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Summer of Love: The Return of the Two-Person Rom-Com

Recent hits like ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ ‘Set It Up,’ and ‘To All the Boys I Loved Before’ suggest that the romantic comedy is experiencing a revival. But the genre was never dead; Hollywood was just making the wrong versions of it.

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

Picture this: You’re at a dinner party in a garden and it’s getting late. The citronella candles have burned out, but even the mosquitoes can’t motivate you to go inside because how many summer nights like this are even left? Someone is holding a single grilled asparagus spear and alternating between eating it and pretending to smoke it like Katharine Hepburn, as though it’s a very elegant, very limp cigarette. Everyone is shouting declarative statements that reveal too much about the role they expect love to play in their lives, and even though you can’t stop laughing or shouting, mostly you’re thinking I feel sorry for everyone who isn’t friends with my friends. You know it’s just like a scene out of a romantic comedy. It’s also exactly what watching one should feel like.

The summer’s breakout movies, as many critics and viewers have pointed out, suggest that the romantic comedy is unexpectedly experiencing a renaissance. Crazy Rich Asians; Juliet, Naked; and Destination Wedding have all been released in theaters in the past month, while over the course of the summer Netflix released Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Last year, The Big Sick was the romantic comedy tasked with saving the genre, and two years before that, it was Trainwreck. This year, the supposedly surprising high quality of the Netflix films and the box office success of Crazy Rich Asians are getting the credit for reviving the genre, while the positive critical response to Juliet, Naked and the fan excitement for Destination Wedding all benefited from this rising tide of romance.

Some of the more rapturous readings about a supposed resurrection have been much too metaphoric for my tastes—it’s a movie, not a messiah—but the general reception aligns with an assumption that romantic comedies should be approached with a certain amount of skepticism, as though their worst versions have so damaged the canon they must all be handled with caution.

Unfortunately for this theory, it’s also true that recent romantic comedies have been awful. A funny thing happened to movies 15 years ago: Love, Actually was released. It is alternately described as a movie in need of defending, or a movie to hate actually, or a movie responsible for ruining the entire genre. I don’t think that’s too much credit to give, particularly when contemplating the imitations and knock-offs in the decade-plus since. Watching most of them did not feel like the high point of a good night, but somewhere between a chore and a punishment.

A promotional poster for Valentine’s Day (2010)
New Line Cinema

Love, Actually has exactly two good story lines—the ones featuring Emma Thompson and Laura Linney are nice—so I won’t write it off entirely. It is mostly cloying, the embodiment of a “more is more” mentality that became increasingly cynical in subsequent dupes. The defining feature of the group rom-com—films like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and Mother’s Day, all of which I tried to watch and gave up within minutes—was not their stories, sets, or stars, but their budgets. Each of these films is notable for overloading on box office draws, slotting agreeable-enough actors into the bare minimum of screen time in the hope that if they couldn’t get you to buy a ticket for Julia Roberts, maybe they could get you with Kate Hudson. I did make it all the way through He’s Just Not That Into You, where the economy-first approach is so obvious that one of the first Amazon Prime trivia items was that Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Connelly have only 20 and 25 minutes of screen time, respectively. This is in no way as cute as Judi Dench’s Oscar nomination for her eight-minute appearance in Shakespeare in Love or the two-ish minutes of screen time Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan share in Sleepless in Seattle.

Nora Ephron’s films are rightly considered the pinnacle of modern romantic comedies—the era when the genre was at its best and the standard to which all subsequent rom-coms have been held to. Part of what made her films so appealing was that she knew movies like they were her own memories. “This is just like in the movies,” Carrie Fisher says as Meg Ryan’s best friend in When Harry Met Sally, and she’s right; the best scene in a movie full of contenders is Rita Wilson, in Sleepless in Seattle, describing the plot of An Affair to Remember; You’ve Got Mail is an updated remake of The Shop Around the Corner, the 1940 romantic comedy starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. Ephron took advantage of a median moment, one between the movies that audiences remembered watching with their mothers and a modernity that winked at contemporary conventions; in return, audiences folded the scenes and characters into their own understanding of what romance should look like.

