The romantic comedy has created, on top of everything else, a new genre: the obituary for the romantic comedy. Sometimes the obits gloat (as in: good riddance to the genre that gave us Valentine’s Day); more often, though, they mourn. “It's not only that audiences are refusing to see romantic comedies,” LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson noted in February, having made the death declaration. “It's that romantic comedies aren't getting made, at least not by the major studios. The Big Wedding, 2013's sole boy-meets-girl-meets-matrimony comedy, was unceremoniously dumped into theaters by big indie Lionsgate and limped to No. 101 on the chart.”
The latest round of rom-com-psalms comes in response to They Came Together, the genre satire starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd. They Came Together has gotten mixed reviews since its theatrical release last week (Rotten Tomatoes score: 69 percent), and many of the criticisms have shared a complaint: the fact that the films the satire is satirizing are, generally … old. Really old. When Harry Met Sally and You've Got Mail old. Shoulder pads and permed hair and screechy modems old. "As They Came Together wore on,” The Daily Beast's Andrew Romano writes, “I started to realize that every movie it was referencing was at least 15 years old. That no one under the age of, say, 30 would have any clue what Rudd and Poehler were parodying." The movie does mock a smattering of more recent films, too—Wedding Crashers, Meet the Parents, Love Actually—but for the most part, the love being actuallied here has been transplanted straight from the Clinton era.
In part, this odd anachronism stems from the fact that Michael Showalter and David Wain wrote They Came Together’s script several years ago (it was put together quickly once Poehler and Rudd signed on as stars). But the creakiness can also be blamed on a broad problem with the genre They Came Together is sending up: the romantic comedy itself.
Commercially, rom-coms are rom-bombing. “After a decade of essentially printing money,” Chris Orr put it last year, “the genre abruptly ran out of box-office steam in 2012.” Partly that’s because American rituals of romance don't translate as easily to the global market as do, say, robots and aliens and explosions and the culturally transcendent whiz-bang of Transformers and Pacific Rim. And partly it’s because, as Romano notes, movies increasingly rely on the wallets of tween-to-teen boys—not a group likely to pay $15 (or $5 on iTunes or Amazon, or even $0 on BitTorrent) to watch Katherine Heigl self-actualize into tentative soulmatehood. The financial incentives, at the moment, run counter to another When Harry Met Sally being made. We will no longer have what she’s having.
So that's the commercial side of things. But there's also the cultural. And this is where the aspirational obit-writing (sorry, Valentine's Day) comes in. Because the truth is that romantic comedies are, as works of art and pieces of culture, terrible. They are usually some ungodly, unseemly, unsexy combination of: stale, trite, silly, and formulaic. They are often offensively anti-feminist. The generous reading of all this is that recent films and their creators became victims, essentially, of the innovator's dilemma: They got too good at obeying their own, once-successful formulas—and failed to see beyond them.
The less generous reading is that film executives and creators failed to see the culture changing around them. The rom-com industrial complex—the cultural institution charged with capturing romance as a kind of ritual—failed to recognize the evolution of romance itself.
It's an obvious point, but: Romance—and cultural assumptions about what romance is and should be—evolve along with everything else. And that shape-shifting element of love's eternal flame is in large part why the rom-com has been so popular, and so powerful, as a genre: It has had, under all its treacle and trifles, an instructional element. It has trafficked in templates and archetypes as much as characters and plots. It has operated under the assumption that romance, for all its magic, is fundamentally mysterious—and that Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon, being both quirky and attractive in a compelling-but-unthreatening way, are uniquely qualified to help us navigate it. What cosmic confusions ensue when Mars and Venus fall in love? We may know anecdotally, from our own lives, but we look to Hollywood to lend that union a universal shape and structure. The screen has promised method to love's madness.
Which is to say that the rom-com has been, on top of everything else, the cinematic equivalent of Cosmo. Here, let Katherine Heigl/Mila Kunis/Rachel McAdams/an accessibly pretty person named Jennifer teach you everything you always wanted to know about love (but were afraid to ask)! Let the movies help you Be Your Best Self, through the tales they tell! That journalistic element has been a standing feature of the rom-com throughout its evolution—from the Screwball era of the Depression, to the comedies of manners that accompanied the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s, to the quirky explorations of the counterculture of the '70s and '80s, to the twee character studies that came from the collision of the women’s movement and the economic prosperity of the '80s and '90s. It has, through all the upheaval, promised that romance can be made, despite its mysteries and occasional miseries, sensible. And also sublime.
So the familiar tropes of the rom-com—the fussy woman, the caddish man, the love lost and re-gained, usually at a wedding and/or an airport—have also been a large part of their appeal. They’ve been a way of channeling the 19th century’s little remnants of Romanticism—the belief in the moral primacy of emotion, and in the fact that, essentially, love conquers all—into the social mores of the 20th and 21st. They’ve allowed rom-coms, basically, to function as allegories. Like a chain restaurant, where the Riblets are the same no matter where you eat them, the rom-com promises you the same basic recipe, sweet and sour and heaped in a basket.