Trouble in paradise: how we fell for, broke up with, and got back together with the rom-com

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

It was a time when a floppy-haired Hugh Grant politely stammered his way into our hearts, when Julia Roberts’ mega-watt charisma had us all head over heels and when a poster of two big-name stars standing back-to-back had the power to propel millions of people into the cinema. From the Nineties into the mid-Noughties, the film industry was infatuated with the romantic comedy.

This boom for the genre cemented the careers of stars from Jennifer Lopez to Reese Witherspoon, Meg Ryan to Matthew McConaughey; we watched them declare their love to one another by running across airport terminals, commandeering press conferences and turning up on doorsteps in the pouring rain.

Then, somewhere along the way, audiences seemed to fall out of love with the glossy studio rom-com. The tropes became clichés, the stories – and the gender politics they often relied on – got tired and titles like Failure to Launch (a particularly lacklustre effort starring McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker) became prophecies. The end of the affair also coincided with a major shift in Hollywood: the decline of the middle-budget movie.

“We were in an era where suddenly everything was becoming a $300 million Spider-Man movie or a $10 million movie that might win Best Picture,” explains Scott Meslow, author of From Hollywood With Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy. “There was just not a lot of interest in the middle ground.”

Ticket to Paradise (Universal Pictures)
Ticket to Paradise (Universal Pictures)

But if these films taught us anything, it’s that love finds a way, and in recent years, the rom-com has been circling a comeback. Crazy Rich Asians and its $238 million box office marked a real sea change in 2018, not only proving that rom-coms could still generate serious money, but that audiences wanted to see more representative love stories (other successes like The Big Sick, Netflix’s charming To All The Boys I Loved Before and Hulu’s Happiest Season then seemed to show that the film industry was finally waking up to the fact that love doesn’t just happen for straight, white couples).

This year alone has seen some of the biggest names of the Noughties return with brand new romances, from Lopez (Marry Me) to Sandra Bullock (The Lost City) to Roberts (Ticket to Paradise, featuring bonus George Clooney). These films are almost definitely capitalising on a certain millennial nostalgia, but it’s also refreshing to see these women as romantic leads again.

“If you’re a woman, you grew out of the rom-com once you stopped being seen as the love interest and you became the mum,” says Dr Alice Guilluy, deputy leader in MA programmes at MetFilm School and author of Guilty Pleasures: European Audiences and Contemporary Hollywood Romantic Comedy.“Watching Ticket to Paradise [where Roberts plays a divorced woman forced to reunite with her ex in Bali, where their daughter is getting married], you think, isn’t it brilliant that the mum is finally becoming the love interest?”

There are new milestones, too: last month, Bros became the first gay rom-com to get a major studio release in the US, and will landed in UK cinemas last week (it arrives a few months after Fire Island, a queer re-telling of Pride and Prejudice set in Long Island, debuted on Disney+).

Star Billy Eichner, who co-wrote the film with director Nicholas Stoller, plays podcaster Bobby, who has, like so many rom-com leads before him, sworn off relationships. He finds his resolve tested when he meets Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), who he initially writes off as “hot but boring” (but eventually realises only the former is true).

Like much of this new generation of rom-coms, Bros is very aware of its status within the genre: nods to previous movies are “part of the fabric of the film”, Stoller says, and in one of the opening scenes, we see Eichner’s character meeting with a studio exec, who wants him to write a rom-com that “a straight guy might like” (his response: “Am I going to be in the middle of some high-speed chase and all of a sudden fall in love with Ice Cube?”). That moment, Stoller says, stemmed from Eichner’s “years of being in the industry, and the industry not really knowing what to do with him, because he’s been an out gay actor his entire career.” (Stoller himself is straight: “I might not know as much about gay [relationships], but I certainly know a lot about masculinity and toxic masculinity”).

The film grapples with the question of whether a historically heteronormative formcan properly reflect a queer relationship. “There’s a meta element to it,” says Stoller. “We’re commenting on, ‘is [this genre] equipped to deal with a gay relationship in an honest way?’” It was “really important” to him and Eichner “that it not feel like it could be a straight couple and you [could] take the girl out and replace it with a guy”, because that wouldn’t feel authentic. When he was attempting to cut the film’s run time, he experimented by removing a scene where Aaron asks Bobby if they can have group sex at a Christmas party (Bobby, naturally, makes a flippant comparison to When Harry Met Sally) “and suddenly it felt very heteronormative, and could be a straight [relationship]… It actually completely kind of ruined the movie.”

So, are we seeing a return to the golden age of the studio rom-com, this time with more inclusive and representative stories? It’s certainly a tempting narrative (and who doesn’t love a happy ending?) but the bigger picture is, to paraphrase a Nancy Meyers film, complicated. Despite earning strong reviews (and “the highest testing score” from audiences of Stoller’s career to date), Bros’ US box office has been disappointing. In a series of tweets, Eichner seemed to suggest that homophobia was behind the poor showing. “Straight people, especially in certain parts of the country, just didn’t show up for Bros,” he wrote. “And that’s disappointing but it is what it is.”