The period of ensemble rom-com, which has very little to do with the Ephron Golden Age and also coincided with the so-called “death of the rom-com,” resulted in a bewilderingly diffused effect. By spreading the story lines so thin, they failed to offer anything resembling real romance or comedy. Instead they put themselves in a bizarre vacuum where love was the only part of a person’s life that mattered, and no one seemed to know that if you were unsure about how to go about finding it, there was a massive catalog of films available to show you. They watered down a recognizable format to a whiff of something we once enjoyed. If these movies were a cheap department store perfume, it would be a toilet water called L’Eau d’Ephron. The romantic comedy never went away—too many of them were bad, and we missed the ones that were good.

The breathless talks of revival were, in some cases, perhaps premature. Destination Wedding, released at the end of August, was my most anticipated release of the summer. Starring Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, two long-standing celebrity crushes for people of a certain age—those of us who grew up with Edward Scissorhands and Heathers as a reflection of suburban high school hellscapes and who really should not have been allowed to rent The Devil’s Advocate for their slumber parties—it seemed poised to be an easy win: two wonderful actors reunited for their fourth film and a press tour filled with them being so cute about their own crushes on each other, telling stories about how they may or may not have accidentally gotten legally married while filming Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Instead, Destination Wedding is deeply unpleasant. My viewing partner described it as being like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm written by Jordan Peterson. She was right.

But that crushing disappointment aside, there have been many traditional romantic comedies in theaters over the previous 10 years—most of them involving Judd Apatow in some capacity, who has low-key been making the most Ephron-esque films of the past decade. Apatow produced The Big Sick and Trainwreck, as well as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, This Is 40, and Bridesmaids, all films that could reasonably be credited with a rom-com revival on their own. They are not as good as Ephron’s movies, but they are like Ephron’s movies, with high-concept cute conflicts and clearly drawn allusions to their influences.

Apatow produced Juliet, Naked, in theaters now and based on a Nick Hornby novel of the same name. Both Apatow and Hornby understand men who confuse pop culture preferences for having a personality and have a lot of sympathy (if not compassion) for the woman who love them. Juliet, Naked is a comedy about compromise. Rose Byrne plays Annie, and while she is still too beautiful to be playing the prettiest girl in her small English seaside town, she is exactly right as this character, who wears her sweetness and exasperation like accessories with her cardigans. Her man is Duncan, played by Chris O’Dowd, the self-appointed leader of a fan website and forum obsessed with the disappearance of Tucker Crowe, an indie rock musician from the 1990s. Whether or not Tucker deserves this level of veneration is beside the point. After 15 years of living under the shadow of Duncan’s imaginary relationship with an imaginary man, Annie has had enough of being second to Duncan’s unrequited love. The book was written in 2009 and has the feel of a period piece: Duncan has a blog, Annie has an AOL email address, and the inciting event of the story is when Annie decides to leave a comment on Duncan’s site, eviscerating a rare reissue of an early Tucker Crowe album with a vengeful grace I wish more music critics would emulate.

Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke in Juliet, Naked (2018)
Apatow Productions

Tucker Crowe, played by Ethan Hawke, reads her comment and agrees with her assessment of his middling talent, and they begin an unexpectedly intimate email relationship. One of his daughters lives in London, conveniently only a train ride from where Annie lives—should they, he asks after what must be a very long email thread, meet in person? Viewer, they do. High jinks ensue; a love triangle is set; and Ethan Hawke, even or perhaps especially while playing a grown-up Troy Dyer, can still get it.

Naked belongs to a tradition of neurotic romances—think most if not all of Meg Ryan’s characters in Ephron films, or Cary Grant’s nervous professor in Bringing Up Baby, or Chris Rock’s insecure actor in Top Five—which take overly cerebral characters and let them articulate the inner workings of their overactive minds. For the most part, the film is chaste, save for one joke about the batteries in a vibrator. It’s part of the tradition of screwball movies made under the Hays Code that have been referred to as “a sex comedy without the sex,” a slapstick with mostly verbal clumsiness that began as a concession to censorship and has since become convention.

