When boy-meets-girl met the Millennials, conventional wisdom says, pop culture’s longtime love affair with the generic romantic comedy came to an end. You know the old rom-com formula: A boy and a girl meet serendipitously, their obvious chemistry is prolongedly undermined by either mutual hatred or social barriers, and by the 90-minute-mark we see a happy ending and final, passionate embrace. The frequency with which the same old storyline is used is only ever matched by the frequency with which the same stars are, too.
The sameness might be why so many people have said the rom com is dying. There are still a lot of movies both romantic and funny that don’t quite fit into the genre. They feature bros (Neighbors), lesbians (The Kids Are All Right), parents (Sex Tape), Friends With Benefits, and zombies (Warm Bodies). The diversity of portrayals may be meant to appeal to Millennials, the teens-through-thirties set that makes up much of Hollywood’s target audience.
So why is it that this summer’s romantic comedy for Millennials, What If, is so generic? The film features a bunch of twee Gen Y stock characters—including Daniel Radcliffe as Wallace, a parent’s nightmare (a med-school dropout who lives in his aunt’s attic), and Zoe Kazan as Chantry, a chronic overachiever and artistic animator. But it’s also a story that reboots the Hollywood rom com of old. Wallace and Chantry meet. They have obvious chemistry. Chantry is involved with someone else. They pledge to be friends. And we ask, once more, “Can men and women be just friends?”
The question might seem outdated in an era in which the pair could just start cashing in on their Benefits. But What If proves the traditional formula still resonates, with a slight modification: by portraying that old rom-com standby, true love, as a lifestyle choice.
What If borrows most of its premise from the decidedly optimistic 1989 Rob Reiner genre installment When Harry Met Sally. There’s the Just Friends pact sealed early on in the film, the ensuing romantic walks in the park, the passing of the seasons, and the growing frustration that these two characters should just get on with it already. But Reiner’s film took place in New York City, the magical movie setting where one-time acquaintances run into each other in airports. What If, on the other hand, situates its characters in Toronto, which is where so many mainstream films are actually shot these days. That the movie forgoes its genre’s glamorous hometown in the name of scoring some government subsidies speaks to its fundamental economic realism.
In similarly practical fashion, when the movie begins our characters are in different places both professionally and romantically, but suffering from the same classic Millennial crisis: finding the perfect work-life balance. Wallace, who was headed for domestic bliss as med-school student with a serious girlfriend, dropped it all when he found her cheating on him with a professor. Chantry is just a few steps behind: Her stable life with a successful boyfriend has her turning down promotions at her job so the couple can stay together, but he’s seeking positions abroad. It’s bound to fail.
Wallace and Chantry’s romance defies the idealized careerism of the classic rom com, in which professional aspirations and personal ones miraculously align. Neither character appears to have a particularly stable income, so their relationship isn’t pragmatic, and it doesn’t make for easy viewing: “I don’t know about anything,” Chantry confesses at one pivotal moment, when a passionate kiss and swelling orchestral score might have been more appropriate. The tension between stability and love is one faced made by many a real person, and especially many a real Millennial. This is a generation, after all, opting for personal fulfillment over profit.
If this all sounds a bit unromantic, What If certainly shows true love is difficult. For this boy and girl, falling hard for someone is a choice rather than a destiny. These lovers are strategic, not starry-eyed—a fact that helps the film avoid the treacle that Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler sent up with this summer’s all-out genre satire, We Came Together. That film mocked tropes so antiquated that, as Andrew Romano noted in The Daily Beast, people under 30 might not even get the comedy.
In fact, for Millennials who have grown up in the era of the dead or dying rom com, fanciful escapist storylines are fairly uncommon. Grit is in. The self-aware, sick-kids-in-love story The Fault in Our Stars has racked up $123 million at the box office this summer, and The Hollywood Reporter is already calling the “grounded” teen movie an upstart movement for a new era. These new developments point to a healthy change of events: Movies aimed at young people might now actually have an earnest interest in helping them to navigate their own lives.
That’s not to say that What If is a weepy funkiller. The movie is actually quite funny as it mocks, lovingly, the rom com’s sappiest tropes. The Meet Cute, for instance, is more of a Meet Creepy; The Grand Romantic Gesture a humiliating, cringe-inducing fail. But the audience doesn’t have to be well-versed in the rom com to get the joke. These aren’t deliberate shots at the old films so much as they are appeals to the timeless nature of awkward courtship.
In fact, if What If succeeds, it will speak to the formula’s subtle genius for reinvention with the times. Boy-meets-girl was born in The Great Depression and grew darker and more sexually frank in the lean period from World War II to the ‘70s. Happy endings returned for the ‘80s and ‘90s; the early 2000s were what Christopher Orr called the "profitable doldrums." The genre took a hit during the Great Recession like most of the rest of us, but it isn’t dead yet: This generation’s financial slump may prove to be its latest salvation.
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