This week marks the 25th anniversary of arguably the best romantic comedy of the modern era: "When Harry Met Sally." (I write “arguably” to appease the ornery person who always steps to me, proclaiming "Love Actually" is the new sheriff in town.) And to that I say, “Show me the receipts,” which usually includes someone pointing out the film’s omnipresence on basic cable as proof, but I’m still unconvinced because Actually contains one of the most ludicrous love stories of recent memory. Colin Firth's character, Jamie, falls in love with a gorgeous, non-English speaking foreigner and they subsequently get engaged thanks to her father's response to Jamie's asking for his daughter's hand in marriage: "Who? Her? Sure." O...K.
Clearly, the rom-com is in dire straits and things only seem to be getting worse. "Think Like A Man Too," which was released three weeks ago, has decent box office numbers ($61 million dollars), but is saddled with a 24% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In the past, this sort of critical lashing would have been an anomaly for movies of its ilk instead of what it is now: par for the course.
Since the early aughts, the average rom-com now is not only getting bad reviews and poor to middling box office returns, but major film studios are releasing fewer of these films in theaters (in 2002, there were 13, including "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" which grossed $241 million domestically; this year, only five romantic comedies are coming out).
The rom-com genre is going the way of the wooly mammoth, but I have three ways it can save itself from extinction:
1) Let’s get some comedy up in here!
The genre is called “romantic comedy,” so why are so many of the films low on the funny? Where’s the witty Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell banter of "His Girl Friday," the satire of "Clueless," the go-for-broke rom-com/gross out humor mash up of "There’s Something About Mary"? Too often what's passing for "comedy" in rom-coms these days is a basic Katherine Heigl-type chick dressed in basic beige linens who vacillates between klutzy and shrill. Ugh.
It’s not much better for the men who are either the personification of a bottle of Summer’s Eve (read: douchebag) or have the personality of a day-old Morningstar breakfast patty. This is unfortunate because the great romantic comedies -- "Groundhog Day," "Bridget Jones' Diary" and "Bridesmaids" to name a few -- have illustrated that laugh-out-loud moments tend to happen because of excellent character development.
"Groundhog Day" succeeds because Phil (Bill Murray) is so self-centered, arrogant, and cynical in a real way as opposed to being a caricature of someone who has a Tourette's syndrome-type of rudeness like Gerard Butler in "The Ugly Truth." In Bridget Jones, the viewer roots for Renee Zellweger because she puts her foot in her mouth in charming ways such as accidentally ruining a job interview with a children's network when her jokes about not liking kids goes too far. If this film were being made today, her character would most likely resemble Momo, Olivia Munn's character in "I Don't Know How She Does It," who borders on being a psychopath because she genuinely doesn't understand why parents would tend to their crying babies.
"Bridesmaids," which is as much a friendship comedy as it a romantic one, makes the viewer become fully invested in Annie (Kristen Wiig) who has a less-than-satisfying friends with benefits situation with Ted (Jon Hamm) and has hit rock bottom professionally. Her realistic frustration at working at a boring jewelry store comes to a head when she gets into a vulgar argument with a teenager who appears to have a bright future ahead of her. This scene gets big laughs from the audience, who can, no doubt, relate to being stuck in a dead-end job.
Unfortunately, as it stands now, the genre leans too heavily on the "rom" with candlelit dinners and saccharine speeches and forgets to include well-developed characters who will bring the "com." To remix a quote from the movie "Fields Of Dreams," "Hollywood, if you build great characters, the funny will come."
2) Be like Charles Schwab and diversify your portfolio (AKA cast some new faces).
Sure, it’s comforting to see Drew Barrymore and Kate Hudson bumbling their way through love, but we need to switch it up, which is a task that will be difficult for Hollywood. Historically, studio executives like to stick with the tried and true which explains why Sandra Bullock has made eight rom-coms, ditto for Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston has nine, and both Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts have a whopping 11 romantic comedies under their belts.
Seeing a familiar face in these kinds of movies can serve as a short cut in terms of getting the audiences to root for these characters, but now, it seems that seeing the same handful of actors in the same kinds of movies can actually make viewers tune out and stay home. This is where the "d" word that many film studios dread -- diversity -- comes into play.
Simply put, diversity is good not only because everyone should be represented, but because it prevents things from getting stale. Getting "The Mindy Project" writer Tracy Wigfield to pen a smart romantic comedy in the signature fast-paced style that so defined her Emmy-winning work on "30 Rock" would keep die-hard rom-com fans like me intrigued. Critical darlings Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of Comedy Central’s breakout hit "Broad City" could put their down and dirty, Brooklyn spin on the increasingly glossy and materialistic (I’m talking about you, Sex and the City movies) genre. Issa Rae, who is currently developing a show for HBO, is the creator and star of the highly successful web series "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl," which focused on her work life as well as her love life, and has shown there is a healthy appetite for stories about people of color who aren't stereotypical.
If diversity for creativity's sake is not appealing enough, then let's look at the cold hard facts. Diversity is good business.
This year's "About Last Night" remake has box office grosses that are four times the film's $12 million dollar budget. That figure may seem paltry, but let's put it in perspective. Elizabeth Banks' "Walk of Shame," another rom-com from this year, only made $59,000. Ouch.
This isn't a one-time win for rom-coms starring POCs. The surprise (to non-ethnic audiences) hit "The Best Man Holiday" was the highest grossing romantic comedy of 2013, by raking in $71 million dollars, and it was released a mere six weeks before 2013 ended. The box office numbers don't lie, and there's a wealth of new, different and untapped talent out ready to the money and creative back to this genre.
3) Reinvent the wheel a little.
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again, rinse and repeat. Don’t get me wrong, I love these kinds of plots as much as anyone else, but it’s way too predictable now because -- shocker! -- not every one is straight and not every story needs to end tidily. 2001’s "Kissing Jessica Stein" shook up romantic comedies and the mainstream. Let’s build on that.
In 2014, we're still getting rom-coms starring gay and lesbian characters who are coming to terms with their identity, or learning a big lesson about their "gayness" fits into the world, or as was the case with "The Next Best Thing" where Robert (Rupert Everett), who is gay, has a drunken one night stand with terminally single Abbie (Madonna) and impregnates her. Right. Because, of course, it would be objectionable for two gay people to have drunken sex with each other and for a gay character to exist without essentially being reduced to being a sperm bank for a spinster.
We can do better than this. It's time for a major film studio to build a rom-com around a gay man or lesbian who is simply looking for love. Someone like Amy Rubin, who created and stars in the phenomenal web series "Little Horribles," would be the perfect person to helm a movie like this, which will absolutely benefit from her "Curb Your Enthusiasm"-type take on awkward situations.
Now, about this happy ending thing. I recognize this may be controversial, but it's actually not that outrageous of a suggestion. The original ending in Nora Ephron’s "When Harry Met Sally" screenplay was that Harry and Sally did not reunite, but director Rob Reiner thought it might be more appropriate for them to marry. I think it’s time someone gives us the ending that Ephron never got to see.
But outside of fulfilling Ephron's fantasy, ending a romantic comedy on something other than a big kiss or a wedding will not only liven up a stale genre, but it will also create more interesting movies. After all, not all real life relationships end up in marriage, but that doesn't mean that the relationships didn't have romance or funny moments in them. Maybe lifting the obligation of a happy ending might be what's needed to push this genre into its next stage of evolution.
So, Hollywood, what do you say? You ready to revive the romantic comedy? If so, then just say those three little words: "Who? Me? Sure."