(Written for Reviewing the Arts, December 12, 2019)
Almost everyone has seen a romantic comedy in their lifetime. The genre was in the prime of its life between 1990 and 2010 with films like Pretty Woman (1990) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) beginning its rise, while others like Crazy, Stupid Love (2011) and Think Like a Man (2012) marking the end of its downward spiral at the box office. Romantics comedies include some of the most loved films of all time, like When Harry Met Sally… (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Mamma Mia! (2008). Each of these films had a successful box office run, but the genre died down to a point of almost disappearance in the 2010s, for no clear reason.
One reason could be how the general public sees the genre, which normally is “‘unimportant,’ ‘fluffy,’ and ‘inconsequential,’” according to Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson. “Rom-coms are seen as geared toward a female audience, and films for women have often been considered less important of less substantial than ‘prestige’ films” (Wilkinson). This judgment from many may be what stopped crowds from getting out to the theaters and supporting films, which supports why Netflix’s new films within the genre are working: there’s no judgment from within your home. And with a genre that normally appeals to women, there’s endless judgment. Vox’s Constance Grady says that “the fact that we treat rom-coms as frothy nonsense for dumb people stems from the fact that romantic comedies are generally marketed to women, whom our culture does not like — not from the genre’s inherent value” (Wilkinson). Obviously, each genre has its flaws—romantic comedies are normally critiqued for their clichés and predictability—but the labelling of this genre as “chick flicks” has a greater meaning that Grady cites: things made for women are not as good or smart as those made for men, and thus not worthy of praise or recognition. This mentality led to the disappearance of romantic comedies during most of the 2010s along with other notable changes in the film industry like the death of the mid-budget movie and the rise of young adult book adaptation movies (Todd VanDerWerff). Most films made now either have astronomical budgets—over $100 million—or very small ones—under $5 million—leaving little in the middle for films like romantic comedies. Around the time that romantic comedies were starting to die down, another genre geared majorly toward women was on its way into the public eye—film adaptations of young adult novels like The Hunger Games (2012), Twilight (2008), and The Fault in Our Stars (2014), which drew a largely female audience. But romantic comedies have come back, some of them falling into both of these genres, like Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), which has been credited with the start of the rom-com revival along with Crazy Rich Asians (theatrical release) and Set It Up (Netflix) of the same year.
Netflix’s Set It Up was released in June of 2018 and was praised for its modern take on classic romantic comedies. Following two overworked assistants (Zoey Deutch and Glenn Powell) that try to set up their workaholic bosses (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs), it uses classic romantic comedy tropes like the “meet-cute” in a stopped elevator, the secret scheme that gets revealed in the second half of the movie and the classic will-they-won’t-they relationship set on the summer in the city backdrop that so many rom-coms rely on for tone. Deutch and Powell as Harper and Charlie are fun to watch as they fill the movie with energetic banter and show two people fall in love with each other and change their lives over the course of one hour and 45 minutes. Obviously, the film relies on predictability—the main characters will, of course, end up together after their bosses’ relationship fails—and clichés—the pair is first at odds, they dance on a rooftop later on in the film—but it’s genuinely fun to watch just like a good romantic comedy should be. A refreshing break from the darkness and/or mediocrity of most movies and television shows released, Set It Up doesn’t take itself too seriously. A good measuring stick for romantic comedies is if the audience wants what the characters have, and viewers definitely envy Charlie and Harper as they leave the rooftop party early to climb up a fire escape and through a window to eat pizza in the middle of the night. Powell and Deutch’s chemistry are enough to distract from the weaknesses of the film like the production value, soundtrack and reliance on montages, which The Atlantic’s David Sims called “unimpressive,” “obnoxiously chirpy and bouncy,” and relied too heavily on “to goose the story along,” respectively (Sims). But again, the point of the romantic comedy has never been the production value or the mise en scène (placing on stage in French), as Sims calls it, but instead the connection between the main characters and the audience’s investment in their relationship. And in the case of Set It Up, both are strong, making it a film that is both feel-good and compelling, which cannot be said for all romantic comedies or Netflix originals.
Along with Set It Up, Netflix’s To All the Boys I‘ve Loved Before was released in the summer of 2018. The film, which is based on the best-selling young adult book series of the same name by Jenny Han, stars Lana Condor and Noah Centineo as Lara Jean Covey and Peter Kavinsky pretending to be in a relationship after Lara Jean’s childhood love letters are sent to their recipients and she has to pretend she doesn’t have a crush on her sister’s ex-boyfriend. The fake relationship trope in romantic comedies has been used time and time again, but To All the Boys does not feel tired. It could be because of the colorful visuals, energetic soundtrack or Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship (it’s probably all three). Condor and Centineo are similar to Deutch and Powell in Set It Up but take everything to a whole new level. The film has legs to stand on its own but also sets up a franchise nicely (the book series is made up of three novels that end with Lara Jean’s graduation from high school) that can give more backstory to the characters and dive deeper into their relationships. The film also features Asian characters (all three of the Covey sisters are Korean American) in a way that doesn’t make diversity a big deal while still highlighting their culture. John Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians theatrical release was on August 15, 2018, two days before To All the Boys and was praised by many for its diversity and role in giving non-white main characters a love story in a much bigger way than Netflix did. One of the first new-age rom-coms to hit theaters and have a massively successful run at the box office—making over $230 million—the film takes place mainly in Singapore with a largely Asian cast. While To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before does not show diversity on the same level, the film still highlights it in a way that is purposeful and self-aware. Along with this representation, the movie marks the start of the upward trend in romantic comedies. Since these three films were released, more and more rom-coms—most of them on streaming giant Netflix—have been made, reviving the genre.
Netflix and other streaming services may be the reason for this recent uptick in romantic comedies being made. As previously mentioned, romantic comedies lost most of their audience because of the embarrassment associated with watching “chick flicks,” so the ability to watch most movies in the comfort of your home without any outside pressures makes it easier for viewers to enjoy their favorite movies. While this is no way means that every romantic comedy Netflix produces is of high quality, some of the things they are throwing against the wall are actually sticking. Of course, the streaming service does not provide statistics for anything, but based on feedback from general audiences and critics as well as the fact that they keep making these kinds of movies shows that romantic comedies have a found a new home on a smaller screen. Although some are in the works on a larger screen—including Legally Blonde 3—the move of most rom-coms to streaming services is proving to be a smart one as it gives its target audience a break from outside pressures and provides a more relaxed viewing environment: wherever and with whomever they choose. This friendlier experience allows viewers to connect and engage more with the material, which romantic comedies were made for. Whether you’re swooning, cringing, laughing or crying, the rom-com is back and ready for all of it.
Schulman, Alissa. “The Rom-Comaissance Is Here, Complete with Fresh Faces And Modern Messes,” MTV. 29 October 2019. http://www.mtv.com/news/3143115/crazy-rich-asians-last-christmas-rom-com-revival/
Sims, David. “Can Netflix’s Set It Up Help Revive the Romantic Comedy?” The Atlantic. 21 June 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/06/set-it-up-netflix-review/563237/
VanDerWerff, Emily Todd. “7 reasons Hollywood doesn’t make romantic comedies anymore,
Vox. 20 August 2018. https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/2/14/14604300/romantic-comedy-dead-netflix-crazy-rich-asians
Wilkinson, Alissa. “Romantic Comedies are having a moment. Can it last?” Vox. 29 August 2018. https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/8/29/17769168/romantic-comedies-crazy-rich-asians-all-the-boys-set-it-up