Whatever happened to the romantic comedy?

in Nonfiction by

When I was a teenager in the late ‘90s, my friends and I devoured romantic comedies the same way we devoured platform sandals and YM magazines. We sped through When Harry Met Sally, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and The Wedding Singer. We cried our way through Sleepless and Seattle and Notting Hill. We couldn’t get enough of the adorable meetings, the quirky love stories, and that last anticipated kiss.

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Katherine Heigl

But today’s teenagers might not have the same luck. While romantic comedies were alive and well through the early 2000s, lately they seem to be on a steep decline. It used to be almost impossible to turn on your television without seeing an ad for an adorable boy-meets-girl comedy. Let’s face it: rom-coms were basically the only things keeping Katherine Heigl and Matthew McConaughey’s careers afloat. But these days it’s rare to find a romantic comedy, and even rarer for that movie to do well with audiences. The box office is filled with superheroes and adapted young adult novels, but think about it: when was the last time you’ve seen a true romantic comedy?

I recently asked my friends this very question. “I don’t know,” one of them said, “27 Dresses?” “Wasn’t there that one with Amy Adams? Something about Ireland?” another responded. Well, Amy Adam’s Leap Year came out in 2010. And 27 Dresses is more than six years old. So what happened to the rom-com?

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Matthew McConaughey

Perhaps the problem is in the definition. Rom-coms are not simply funny movies with romance. Nor are they romantic movies with a little humor. Billy Madison is not a rom-com, even though it has humor and romance. Twilight doesn’t count, either. A rom-com follows a pretty strict template – a meet-cute, followed by various hi-jinks and misunderstandings that lead to an eventual declaration of love. The tone is light, the happy ending is a given.

But sometimes that definition can get a little murky. Paste recently made a list of the 50 best romantic comedies of all time, and only two were made after 2010: Silver Linings Playbook and Moonrise Kingdom. You could argue that both films only vaguely meet the criteria of a true romantic comedy – they each have an indie feel, darker moments than the average rom-com, and deeply damaged characters. Gone are the days of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meeting-cute on top of the Empire State Building.

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Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson
About Time

It’s not that romantic comedies aren’t being made. 2013 gave us Rachel McAdam’s quirky time travel romance, About Time, and then there was Keri Russell’s Austenland, or the zombie love story Warm Bodies. But none of these movies garnered much attention, and they certainly didn’t blow up the box office. Even The Big Wedding, a movie with the star power of Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro, basically flopped. LA Weekly posits that the decline of the rom-com is a complicated blend of factors, but one of them is age and the misguided belief that teenagers buy the most movie tickets, when in reality the buying age is much higher.

But Hollywood is still catering to teenagers (often teenage boys) or to seniors, which explains the success of movies like It’s Complicated and Something’s Got to Give. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for the rom-com, with characters in their late 20s and early 30s, to flourish.

But is the romantic comedy dead or is it simply changing forms? While it might be hard to find a true rom-com these days, female-driven comedies are everywhere. After the success of Bridesmaids in 2011, Hollywood realized that gross-out comedies (originally dominated by men) can be just as successful when starring women. Look at the rash of films that have sprung up in the past few years: Elizabeth Bank’s Walk of Shame, Kristen Dunst’s Bachelorette. The coarse humor appeals to both men and women, taking away some of the stigma that used to be associated with female-driven films.

But even if they do attract more of a male audience, these movies roughly fit the criteria of rom-coms: they usually involve a meet-cute, though it tends to be a little more PG13 – getting pulled over by a cop, having a one-night stand. They have their quirky moments, but the love story is rarely the focus, instead taking a backseat to friendships and careers. It’s clear that the humor is driving the film, and the romance is almost an after-thought. In this way, they’ll never be the true rom-coms of the past, but maybe they’re becoming the rom-coms of the future.

Though we tend to think of the rom-com in a specific way, the genre is fluid and constantly changing. The rom-coms of the 1940s and ‘50s, with their eccentric women paired with staid gentlemen, bear little resemblance to the yuppy fantasies of the ‘80s, or the awkward man-children of the 2000s (see: Failure to Launch). So maybe we need to give the rom-com room to grow, to change, and to become what it will be for a new generation. If that involves Kristen Wiig and defecating in a wedding dress it can’t be all bad, right?

Fortunately great romantic comedies can still be found in novels. To enter to win an copy of New York Times bestselling author Janet Chapman‘s book, The Highlander Next Door (, called “…a story filled with wit and tenderness…” by Booklist, click the giveaway icon below.

Rachel Carter grew up surrounded by trees and snow and mountains. She graduated from the University of Vermont and Columbia University, where she received her MFA in nonfiction writing. She is the author of the So Close to You series with Harperteen. These days you can find her working on her next novel in the woods of Vermont.

1 Comment

  1. I think that the decline of big screen romcoms is due to a few factors. Hollywood is first a business, and the movies that make money are the ones that get the money. Right now, that’s the action, special effects movies that appeal to the 18-35 males who go to the movies. Of course, they are the primary movie goers partly because movies that appeal to them are the primary movie fare. Then, there is the compartmentalizing of TV cable — go to this channel for this, that channel for that. Lifetime & ABC Family frequently have new romcoms. However, production costs may also be a factor — the majority of those small screen romcoms are made in Canada, where labor is cheaper and production costs overall are lower. The growth of online entertainment might be a factor as well; the internet might well be the new home of romcoms.

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