rom com revival

Rom-Com Revival

With new stars and new stories, the genre is back and better than ever.

As a kid, I remember curling up on the couch with my dad to watch classic romantic comedies like Roman Holiday and The African Queen. Later, I discovered my own teen rom-com faves like 10 Things I Hate About You and The Princess Diaries. As I got older, I connected to the messy lives of the heroines in 27 Dresses and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And now, whenever I feel gloomy about the state of the world, I throw on Love Actually—or any one of the dozens of films like it in my collection.

But in recent years, the genre, once a staple of the multiplex, fell out of fashion—according to a report from the news site Quartz, only nine rom-coms were released in U.S. theaters in 2008, compared to 41 in 2004. That left rom-com lovers to seek out smaller releases or turn to TV shows like New Girl, The Mindy Project, and Jane the Virgin, which emerged to pick up the slack. But there’s good news for those who prefer their romantic comedies in glossy movie form: Rom-coms are officially back in style.

Last summer, Crazy Rich Asians, an old-fashioned rom-com with a cross-cultural twist, grossed more than $174 million domestically, while Netflix released six original titles as part of its “Summer of Love,” including the endearing workplace comedy Set It Up and the wildly charming high school romance To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. More importantly, the way people talk about romantic comedies has started to shift. After years of sheepishly lumping them into the “guilty pleasure” category, fans are questioning why they had to put a caveat on their love of funny, romantic stories in the first place. This new era of rom-coms is all about taking the guilt out of guilty pleasures. 

Though the films might have disappeared from cinemas for a bit, love for the genre never truly went away. According to Netflix director of acquisitions Matt Brodlie, the company created its new slate of rom-coms because users were watching and rewatching so many classic films. While Netflix doesn’t release detailed viewing information, it did note in a quarterly earnings report that more than 80 million subscribers watched one “Summer of Love” title.

“The best rom-coms offer escapism with emotional heft. They’re about the charm of the journey, not the surprise of the ending.”

The results aren’t surprising. By combining the emotional stakes of a romance with the lightness of a comedy, the best rom-coms offer escapism with emotional heft. They’re about the charm of the journey, not the surprise of the ending. Knowing Harry rushes to be by Sally’s side on New Year’s Eve doesn’t make the emotional roller-coaster leading up to that point any less satisfying. (My personal favorite ending is The Wedding Singer, which blends silliness and sweetness in the perfect plane serenade.) And one of the greatest scenes is actually about the feeling of getting swept away by a romantic movie: Rita Wilson’s character in Sleepless in Seattle gets choked up recounting how much she loves An Affair to Remember (her friends, hilariously, mock her for it).

To fully appreciate the appeal of the genre, it’s important to understand that it is a genre, with its own conventions and tropes. Rom-coms are sometimes criticized for being unrealistic, but the genre isn’t trying to create a realistic portrayal of romance any more than a heist movie is trying to depict a realistic theft. Instead, it takes the universal life experience of falling in love and explores it in a funny, heightened, romanticized way. And storytellers have been doing that for a long time. 

William Shakespeare solidified tropes that are still popular today, like the enemies-to-lovers of Much Ado About Nothing. Jane Austen, too, remains hugely influential on the genre, especially for the way novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility anchored romantic stories from a female perspective. Their works continue to be brought to life on-screen, both in period adaptations and modern reworkings like 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) and Clueless (Emma). 

Each new era of filmmakers puts its own spin on the genre, too. The 1930s and 1940s popularized the “screwball comedy,” fast-talking physical comedies that featured the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant playing motor-mouthed characters in films like Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story. Musicals became one of the go-to mediums in the 1950s, while the 1960s offered winking “bedroom comedies,” like those made by Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Romantic comedies of the 1970s were shaped by the more naturalistic, neurotic style of films like Annie Hall, while John Hughes pioneered the high school format with 1980s films like Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink. In each subsequent generation, filmmakers built on what came before while adding their own twists. 

