The recently released They Came Together prides itself as a parody of the romantic comedy genre, and although it plays on tropes commonly used in these formulaic films, it makes minimal references to specific movies, particularly current ones. Rom-coms are low-hanging fruit for parody as they shamelessly recycle the trademark elements, such as the chance encounter, the funny friend, the overuse of New York City and its iconography, and the superficial obstacles standing in the way of “true love,” but can you remember the last time you saw one of these staple conventions in play? Although many of the jokes delivered in They Came Together are overbearing, the more likely reason they fall flat is that their source of inspiration has hit its expiration date. How many romantic comedies can you name that have been release in the last five years? The plot of They Came Together is inspired by a movie (You’ve Got Mail) released over 15 years ago. And the most recent pointed reference I picked up is from 2005’s Wedding Crashers, a movie that falls more comfortably in the category of the raunchy R-rated comedy, which we’ll talk about later. Was David Wain just being especially selective when he chose his rom-com sources, or did he really have to reach that far for suitable inspiration? Is the romantic comedy a dead genre, and if so, what’s replaced it?
Since before the era of formulated movies sparked by When Harry Met Sally, the romantic comedy has functioned as a fairy tale for adults. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl discuss one another with their own group of reasonably attractive, stereotypically one-dimensional friends. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy royally screws up. Girl forgives boy, and they live happily ever after. That formula has been successfully recycled and reused for decades, until now. Recent attempts at a fresh take on the romantic comedy have been flops for even tried and true cash cow stars of the genre. Did anyone see 2010’s How Do You Know, 2012’s This Means War, or 2013’s The Big Wedding? In the current decade Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson, Owen Wilson, Tom Hardy, and Katherine Heigl all failed to produce a profitable romantic comedy. So what happened? Well, a couple things…
1) Girl Power
It’s 2014, and women everywhere are channeling their inner Lean In potential. Hollywood “it” girls are no longer satisfied by simply being the object of affection from the likes of Tom Hanks and Matthew McConaughey. More and more female actors are either taking on more serious roles, or taking a page from the Bridesmaids book and looking to bring the funny with a female centered cast. Rom-com staples like Sandra Bullock are earning Oscar awards and nominations for movies like The Blind Side and Gravity instead of fumbling and flirting in While You Were Sleeping and Two Weeks Notice. Bullock commands the screen in Gravity throughout almost the entire run time as powerfully as we’ve seen any one person manage since Tom Hanks in Castaway. Romantic comedies have always been consistent for putting people (especially women) in the seats, but both genders are finally realizing that a challenging and deep female character or a smart, funny group of them draws just as many, if not more viewers. The leading women of Hollywood are becoming a force of nature, and we’re all flocking to the theater to watch it happen.
2) Teen Romance
Although young adult novels have always been popular with teens and adults alike, YA movie adaptations have really hit their stride recently, and the grown-ups are giving the younger crowd a run for their money in ticket sales. Dystopian romances (Hunger Games, Divergent) and teen love tearjerkers (The Fault In Our Stars) are more than filling the hole that’s been left by the romantic comedy. It turns out we’re just as happy watching the latest 20-something Hollywood heartthrobs portray high schoolers who discover their identities through one another, than we are seeing characters our own age exhibit similar behavior. We can escape the real world and still feel the blissful high that results from being convinced for two hours that love conquers all, even evil governments and undead boyfriends. The YA genre now draws audiences of all ages, and it’s not fading any time soon.
3) The Raunch-Com
During the last decade or so, we’ve witnessed the rise of the raunch-com (the raunchy comedy, that is). These films revolve heavily around vulgar, inappropriate sexual wisecracks, and often firmly insert a shallow romance for the sake of the ladies. Although much of the recent surge in popularity of these movies can be credited to the likes of the aforementioned Wedding Crashers, the raunch-com has been slowly stealing rom-com faithfuls since the late 90’s with American Pie and There’s Something About Mary. With the focus largely on dirty jokes and bromance, men are more likely to be dragging their female counterparts to see these instead of the other way around. However, the new raunch-com norm has evolved to feature more regular female and couple-centered stories, which are more likely to help draw in more women. Those who are exhausted by the same old boy-meets-girl cheese fest can now indulge in something a bit edgier instead. Cameron Diaz is the front runner of actresses who have hopped on this raunchy train with Bad Teacher in 2011 and the upcoming Sex Tape later this month.
4) The Messy Romance
Although these other rom-com substitutions are more about the flashy and the funny and less about the love, we still have a thriving sub-genre that can fulfill the needs of the hopeless romantic: the messy romance. Yes, I made that up. You may say realistic, I say messy. Adults who want a more relatable, grounded love story have been gravitating toward films that portray relationships through a less shiny and polished lense. Movies like 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook and 2011’s Crazy Stupid Love manage to deliver on both romance and emotional realism, unflinchingly powering through harsh realities (such as infidelity and mental illness) while still giving a hidden injection of the warm and fuzzies. 2013’s Enough Said takes an unapologetic yet lighthearted look at two grown adults trying to remember how to date again. Sometimes we don’t want the glossy fairy tale or the shallow obstacles. Messy, real life can be just as romantic.
These are the movies that have been taking the place of our once beloved rom-coms. Will you miss the sweeter, simpler old version, or are you glad to be moving on to the more empowered and complex modern substitute?