Shotgun Wedding (Prime Video)
Shotgun Wedding (Prime Video)

The film landscape it arrived into is also markedly different to the genre’s Nineties and Noughties heyday. Cinemas are still fighting to win audiences back post-lockdown, and the romantic comedy, with its distinct lack of explosions (aside from fireworks of the metaphorical kind, of course), might not make as obvious a case for being seen on a huge screen as, say, a flashy superhero franchise – but it seems that studios are already masterminding potential ways to get around this.

“We’re in an era where event movies are going to do better,” notes Meslow. “It needs to be something that [viewers] want to see on the big screen […] You cross-pollinate a rom-com with another genre, which is why The Lost City is an action romantic comedy, it’s why Marry Me is a concert film in a romantic comedy, it’s why even something like Ticket to Paradise, which is a relatively conventional rom-com in structure, is set in the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen: it feels like an escape just to hang out in that setting with those people.”

It’s also presumably why the trailer for Shotgun Wedding, J Lo’s next rom-com-ish effort, takes a bizarre turn somewhere around the 90 second mark, when a bunch of gun-wielding mercenaries arrive at her nuptials and start picking off the guests.

It’s on streaming platforms, though, that the genre is truly thriving. “It’s fascinating that with all of their data, more data than anyone has ever had on what people are watching at any point in history, [Netflix says], ‘Here’s a rom-com every week!’” Meslow says. “If people weren’t watching them, they would not be making them. And boy, are they making a lot of them.”

When Hollywood turned its back on the rom-com, Netflix essentially “had their choice of all the spec scripts that people had written… because no one was picking them up,” the writer adds. The streamer tested the waters with its “summer of love” season in 2018, and has since intensified its efforts, though not, it should be said, always to great acclaim – many are unashamedly formulaic, just like the Hallmark movies that Stoller and Eichner send up in Bros.

Its better efforts, like To All The Boys…, are testament to the value of “the infusion of diversity into the genre”, Meslow argues. “I think it’s clear that the streamers have done such a good job investing in those creators and giving them the resources to tell their story.”

TV is offering a platform for love stories, too, allowing them to stretch beyond the confines of a zippy 90-minute meet-cute-to-wedding-montage structure. Richard Curtis might not have made a sprawling ensemble romance for a while, but shows like Rose Matafeo’s Starstruck (with its Notting Hill-esque premise of a film star falling for, and trying to make things work with, a civilian) and Paramount+’s upcoming adaptation of Beth O’Leary’s novel The Flatshare are creating a new, more realistic London rom-com landscape – one where you’re more likely to live in a damp-ridden rental than a Chelsea mews.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (Alamy Stock Photo)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (Alamy Stock Photo)

In The Flatshare, Tiffany (Jessica Brown Findlay) signs up for an unorthodox living arrangement after breaking up with her boyfriend: she’ll sleep in the flat’s one bedroom at night, then flatmate Leon (Anthony Welsh) will return from his night shift while she is at work. “It was about grounding those tropes with something real,” says Rose Lewenstein, the show’s lead writer and executive producer. “If you’re racing across town to tell a person that you love them, maybe you’re not in a car from Kensington to the Ritz, maybe you’re on the bus from Norwood Junction and the bus driver won’t let you off… I wanted the show to really embrace the messiness of love and friendship, and the reality of living in London when you’re young and broke, because it’s sad but it’s also funny: ‘how the hell am I meant to meet someone when I can’t even afford my own bedroom?’”

Charting a romance over six episodes, she adds, means “you can go into the kind of nooks and crannies of [the characters’] lives that maybe you can’t afford to see when you’re in a 90 minute movie.” And while the cinematic rom-com might be embracing some larger-than-life tendencies to draw in viewers, her series doubles down on the opposite.“This is going to be watched on your sofa on your TV, when you’re in bed with your iPad” she says. “It’s a really intimate experience with the characters in a way that’s not quite the same for a film.”

Rom-coms have always been easy to dismiss, written off as “fluffy, sweet, saccharine,” Guilluy argues, “the idea [being] that they’re not films that have a cinematic impact, or that will have a lasting canon – you just consume them and then you’re done.” Yet “these movies, when they work, tend to be the ones that people watch over and over and over again,” as Stoller puts it.

Perhaps that’s because, as the director reckons, “seeing two people fall in love is just the most human thing.” And when the world around us seems to offer unremitting gloom, don’t we all deserve a glimmer of escapism? The genre, Meslow argues, persists against the odds because it is fundamentally hopeful. “To look at the positive side of [life] is an act of hope… That’s a refreshing thing for an audience to go in and appreciate, and I think there’s always going to be a hunger for that. Especially in what feels like dark and apocalyptic times to many of us, certainly to me, I appreciate not just being buried in doom and gloom. And I think a good rom-com takes us there.”

Bros and Ticket to Paradise are in cinemas now. The Flatshare is on Paramount+ later this year