Arts and Culture
Gender + Sexuality

Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?

I have a theory. And a list of great ones to watch as solace.

By Shannon Rupp 20 May 2014 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Four Weddings and a Funeral, one of the most beautifully crafted rom-coms ever made, and the film that marked the beginning of the end for the genre.

It wasn't the absolute last good rom-com, but it was definitely near the tail end of the run for movies that begin with the "meet cute."

The Hollywood Reporter declared the death of rom-coms last fall. The last few attempts earned only a fraction of their costs along with much well-deserved contempt from critics.

Since bad film and good box office are not necessarily exclusive -- they often converge in an astounding way -- everyone is looking for why, specifically, one of the most popular and profitable genres in film (and theatre, and novels) is suddenly dead.

Most blame Hollywood's addiction to foreign sales. That's the reason for the onslaught of superhero movies with maximum explosions and minimum dialogue. They translate well in the big markets like Japan, Russia, and China. Since about two-thirds of the profits are generated this way is justifies the huge production costs. Joss Whedon's Avengers movie generated $1.5 billion worldwide according to Wikipedia, which makes the $225 million spent making it look like chump change.

But I suspect the real reason big studios no longer make rom-coms is hidden in their nicknames -- they went from being "date movies" to "chick flicks" and shortly thereafter I dubbed them dick flicks. The genre devolved from a centuries-old comic form about charming fools fumbling their way through life and became ugly, women-hating screeds.

Shakespeare had the idea

In the best rom-coms, the rocky road to true love is only part of the story -- it usually happens within a larger tale. Generally, the characters wrestle with big meaning-of-life questions as they struggle to grow up. The gag in rom-coms is that these are grown-ups with the emotional wherewithal of children and it's a recurring trope in comic literature.

Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing always come to mind for their barbed banter, which is the model for every couple that hasn't actually figured out they're a couple. Their friends often end up having to tell them they're involved, just like in Shakespeare's play.

Many of Jane Austen's characters fit that bill too. Mr. Knightly lectures Emma, who is Clueless as the teen movie version of the book tells us. Of course, he's so clueless that it doesn't dawn on him why he has the impulse to nag her.

Rom-coms often ask the big, fundamental questions. Nora Ephron's clever script for When Harry Met Sally (1989) wonders: Can men and women really be friends?

There is no definitive answer. But wrangling over it will take up the rest of the evening, which is why this sort film became known as a date movie -- the post-film discussion is mighty revealing. And it serves as an excellent screening tool.

Ephron is a particularly insightful writer, which is often overlooked because she's so funny. You've Got Mail (1998) is about a couple that falls in love after meeting anonymously in a chatroom without realizing they're each other's real life nemesis. It borrows on Pride and Prejudice's notion that first impressions and public masks are often deceiving.

The Philadephia Story (1940) is a gloriously witty film featuring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as socialites confronting tabloid media invading their private life.

The underlying question is: Who is responsible for keeping a marriage together? The divorced lovers are surrounded by failed and failing marriages as well as shaky engagements. Meanwhile, Hepburn's desperate solution is to marry some other guy who looks better in the media glare.

One of my favourites on the already-married roster of rom-coms is Two for the Road (1967), a dark comedy about the accommodations we make in marriage. Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney are the lovers whose story (from courtship to parenthood) unfolds over 10 years via their many travels and director Stanley Donen's sophisticated time-shifting.

I've always thought it was a cautionary tale. There is a running gag in the film as the two of them eye other couples looking unhappy. One asks: "What kind of people have nothing to say to each other over dinner?" The other replies, glumly: "Married people."

I think it's an excellent argument against marriage. But a long-married friend tells me it's really about making a commitment and weathering the ups and downs of a long partnership. The film is actually asking: What does it mean to be married?

And it's a fine question to muse on before you consider swapping rings with someone.

Made for men

In the best rom-coms the couples are equally flawed, which is the source of the joke. The genre went into a decline when they ceased to be about delightfully inept people struggling with life and became a tool for insulting women.