That culminated in the golden age of the romantic comedy: the 1990s. If hearing “rom-com” conjures up images of warm, realistic banter and big declarations of love, it’s probably because of this era. 

The ’90s renaissance began with the one-two punch of 1989’s When Harry Met Sally and 1990’s Pretty Woman, both critical and commercial successes. Stars like Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Hugh Grant ruled the genre, while creative forces like Nora Ephron, Garry Marshall, and Richard Curtis shaped the look and feel of the modern romantic comedy in films like Sleepless in Seattle, Notting Hill, You’ve Got Mail, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. The best of these hit a sweet spot between cynical and sweet, lighthearted and emotional, comedic and grounded. They offer a version of romance filtered through rose-colored glasses, but they aren’t shallow. Some, like My Best Friend’s Wedding, even challenge the idea of the rom-com happy ending.

The golden era lasted into the early 2000s, as Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson, and Matthew McConaughey rose to prominence in films like Sweet Home Alabama, The Wedding Planner, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Broader in their comedy and more heightened with their premises, these rom-coms slowly gave way to formulaic ones that lost their charming originality. Even big names weren’t enough to make up for that lack of heart in movies like The Ugly Truth and Fool’s Gold, and Hollywood’s “quantity over quality” approach eventually turned the tide against rom-coms, driving them largely underground.

“It wasn’t until rom-coms went away that people realized how much they missed them—or at least the good ones.”

But absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it wasn’t until rom-coms went away that people realized how much they missed them—or at least the good ones. Not coincidentally, the resurgence has been met with an overall shift in the conversation about women in media. Feminist critics began to question why emotional, feminine stories were considered less inherently valuable than violent, masculine ones. The things people took for granted about romantic comedies started to be celebrated as the best things about them. For instance, the genre has long been a haven for compelling female protagonists—something Hollywood is sorely lacking elsewhere. Women made up just 24 percent of protagonists in the 100 top-grossing films of 2017, according to a study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. 

Crazy Rich Asians demonstrates the power of the romantic comedy to elevate women’s stories. The film stars Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, an economics professor who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s parents, only to discover that he’s from one of the wealthiest, most elite families in the country. Beyond Rachel herself, the film is full of memorable female characters, including Awkwafina’s goofy Peik Lin, Gemma Chan’s ethereal Astrid, and Michelle Yeoh’s commanding Eleanor, Rachel’s intimidating potential mother-in-law. Though there are plenty of swoon-worthy scenes between Rachel and her boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), the heart of the film is about Rachel and Eleanor’s complex dynamic, as well as Rachel’s far warmer relationship with her own mother.

As Crazy Rich Asians proves, the genre has more to offer than big gestures and happily ever afters. And that’s been true for a long time. A take on Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary is first and foremost about a woman finding the personal and professional confidence to start a new chapter of her endearingly imperfect life. It’s got a great romance (Mark Darcy’s “I like you very much, just as you are” is in my pantheon of perfect rom-com lines), but it has an even better female lead. 

This new era has a chance to revitalize what works about the genre while giving it an update. As the first Hollywood blockbuster with an all-Asian cast in 25 years, Crazy Rich Asians helped bring some much-needed diversity to the rom-com landscape. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before also offered Asian-American representation while updating the dated gender dynamics of the John Hughes formula to something more nuanced and thoughtful. Meanwhile, movies like Love, Simon and Alex Strangelove are slowly bringing more LGBTQ representation to the genre. Romantic comedies are finding new life by simply shifting the lens on whose stories get told.

Part of the reason the genre went away is because it started to feel formulaic, but these new releases are bringing back heart. The best romantic comedies offer the same thing as all the best films: a good story well told. And when it comes to loving the genre, there’s nothing to feel guilty about.

Caroline Siede is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic whose work regularly appears on The A.V. Club. Follow her on Twitter @carolinesiede.

Photography by bhofack2/iStock

Originally Published February 2019