The state of rom-coms today

JULY 14 — Romantic comedies (or rom-coms as people often call them) used to be really big business.

In the 1930s and early 1940s they came in the form of screwball comedies — fast talking movies with unbelievably smart, smooth and often naughty dialogue, delivered with machine gun precision by their attractive stars to usually tell stories about the battle of the sexes (that would ultimately end in romance).

The prototype was probably set by Frank Capra’s all-conquering It Happened One Night, which became the first film to win all five major categories at the Oscars (for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay), a feat that only two other films, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of The Lambs, managed to equal so far.

From that fountain sprung other classics of the genre like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story and my personal favourite The Awful Truth.

The 1950s up to the 1980s saw fleeting attempts to revive the genre, with efforts like What’s Up Doc and Say Anything becoming solid critical and box office successes, but rom-coms really became what we know them as today when the 90s arrived, or technically at the cusp of the 90s because When Harry Met Sally was a 1989 film.

The 1990s was when rom-coms became big business again (like they were in the 1930s and 1940s) with a string of hits like Sleepless in Seattle, Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, While You Were Sleeping, My Best Friend’s Wedding and what seemed like an endless stream of Meg Ryan movies like You’ve Got Mail (a remake/update of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic The Shop Around the Corner) and French Kiss.

The trend continued into the 2000s with what must be the ultimate modern rom-com, Love Actually, stealing hearts and breaking box-offices everywhere, but 20 years is a long time for a trend to stay relevant, and so it proved with the gradual drop in quality (and box-office) of rom-coms that the last few years have actually seen very few big studio rom-coms released into cinemas.

In fact, outside of Bridget Jones’ Baby (which didn’t do too well anyway), I can’t seem to recall any new big studio rom-com making a mark on the pop culture landscape.

If anything, it’s very much left to the Sundance indie school of filmmaking to keep the rom-com flame alive, with last year’s The Big Sick a particular critical and box office success, managing to even score a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Oscars.

And what is the fate of rom-coms today in 2018? From the looks of it, aside from barely surviving on life support in the US indie trenches, the genre has also found a new refuge at Netflix, as can be seen with the wonderful Alex Strangelove, Set It Up and The Kissing Booth.

With the upcoming Sierra Burgess Is A Loser and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before already causing much excitement, the rom-com is clearly having a moment on Netflix this year.

As for a big studio rom-com in 2018, there’s still no sight of one, but a peek at the indie trenches will reveal a few interesting titles like the British-made Modern Life Is Rubbish and two US indies I’m quite partial to, The Year of Spectacular Men and The Boy Downstairs.

Modern Life Is Rubbish, named after the Blur album, is the weakest of the three. While it does follow almost every single convention and story beat of the genre, it is hampered by its one attempt to breathe fresh air into the genre — its leading man’s character is quite simply a jerk, which makes it hard to get into the film, and that’s coming from someone who’s into music as much as that character.

To put it simply, imagine a rom-com centred on a guy who’s part struggling musician and part snobby record store clerk (i.e. a bit of That Thing You Do and High Fidelity thrown in to make a rom-com), and imagine how much of an effort it is to like, let alone love, someone like that.

The Boy Downstairs does much better, and even has its own attempt to tweak something new into the genre — this one centres on a girl who, after moving into a new apartment four years after breaking up with her ex-boyfriend, finds out that said ex-boyfriend is living in the same apartment downstairs.

But this being a US indie of the Sundance variety, it ends up more of a dramedy instead, which will disappoint people who are hoping for a quick laugh or two.

So if it’s laughs that you’re after, and a bit of that warm tingly feeling that rom-coms are supposed to be all about, then look no further than The Year of Spectacular Men.

Familiar Hollywood darling Zoey Deutch goes indie to help out her sister Madelyn Deutch (who also wrote the script) to star as siblings in the movie, with their real-life mother Lea Thompson also playing their onscreen mom, with Lea also directing the whole thing.

The twist with this one, despite all the men in both sisters’ lives in the one-year period covered by the film, the real romance here is the bond between the two sisters, and their familial bond with their mother.

Filled with plenty of laugh out loud moments, The Year of Spectacular Men is a warm, funny and touching little picture that deftly straddles the line between being a rom-com and the ubiquitous Sundance dramedy. It’s nothing spectacular, because it doesn’t need to be, but it’s one big hug of a movie, and for once that’s quite enough.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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