Love is (still) in the air: how the romcom came back from the dead

After decades of dominance, the romcom became a succession of tired cliches. But thanks to streaming – and more diverse casting – it’s back on our screens

The romcom was dead and buried. Matthew McConaughey had leaned against his final wall and Kate Hudson had been the recipient of her last grand romantic gesture. Even Hugh Grant had sworn off them, claiming he was “too old and ugly”, as movie studios abandoned dashes through airport security and beautiful but clumsy women tripping over pavement kerbs.

Between 1990 and 2002, the romcom, from Sleepless in Seattle (1993) to As Good As It Gets (1997) to My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), reigned supreme. A wave of women, including Meg Ryan, Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lopez, were making us – and a rotating cast of square-jawed hunks – fall in love with them.

But the tide began to turn as the market became saturated with by-the-numbers movies that were missing the magic of their predecessors: forgettable dross such as Rumour Has It, Failure to Launch and Made of Honour (don’t look up their Rotten Tomatoes scores). Audience numbers fell and studios moved on to epic fantasy franchises and building cinematic universes.

So the romantic comedy went undercover. It snuck into cinemas in the form of guy-centric grossouts from Judd Apatow, or indies such as The Big Sick, or even disguised as prestige musicals like La La Land. TV picked up the slack, with The Mindy Project, Lovesick and Jane the Virgin variously embracing, playing with or subverting the genre.

Except it turns out that the big, traditional romcom was not quite as lifeless as we thought. In 2018, Netflix declared a “summer of love” and embarked on a campaign to woo us back to joyously escapist and predictable schmaltz. It appears to have succeeded: the streaming giant reported that 80 million people watched at least one of its original romcoms in the following three months. Now it is set to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a sequel to breakout hit To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (now with the gooey addendum P.S. I Still Love You).

And if McConaughey thought he’d had a renaissance, 2020 is shaping up to give romcoms the same, with a wealth of new releases slated to make us go weak at the knees. Among others, there is Love. Wedding. Repeat, starring Sam Claflin and Olivia Munn (Netflix bought the rights at Cannes), Marry Me, with old hands Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, and a double offering from Issa Rae – she stars in The Photograph with Lakeith Stanfield and The Lovebirds with Kumail Nanjiani. Like its many star-crossed lovers, the romcom has made it against all the odds.

Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson filming Marry Me.
America’s sweethearts… Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson filming Marry Me. Photograph: James Devaney/GC

And the odds were many, because romcoms are an easy target. Rubbished by critics as lightweight fluff, avoided by male audiences and mocked by wider pop culture, they went from bubbly box-office hits to guilty pleasures – something that their largely female fans were embarrassed to admit to liking. As Dr Deborah Jermyn, a reader in film and television at the University of Roehampton, says: “[Romcoms have] always been held in low esteem. The association of romantic comedy for many years was that it’s a ‘women’s genre’ – that it’s nothing to be taken seriously, it’s trivial.” Like “chick-lit”, romcoms have been afforded little cultural value because they not only played to women but put them front and centre. As Dr Jermyn says: “You get to hear women speak on screen for much longer than in other kinds of cinema.”

Martha Shearer, assistant professor in film studies at University College Dublin, says that the romcom’s largely female audience is unfairly condescended to. “There are a lot of assumptions being made about the people who watch them – that they are dupes or can’t see that genre films are conventional – in the way that the person making that criticism evidently can. It’s a fundamentally elitist criticism,” she says. “Mass female audiences are more than capable of responding to media texts critically at the same time as enjoying them.”

The best romcoms are similarly cognisant of the genre’s conventions. For a romcom to succeed, it has to be unashamedly sincere. Characters are required to believe in love and although they might come up against obstacles, they will overcome them. We know – because we know romcoms – that they will have a happy ending (although it might not be the one you thought).

Love, Simon.
Too cool for school… Love, Simon. Photograph: Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox

The new raft of romantic comedies are unashamedly in this tradition. They are overblown, standing-on-the-cafeteria-table, public declarations of love to the genre. Beyond To All the Boys … there’s gay high-school romcom Love, Simon; Set It Up, a snappy Netflix story about two overworked assistants setting up their demanding bosses only to fall for each other; and Always Be My Maybe, a funny, charming love story about actual grownups, played by Ali Wong and Randall Park.

Although some have played in cinemas – such as mega-hit Crazy Rich Asians and Long Shot, with Charlize Theron and Seth Rogan – it is streaming where new romcoms have really rediscovered their mojo. It makes sense. When female fans in particular have relentlessly had their taste questioned, why not retreat to the safety of their own homes to watch without fear of ridicule? Streaming plays to all the strengths of romcom success: word-of-mouth buzz, rewatches, movie marathons. They do not require Imax viewing (a laptop screen will do just fine), and if you fall asleep in the middle, you will probably be able to pick things up pretty quickly.

