In the popular vernacular, “romantic comedy” is synonymous with “bad movie.” A romantic comedy is trite, overly sentimental and devoid of real comedy or romance. It is the apogee of every overused film convention and represents everything wrong with Hollywood today.
The romantic comedy’s recent history has earned this lowest rung in the hierarchy of film genres. As certainly as Kate Hudson, Matthew McConaughey, Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler, etc. will continue starring in “romantic comedy” films, those films will be terrible. These cliché-ridden movies follow the same banal formula, substituting one indistinguishable pretty face for another, and we are forced to watch the same vapid characters play out the same lifeless story over and over again, in an interminable series of filmic torture.
Clearly, I do not intend to defend these films. But I intend to defend the romantic comedy genre as one that garners near-universal disrespect. Because there is nothing intrinsically wrong with idea of romantic comedy. In fact, it is one of the most beloved of all film genres and was once one of the surest paths to critical and financial success.
Historically, comedy and romance are inextricably linked in film; as long as there has been comedy, there has been romantic comedy. In the early days of silent slapstick comedy, every Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton two-reeler, though dominated by inventive slapstick gags, featured a romantic narrative. Whatever hardships the hapless protagonist endured, if he “got the girl,” it was all worth it. And even through to the sound era and the Golden Age of Hollywood, nearly every mainstream comedy film had a romantic plot to drive the narrative. Even the wonderful Marx Brothers comedies, famous for their anarchic incoherence and lack of story, had romantic subplots.
Granted, in some of these early romantic comedies, the romantic part feels perfunctory, as if the studio shoehorned it in just because they believed that’s what the audience wanted. But I would argue that it is what the audience wanted, and still wants, at least when it comes to comedy. Because, although many are satirical or critical, a comedy’s primary goal is to entertain.
This makes romance the perfect compliment to comedy. There is nothing more entertaining than a romance that ends happily, and the ones in romantic comedies always do. This is why screwball comedies, which were always romantic comedies, were so popular during the Great Depression. The impoverished public wanted an escape from their troubles, and romantic comedy offered the best way to do that.
And romantic comedies, apart from being some of the most commercially successful films in Hollywood’s early period, were also critically more successful than they are today. In the early years of the Academy Awards, though dramas still dominated, romantic comedies often won Best Picture. “It Happened One Night,” a 1934 romantic comedy, one of the best-loved of the genre, won five Oscars — Best Director, Picture, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay.
But “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” (1977) are the only romantic comedies to win Best Picture in the last 40 years. Although this can be partly attributed to critical snobbery (comedies in general tend to be snubbed at the Oscars), it’s mostly due to the terrible quality of modern romantic comedy.
So why did this previously beloved genre become one that is almost ubiquitously reviled? Paradoxically, the romantic comedy has become so hated because of its earlier success. Since they were so well loved, and so commercially successful, these films sunk into the familiar formula that we see so often repeated today, and the genre became stagnated. Most of its modern conventions were present in the screwball comedies of the 1930s, the difference being those early films still maintained some wit and originality. But when a genre’s tropes have existed for this long, a certain amount of stagnation is to be expected.
And these films have become so bad that there is a stigma to the romantic comedy title — if a film is good, there is a hesitancy to call it a romantic comedy. But there are still good films being made in the genre. Every Woody Allen film, with a few exceptions, is a romantic comedy; most of Wes Anderson’s films can be considered romantic comedies; even Judd Apatow’s films, with their crudeness and ostensibly male-targeted humor, are romantic comedies at heart.
The reason these filmmakers succeed (some of Mr. Allen’s recent work notwithstanding) in this generally despised genre is that their films fit the narrative conditions of romantic comedy, while pushing the genre’s boundaries visually and thematically, and retaining their own original, creative voice. They carry on the storied romantic comedy tradition without succumbing to its pitfalls. And while the few recent, successful romantic comedies don’t make up for the damage done by the execrable, populist Hollywood rom-com, they show that to have romance and comedy in a movie shouldn’t immediately condemn it. After all, we like to see the guy get the girl, and laugh along the way.