The genre's fallen into a formulaic rut, but this past weekend's box-office hit offers a different kind of story.
The romantic comedy is dead, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott declared four years ago. "The dispiriting, uninspired sameness of romantic comedy strikes me as something of a scandal," he wrote upon the release of the formulaic Katherine Heigl vehicle 27 Dresses. His issue with recent additions to the genre wasn't simply their predictability, he said, but the fact that their "notion of love is insipid, shallow and frequently ludicrous."
The intervening years haven't done much to improve Scott's picture of the genre. We've gotten The Proposal (2009), How Do You Know (2010), and No Strings Attached/Friends With Benefits (2011)—all joyless retreadings of the plotlines and the messages that Scott decried in 2008. This year has offered audiences more sameness and more shallow depictions of love. This Means War showed Reese Witherspoon in a familiar "dilemma": choosing between two equally attractive male suitors. Friends With Kids, which broke with convention in some ways, ended up being, at its core, a by-the-numbers rom-com. The movie opens with a man and a woman vowing they'll never be a couple and ends with them declaring their love to one another. Scott's criticism holds up—recycled storylines aren't the only things wrong with these movies. The real problem is the assumption in all these films that relational bliss comes from finding the "right" person. This Means War, Friends With Kids, 27 Dresses,and countless other modern romances devote most of their runtimes to watching a couple get together. They end with the first kiss or the avowal of love, and ask the audience to assume the central couple goes on to live happily ever after.