What all these films share is real affection and respect for the genre, their characters and the people watching them. They understand the necessary components for giving us exactly what we want, right down to the corny titles. When romcoms were a dime-a-dodgy-dozen in the later 00s, there was a tendency for studios to think their audiences were hooked by silliness and contrivance (eg Ghosts of Girlfriends Past), instead of the real attraction: human connection (albeit between outrageously good-looking people with beautiful homes and enormous wardrobes).

Sonoya Mizuno in Crazy Rich Asians.
Wild bride… Sonoya Mizuno in Crazy Rich Asians. Photograph: Warner Bros

As the feminist writer and self-proclaimed romcom fanatic Roxane Gay has said: “It’s not that I believe love actually happens the way Hollywood pretends it does … I do, however, enjoy a good lie.” She even suggests that gaping plot holes are essential, in order to distract us from how absurdly straightforward they make out love to be.

But even as the core elements remain, it is not all the same old same old. Along with the gendered snobbiness aimed at romcoms, there have also been plenty of fair critiques: it is true that they almost exclusively told white, wealthy, heterosexual stories. The considerable crop of successful black romcoms such as Love & Basketball or The Best Man were consigned to their cultural niche rather than welcomed into the canon. The new class of romcoms is attempting to give us considerably more diverse casts (including leads) as well as more inclusive non-heterosexual love stories such as Happiest Season, a Clea Duvall-directed lesbian romcom starring Kristen Stewart, and a still-untitled gay romcom written by and starring Billy Eichner and produced by Judd Apatow. And because romcoms demand happy endings, they are a space where minority stories can be told with hope and joy, something not always afforded them in mainstream prestige storytelling.

There are other changes, too, such as paying attention to power dynamics, body-shaming, sexual politics, toxic gender stereotyping and portrayals of consent (which the new To All the Boys sequel makes a clear point of addressing). In other words, we’re unlikely to see remakes of Never Been Kissed, in which a high-school teacher cultivated a very problematic relationship with one of his students (crucially before he finds out she’s actually a 25-year-old undercover journalist), and Shallow Hal, in which Jack Black can only be attracted to a fat woman if he’s bewitched into thinking she looks like Gwyneth Paltrow (minus the fat suit). Of course not all the newcomers will be woke, or indeed even any good: Netflix’s The Kissing Booth – a high-school love triangle in which possessive brothers both lay claim to a sweet, naive heroine – is a culprit of being both pretty rubbish and romanticising emotionally manipulative behaviour. Of course, it’s getting a sequel.

Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker in Failure to Launch.
Damp squib… Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker in Failure to Launch. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

Films like this and To All the Boys sit at the teen end of the spectrum – all high-school drama and first loves – but they are playing to Netflix’s legions of young viewers. Many of those watching in 2020 will not have been old enough, or even born, the last time the genre was having a moment. Dr Jermyn says there is a good reason romcoms have such longevity: “Whatever’s going on in the world, if we’re in a peak or a trough in terms of global politics, you can’t really get away from the charm and the belief in the fact that people will meet and fall in love, whatever the circumstances. That’s always going to keep driving it.”

The world is a complicated place and a lot of people live under trying circumstances. It makes sense then that we would turn to the cynicism-free comfort of a romcom, a safe space for us to experience and express emotion, with limited peril. It is perhaps the one genre that truly understands the value of short-but-sweet, rarely coming in much over 100 minutes; in a market saturated by choice, this is not to be sniffed at. Good romcoms can see you through breakups, honeymoon periods, actual periods, hangovers, bad days and good days. They ring true to teenagers who have never even held hands, and to jaded romantics who think they have seen it all. What romcoms lacked in the Matthew McConaughey-leaning-against-a-succession-of-women era was an understanding that love – and all the meet-cutes, hijinks, misunderstandings, mistaken identities and heartache that come with it – doesn’t only happen to straight, white people. Being formulaic isn’t necessarily a bad thing when the formula works; it’s just some of the components that need an update.

Everyone deserves to see themselves dating someone for a bet, having a snog in the rain and realising that maybe the right person was in front of them all along. It has been a bumpy old ride back to the top for romcoms, but then the course of true love never did run smoothly.

To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You is available from 12 February on Netflix

• This article was amended on 8 February 2020. The actor in the Crazy Rich Asians photo is Sonoya Mizuno, not Constance Wu as stated in an earlier version.

Contributor

Rachael Sigee

The GuardianTramp

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