That sweetness was key to the two major Netflix releases of the summer, Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Netflix, my tinfoil hat tells me, reverse engineers its original programming based on what existing films people choose to watch. But I know better than to credit algorithms when the people who made the movies deserve all the praise; their references are excellent, and their execution is genuinely joyful. Set It Up is a workplace romantic comedy, all neuroses and banter in place of foreplay. In the characters’ steadfast commitment to their careers and goals, it is like a lower-stakes His Girl Friday, a corporate-culture Love & Basketball; as far as antagonism made adorable, it is like if When Harry Met Sally played out over a few months instead of 10 years. Two high-strung professionals—hotter versions of the people you’d have a crush on at your first job after college—conspire to have their bosses fall in love so that they can have work-life balance. In the process, of course, they fall in love. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, based on Jenny Han’s book, is an aspirational teen film that does better than all the movies I’m most nostalgic for (10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, Get Over It) by never asking the smart girl to get made over by a popular boy and by making the dad character into a white wine dad. Because Netflix does not release hard numbers regarding its viewership, we have only unreliable gauges for success—I am loathe to count tweets as evidence of success; on the other hand, a lot of people I follow did change their handles to some version of “Peter Kavinsky’s Girlfriend.”

During the Depression, Wall Street analysts considered “caviar comedies” to be box office certainties. Wes D. Gehring, in his book Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference, wrote that these movies almost always included characters who fell in love across class lines to act as a “metaphor for reconciliation” between social statuses. Money, like romance, needs an audience, and Crazy Rich Asians is this summer’s caviar comedy. It is the most successful box office for a romantic comedy in nine years, grossing over $125 million in its first three weeks.

Beginning with poker and ending with mah-jongg, Crazy Rich Asians is a movie about women who know how to win. Rachel, despite being an economics professor at New York University in the year 2018, has obviously never Googled her boyfriend, or looked at his tagged photos on Instagram, or looked up his siblings on Facebook—normal modern relationship behavior. If she had, she would know that he is Nick Young, the heir to a Singapore-based real estate empire. As a prince of secular royalty, he is (for those who believe love is rigged but that they can beat the odds) the ultimate prize. “We’re economy people,” Rachel protests when a flight attendant materializes out of nowhere before they board their flight to Singapore to take them to first class, the first indicator that Nick is not all that he seems. Crazy Rich Asians recalls Cinderella myths where guilelessness is a charm that seduces the right men and naiveté is armor, protection against what she doesn’t know. Lots of women suspect that their boyfriends aren’t telling them the whole truth; these stories fantasize that one of those secrets will pay off, literally.

Like Jane Austen’s work, this is a traditional marriage plot, where the promise of a forthcoming wedding is a given. Like Edith Wharton, Kevin Kwan did better than writing what he knew—he wrote what he hated about who he knew. Mostly, the movie is best when it gets away from the perfunctory love story with Nick (he seems fine; “hot” and “very OK” are his most definable characteristics) and sets up a high-stakes courtship between Rachel and Nick’s mother, Eleanor. In its own way, this becomes a triangle with Rachel’s own mother, Kerry, hardworking and honest, who raised her daughter the way she wanted and knows not to apologize for that. Eleanor is the real prize, and the movie knows that her acquiescence matters more than the man who gets down on one knee.

Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding, and Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Color Force

In a long profile of the film for The Hollywood Reporter, one of the producers, Nina Jacobson, said she thought the story was “so mainstream and accessible—anybody can relate to being rejected by in-laws.” While that might be true, this is mostly marketing speak, selling universality as interchangeable with understanding. The specificity of Crazy Rich Asians is central to what made the film feel good to watch; not every audience member needs to intimately recognize what happens on screen, while the audience members who do will get the reward of being in the know. In the same way, there’s a different kind of white wealth in a Nancy Meyers movie than there is in a Nora Ephron movie, and Crazy Rich Asians shows a particular kind of contemporary Asian American experience paired with a distinctly Singaporean setting, letting us into a universe that feels lavish and decadent, yet is still, for some characters, a version of real life.

As Jane Hu wrote in her essay about the film for this site, “If you’re looking for clever class critique or a meditation on the historical construction of pan-Asian identity politics, you likely won’t find it. … Social realism, this film is not.” In this genre of romantic comedies, love stories get wrapped up in a nice bow while politics are left loose. Crazy Rich Asians knows what wish fulfillment it gives the audience and offers it through Rachel, who is the perfect conduit to contextualize both how wild it is that they are that rich, and for us to believe that we, too, could find a way to fit in if we lucked into that family. We, too, might decide to wear a Marchesa dress and talk to a princess about micro-loans if we got invited to these kinds of parties, probably.