I wrote about this phenom in 2002; allow me to revisit the argument. Dick flicks began to surface in the late 1990s, but the one I recall most vividly is Julia Roberts' My Best Friend's Wedding (1997).

Roberts is cast as a dog-in-the-manger who becomes enamoured of an old pal when she hears he's marrying someone else. We're treated to the spectacle of her lying, cheating, and committing fraud in what amounts to a catfight with Cameron Diaz to win the guy.

But I didn't spot what was really going on until I ranted to about it to a fellow critic, male.

"Julia and Cameron fighting over some schlep of a guy?" said my pal. "That sounds more like a male fantasy to me."

He was right. So-called chick flicks were really dick flicks -- unflattering views of women coming from the minds of misogynist men. There was a wave of films about professional women who couldn't get a man and who were often punished and humiliated for their uppity ways.

In a variation on Beauty and the Beast, the leading man was often a slovenly failure with mild criminal tendencies. Unlike the Beast, they didn't improve through the magic of true love. In these variations, the women characters were taught that they had to lower their expectations and embrace the unshaven beast in Tin Cup, Six Days and Seven Nights, French Kiss...

There were so many of these bizarre plots involving unkempt losers charming accomplished and beautiful women -- who were somehow blamed for the men's failings -- that I began to suspect propaganda. Were these "date movies" designed to make the woman glance at the guy next to her and wonder if there was a hidden Hugh Jackman beneath that ill-mannered lout?

Eventually it led to Katherine Heigl atrocities like Knocked Up (2007), and a string of others. Heigl is often credited with killing the genre, which isn't fair given that her dick flicks were all written, produced, and directed by committees of men.

Today, you're hard pressed to find a smart, thoughtful rom-com. (We can argue about 2012's Silver Linings Playbook).

Laid to rest

Which brings me back to why Four Weddings and a Funeral deserves an anniversary viewing to fill this void. It stands up remarkably well, not least because the many sub-plots are so revealing of human nature.

FWAAF is about the thorny question of whether it is better to marry someone just like us or to take a risk on an opposite.

Hugh Grant, as poor bumbling Charlie, rebels against the restrictive upper class Brit world he inhabits by being chronically (and hilariously) late for other people's weddings. But he finds a perfect escape from his Sloane Ranger girlfriends when he meets that bit of thespian deadwood, Andie MacDowell. Her stiff acting certainly does make her a standout in this army of brilliant character actors. But the script tells us it's her free spirit he likes.

Leaving the theatre, we all speculate on whether their unconventional relationship will last. And really, wouldn't he be better off with tart-tongued aristocrat Fiona, who notes that the woman in the wedding gown looks like "a big meringue."

Which is why I recommended FWAFF to a friend who is going through what is either a miserable break-up or a commitment to marry the guy who is just like her -- it's not quite clear which.

Not only will FWAAF cheer her up, it will give her a focus for considering why we marry who we marry or even if we marry.

While I'm opposed to the idea of utilitarian art, I've long thought good rom-coms are the ideal tool for thinking through life choices if only because watching people making fools of themselves gives us something to rise above.

But half way through her solo viewing she called to say she couldn't bear the cheerful tale. (Had she seen the funeral yet?)

Then she wailed: "My view of relationships is more Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage."

Yeah, she's a hard case. Which is why I've also assigned her the aforementioned flicks along with Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), Green Card (1990), and Groundhog Day (1993).

"Watch these, then we'll talk," I said, postponing the inevitable.

It's not as crazy as it seems. The thing that makes great rom-coms worth viewing is that, besides making us laugh, they give us a glimpse of what the other fools are thinking. Sadly, it's often like looking in a mirror, and recognizing that helps us formulate a plan to reform. Soon.

Which is one of the many reasons why I mourn their demise. And I look forward to their revival. In the meantime, I'm compiling a longer list of the great ones for my friend who, I fear, is going to need a lot of celluloid therapy.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality, Film

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