development of indigenous cinematic vernaculars and self-sustaining economic models. Pluralism is as healthy at the multiplex as it is in the public square. (Indigenous rom-coms rarely make it to American theaters, but most become available on streaming sites.)

Seen through another lens, however, there are downsides, including the potential for culturally specific films to reinforce repressive attitudes toward men, women and sexual autonomy, not to mention sexual orientation.

What’s more, intense localization can breed insularity, as we’ve already seen in the United States, where over the past 20 years romantic comedies have been ever more thinly sliced and diced to appeal to specific cultural groups: R-rated raunch coms (“Bridesmaids,” “Trainwreck”) and “rom-action” films (“Date Night,” “Knight and Day”) designed to appeal to guys as much as young women; more genteel movies targeted to older audiences (“It’s Complicated” and “The Intern”); movies geared toward gay audiences, like the British charmer “Weekend,” about two young men getting to know each other over a couple of hard-partying days in Nottingham. For decades, white fans have been bemoaning the death of the classic rom-com, apparently unaware that African American filmmakers were single-handedly keeping the form alive with such classics as “Love Jones,” “Brown Sugar,” “Love &Basketball” and “Jumping the Broom.”

Of course, it most likely never occurred to Hollywood marketers that white viewers who loved “Four Weddings and a Funeral” might also swoon to “The Best Man.” But our own myopia — our inability or unwillingness to see ourselves in characters who don’t necessarily look like us — surely plays a role. If rom-com fans truly care about the genre they claim to love, they should consider expanding their connoisseurship beyond their own language, time zone or demographic niche and seek out films that may not have been made or marketed for them, but that they can find escapist pleasure in nonetheless. Love is all around, and rom-coms are, too. We just need to widen our gaze to find them.

Video: Romantic comedies don’t look like they did in the 1990s and early 2000s, and that’s a good thing. Here’s how some common tropes have been updated for a modern audience.

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