While the current rom-com revival says more about quality than quantity—there are not more romantic comedies being made, but they are, mercifully, improving—this summer made itself into a touchstone for the genre’s timeline. Some movies are made to be milestones, setting themselves into the trajectory of our lives. After I wrote about the anniversary of Broadcast News last year, I received many emails from men who told me that they remembered taking the women who would become their wives to see it on their first dates. Other friends have told me stories about lines of dialogue from romantic comedies making their way into wedding toasts.

If you, like me, think about romantic comedies the way other people think of cigarette breaks—self-soothing with self-destruction—you already know the best part is what happens in our heads. They make us connect the dots between what we feel as we watch our more attractive celluloid counterparts experience their feelings, free-associating between our experiences with real life and with other movies. They carry a heavy weight for a category often considered to be so light. The bad romantic comedies buckle under that burden. The good ones know enough to keep the meta quality present, offering plots that resemble logic word problems more than stories. Consider the following: A somewhat happily married couple, both lawyers, find themselves on opposing sides of a courtroom, their beliefs about gender equality put to the test during an attempted murder trial. A divorced husband and wife are reunited in the newsroom the day before she’s set to marry her second husband, tracking the story of a death-row inmate who escaped hours before his execution. A type-A wedding planner develops a crush on the man who saved her from a runaway garbage dumpster, only to find out he’s the groom of the biggest wedding of her entire career. Lest Adam’s Rib, His Girl Friday, or The Wedding Planner seem too normal for you, there is somehow an entire subgenre of romantic comedies predicated on sleep-related disorders: Sleepless in Seattle uses insomnia and radio as metaphors for fears of intimacy and commitment; While You Were Sleeping and The Big Sick both featured comas as a family bonding experience.

Other romantic comedies want to provide audiences with an answer, and the movie is an excuse to draw out the question: Can men and women ever be friends? No. Can a romance across class lines ever work? Maybe. Can love last a lifetime? In movies, yes. Can two (almost always white, straight, cis, rich) people even find each other and fall in love in this wild world we live in? In movies, always.

Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
TriStar Pictures

What romantic comedies share are characters who agree that the expectations for how they could or should find love are stupid, but they’re going to try to find love anyway. They have an uncanny quality of recognition mixed with superstition: All of them are a mix of how things are in real life with a version of how they should be, as though we, the audience, have already agreed on how things are and how things should be. This is admittedly not a great place to start. It’s probably why they are often diminished, overpraised for achieving competency or excessively punished when they fall short. Molly Haskell once said the derision for women’s pictures was the result of considering them a “wet, wasted afternoon,” a weepy and self-indulgent excess that viewers should feel embarrassed to be seen watching, since “as a term of critical opprobrium, ‘women’s film’ carries the implication that women, and therefore women’s emotional problems, are of minor significance.”

To those who believe movies should reflect the way they want the world to be and not the world as it is, it is easy enough to rate romantic comedies as being too full of bad politics and bad faith to take seriously. I am more of the mind-set that we already live inside [waves hand in general direction of entire planet] this whole mess, and I like to see stories that exist in the same dimension that I do. A romantic comedy doesn’t succeed when it is too virtuous and fail when it is too cynical (though both of those qualities do qualify for a wet, wasted afternoon). A romantic comedy fails when it refuses to be read as a story about anything other than love: We need families and friends, really good kitchens and absurdly organized closets, and some unexamined and troubling assumptions about class, race, gender, and sexuality. This summer of the romantic comedy, with its return to familiar and relatable plots and themes, has been a relief—we’re grateful to be reminded of what we like about love, even when we hate it. Workaholics make time for love, the guarded learn to let intimacy in, everything wraps up exactly as we wanted it to—fairy tales come true. We still want the recognition of ourselves in better lighting—the shared language of our concerns, our questions, our heartbreaks and our loves but with snappier dialogue and better haircuts. Really we want nothing less than the feeling of seeing how the universe exists between two people who are almost definitely going to bang.

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