When Harry Met Sally, the Nora Ephron-penned, Rob Reiner-directed romantic comedy classic, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary which, aside from the usual nostalgia posts that are now required to accompany a movie’s birthday, inspired many think pieces around the web about the state of the romantic comedy genre itself. “The Romantic Comedy is Dying” the Atlantic proclaimed, while The Playlist pondered a slightly more hopeful question: “Can the Rom-Com Be Saved?” These all seem to be coming from a similar place and circle around the same thesis: audiences are no longer showing up for these movies hence there must be something wrong with the genre itself. But I’d like to take a different stance: there is nothing wrong with the state of the romantic comedy that isn’t also wrong with other genres.
Setting aside that there’s the slight whiff of sexism to constantly picking on romantic comedies when science fiction, horror, and yes, superhero movies could conceivably be said to suffer from the same issues — staleness, lazy adherence to formula, lack of believability — it might be fruitful to chart out and compare the course of another genre that was long feared dead: the Western.
The Western had its heyday in the thirties and forties, slotting neatly in between the Great Depression and World War II at a time when the American spirit was in need of the uncomplicated rah-rah masculinity that such classics as Stagecoach, Red River, and My Darling Clementine had to offer. Perhaps coincidentally, the romantic comedy began gestating in the form of the screwball, when hits like Bringing Up Baby (starring one-time “box office poison” Katharine Hepburn!) and It Happened One Night offered a similar form of escapism in the romantic entanglements of the fabulously wealthy. The Western settled into its patterns around the fifties and early sixties, with most films released sticking largely to the mold of those that came before, and romantic comedies continued in a similar vein, with stone-cold classics like Some Like It Hot, The Apartment (in my personal running for best film ever), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, along with the less-perfect but still charming films of the Doris Day variety, coming out just before the sexual revolution arrived to complicate matters between men and women considerably.
But while the romantic comedy stagnated in the New Hollywood era of the late sixties and seventies, when American auteurs like Altman, Ashby, and Penn managed to convince major studios to back their boundary-breaking features, the Western flourished. Directors like Sergio Leone and Peckinpah reinvigorated the genre, much in the way When Harry Met Sally and Moonstruck did for the romantic comedy in the late eighties. But the big budget disaster of Heaven’s Gate in 1981 all but ground that experimentation to a halt. Until Clint Eastwood and (shudder) Kevin Costner came along in the early nineties to reclaim it, the genre was seen as marginal and antiquated, out of step with the concerns of the modern age much like romantic comedies in this era of online dating and later (and multiple) marriages. Though the Western hasn’t remained a box-office staple, it still thrives in its way with more conventional films like Open Range standing beside trickier fare like the Coens’ No Country for Old Men (along with the appropriation of Western themes and tropes for more urban action dramas). It follows then that the romantic comedy genre could now be said to be in its own “pre-Unforgiven” period, when a revisionist film produced and released by a big studio with bankable stars enters the mainstream and excites people again. So what could that film look like?
Indie romances have been expanding and subverting the tropes of the genre for at least the decade since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was released in 2004. You could even nudge it back a couple years when Punch-Drunk Love came out. Both of those films have such a strong undercurrent of melancholy to them that I’m not sure they truly fit in the comedy part of the genre and they play enough with structure and tone that they will likely only appeal to a limited audience anyway. But studios would do well to pay attention to recent releases like Obvious Child and Enough Said, which hew closer to the classic template of the genre while expanding who and what those films can be about.
It’s a cyclical problem: studios don’t believe that more challenging films will sell with major audiences so they produce factory-line tripe. But audiences won’t (always) show up for this either, causing producers to believe that nobody wants to see these movies at all, discouraging them from even attempting anything new. And yet fans of romantic comedy want what fans of any genre of film want: good movies. The reason When Harry Met Sally still stands up after all these years is that it takes care with its characters and takes its time. Both Harry and Sally are fully realized beings — Sally isn’t a bumbling quirk machine (salad dressing requests aside) and Harry is hardly the sort of boring Gerard Butler-beefcake we too often get these days (I cannot emphasize this enough: he, the romantic lead, is played by Billy Crystal). The film also charts the development of their relationship over several decades, which makes their eventual coupling feel well earned and emotionally true. Not every romantic comedy can do this obviously but there are still ways to surprise within the confines of the genre. Filmmakers and studios just have to be willing to take the risk. Marvel has the right idea by throwing big budgets at indie auteurs to entice them to their tent poles and it’s clearly paying off for them critically and with audiences. So why hasn’t anyone working in other genres followed suit?
That’s not to say there aren’t strong directors already working within the system. Judd Apatow has carved out a comfortable niche for himself in the “dudebro learns to grow” realm but his films have always served his male leads better than the females. Nancy Meyers made the romantic comedy a safe place for older white people to fall in love again but her work has shown diminishing returns since the release of the charming Something’s Gotta Give back in 2003. But we’re at a period in history where people from all walks are becoming more accepting of the different forms that love can take. So where is the classic romantic comedy about a gay couple, for instance? Given his popularity on How I Met Your Mother, I’m willing to bet there are millions of fans out there (and many more who didn’t tune into the show) who’d line up to fork out some cash and watch Neil Patrick Harris and, oh, I don’t know, Andrew Rannells fall in love (seriously, get on this producers, and while you’re at it give me a job in your genius department.) Or what about an interracial couple? Or people who fall into lower income tax brackets than the blurry upper-middle class with vague jobs in “publishing” and “sports”? Hell, why not a romantic comedy about a couple that’s already married, a la The Thin Man series?
Most people enjoy the familiarity that genres offer. There will never be a shortage of viewers who want to sit down and watch two people fumble their way toward love because the majority of us will do that at least once, often many times, in our lives. We deserve better than slapdash ensemble films built around major holidays or gags about vibrating underwear or over-the-top relationship hurdles like time travel. The genre isn’t dead but it could use some defibrillators. The first major studio willing to apply them is sure to find itself amply rewarded. And while they’re at it, why don’t they spark some new life into those other genres too?