The Decline of the Rom Com

I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I’m kind of an expert movie-watcher. I can spend days, probably even weeks if life allowed it, watching films: gory, colorful Tarantino action films, meticulously plotted courthouse thrillers, over-the-top comic book superheroes, minimalist introspective character studies, and on special occasions—provided a blanket and a space to scream in—those gritty, high-budget CGI horror movies.  But being a chronic moviegoer means dealing with the valleys along with the peaks—and in this expert watcher’s humble opinion, no film genre has more peaks and valleys than the romantic comedy.

This is, believe me, no rag on the rom com. Even by my standards, too much of my Spring Break was devoted to watching feel-good, happily-ever-after love stories: love stories in Seattle, love stories in New York, love stories in Sacramento and Chicago and Austin. But it became quickly evident that the memorable characters and the emotional stickiness of the last couple decades, perfected in original and creative films like When Harry Met Sally, Say Anything, and even the seemingly air-headed Clueless of the ’80s and ’90s are slowly regressing to a pervasive, chronic laziness. The normalization of happily-ever-after endings in rom coms may be feel-good, but it has led to the decline of the genre: a timid and uninspired adherence to formula.

Although there are and always will be exceptions, so many romantic comedies now seem to depend on vapid plot contrivances and character choices that contradict the way humans actually act, putting the movieverse into an alternate space-time continuum until it’s filled with characters that are practically inhuman—people who bend the rules of human interaction until the whole movie fills itself with sociopaths. Even the “classics”—or at least the most-loved—of 21st century rom coms have these bizarre, sci-fi-esque plots that normal people would never find themselves in: In The Proposal, a woman forces her younger male secretary to marry her to avoid getting deported to Canada. Warm Bodies depicts the intensely relatable teen drama of falling in love with a zombie. She’s the Man, bless that movie’s heart, has a girl preposterously pose as her brother to play soccer and fall in love with her roommate in the process. These may be pleasing, adorable pieces of candy, but anything that is meant to be watched with a grain of salt or three has not been well-seasoned in the first place (if you’ll forgive the metaphor).

While one can argue that perhaps these ridiculous plots only mean to mirror the issues we do face in our lives, we as consumers shouldn’t have to forcibly derive that meaning for ourselves—to make up for the laziness of the producers. In fact, I wholly blame this new formulaic simplicity of the genre on studios’ severe underestimation of audiences. I have no qualms about the humiliating box-office deaths of insipid, uncreative “rom coms” like The Ugly Truth (2009) and Playing It Cool (2015) because these are obtuse, witless bores that make plaster walls seem brazen in comparison. They say nothing and accomplish nothing, they think they are wittier than they are, and they don’t challenge anyone, most of all themselves. They are, by movie standards, unrespectable because they are cowardly. Art is for inventing. Art is for learning. Art is for feeling. And to continuously produce these time-wasting tins is to disrespect audiences, to say that this is all we single-minded sheep can handle.

Movies that take nothing seriously except dating—How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, 27 Dresses, and This Means War—rarely ever work, because love is always mixed up with all kinds of other complicated, life-altering issues. Art is meant to make a statement, and whether that’s about humanity, grief, unwanted change, or class struggle—art has to have something to say and has to say it loud. The best romantic comedies, then, are the ones that reflect life for itself, defining our characters in frames of living retrospect. They have elements of real sadness and real emotion even within their humor, like the depressed mental instability of the Jason Segel’s lonely Peter Bretter in Forgetting Sarah Marshall or the complexities of human interaction found in Notting Hill.

People still like rom coms. There’s a reason people still watch them. But those reasons can’t last if studios continue to generate slop for swine. Continuing to make lackluster, careless, and disrespectful films hurts us, as both movie lovers and members of society—they make people feel justified in using “chick flick” as a misogynistic insult, inevitably accompanied by an eye roll and a wave of the hand. They make people who care about love trifling and valueless. They make us, by association, pathetic.

Just like any genre of art, this genre needs to evolve to survive, to find its audience and serve it what it deserves, and this calls for a change in perception of what a rom com is and what it should do for its audience. We millennials are not the starry-eyed consumers that our parents were. Blame it on the fact that the Baby Boomers have sunk the economy for us, or on the fact that we grew up on dystopian revolutionaries and reluctant anti-heroes rather than epic space explorers and idealistic Western cowboys. But we are a discerning generation, cynical and terrified for the unknowable, uncharted futures before us, and we need, and want, movies that reflect the complexities of our living concerns.

Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Archives