Cinema March 2013

Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?

The long decline from Katharine Hepburn to Katherine Heigl

And if worst comes to worst—as it does, all too often—there’s the ever-accommodating fallback that one partner is uptight and the other is a free spirit (if a woman) or a slob (if a man), requiring the two to work in tandem to respectively unwind and domesticate.

Happily, the cinematic landscape is still dotted with exceptions, experiments in romantic chemistry that in many cases benefit from steering wide of the usual tropes. There’s a case to be made that the two best romantic comedies of 2012 succeeded in large part because they weren’t really framed as romantic comedies at all. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook may have had a rom-com structure, but it was darker and more idiosyncratic, with a premise at once novel and true to life: two lovers thwarted by mental illness. Better still was Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which offered as its obstacle an ironic update of the old parental-disapproval plot: young Sam and Suzy can’t run off together and get married because they’re 12 years old. (It’s an obstacle that, incidentally, is not presented as insurmountable.)

One could argue that the easy profitability of the past decade was the worst thing to happen to the romantic comedy—an invitation to stale formulas and ridiculous conceits alike—and a few lean years might do the genre good. It was, after all, 75 years ago this Valentine’s Day that Howard Hawks’s comic masterpiece Bringing Up Baby opened in theaters—and bombed.

A Brief Social History of the Rom-Com

Age of the Screwball

Mid-1930s through early 1940s: Increased censorship has the ironic effect of ushering in a heyday of verbal sparring between the sexes.

Key Films: It Happened One Night, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Shop Around the Corner, The Philadelphia Story, The Lady Eve

Post-War Malaise

Early 1940s through early 1950s: During and after World War II, the genre darkens, and tension over gender roles becomes more evident.

Key Films: Woman of the Year, A Foreign Affair, Unfaithfully Yours, Adam’s Rib, The Marrying Kind

Sex vs. Marriage

Early 1950s through mid-1960s: Conflicting sexual goals become more clear-cut and cynical. Men want sex without strings; women, matrimony.

Key Films: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, Pillow Talk, The Apartment, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, That Touch of Mink

Bittersweet Reinvention

Mid-1960s through mid‑1980s: Integrating the counterculture, the genre presents sex more frankly, but its faith in happy outcomes recedes.

Key Films: The Graduate, Harold and Maude, The Heartbreak Kid, Shampoo, Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters

Romance Rekindled

Mid-1980s through early 2000s: When Harry Met Sally rewrites Annie Hall with a happy ending, and Pretty Woman reestablishes that love conquers all.

Key Films: Moonstruck, When Harry Met Sally, Say Anything, Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle, Jerry Maguire, Shakespeare in Love

Profitable Doldrums

Early 2000s through present: Romantic optimism gives way to narrative laziness.

Key Films: Maid in Manhattan, Fool’s Gold, The Proposal, The Ugly Truth, Valentine’s Day

Inspired by Christopher Orr's piece, this montage from NowThis News explores the genre's epic decline.


Christopher Orr is an Atlantic senior editor and the principal film critic for
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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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