The Romantic Comedy Is Dying, but Cinematic Romance Is Thriving

Films like Enough Said and The Spectacular Now offer one solution for stale rom-coms: Don't skip out on the nuances and complexities of love, even if that means more heartbreak.

A24; Fox Searchlight; KFD

The year 2013 wasn’t a good one for the romantic comedy.

Pickings were slimmer than they’ve ever been, and the few entries that did garner some attention—like Admission, Austenland, and Baggage Claim—weren’t your typical rom-com, nor did any of them make more than $25 million at the box office. The Atlantic’s own Christopher Orr wrote extensive autopsies of the failing genre, and his critique of Love Actually (as a classic and romance) inspired think-piece wars. The rom-com’s cause of death, he wrote, is not just a dearth of willing (or talented) stars, studios and audiences, but the fact that there are no longer “[obstacles] to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome.” According to Orr, “new complications must be invented, [and] test-driven”—which nobody is invested in doing anymore.

With these kinds of conversations painting a grim picture around what isn’t working in cinema’s most visible form of amour, it’d be easy to believe all romance has vanished from the movies.

While rom-coms (love stories anchored to comedic situations, amusingly neurotic characters and happily-ever-afters) continued to flounder, cinematic romance (fewer laughs, more human portrayals of being in love) thrived in 2013. If you wandered into Auditoriums 15 to 20 in your local multiplex last year, you probably discovered a veritable feast of great cinematic romances, like Enough Said, The Spectacular Now, Her, Blue is the Warmest Color, Before Midnight, Drinking Buddies, and the Belgian drama The Broken Circle Breakdown.

These films were rich with genuine, sincere ardor, and while they bore all the artistry and seriousness many expect from foreign and independent films, they still captured some of the core elements of what draws many of us to romantic comedies. These films featured variations on meet-cutes, that demonstrated the intoxicating euphoria (and the resulting vicarious gooey feeling in your chest) of falling in love and eventually addressed the question of whether a couple will remain together.

What distinguished these films as something better than romantic comedies, however, was their unwillingness to sacrifice the realistic nuances and complexities of relationships. If romantic comedies are fantasies, then this wave of cinematic romances were more like mirrors. They portray fragments of relationships many viewers—especially those who have been in relationships—can recognize (or, at the very least, have read about in dating columns): the awkward fumbling of first-time sex (The Spectacular Now), the intimacy of goofing around in bed (Enough Said), the compromises made in a relationship to keep a relationship alive (Before Midnight), the paradox of deeply loving someone yet still entertaining the question, “What if there’s someone else?” (Drinking Buddies), the idea that some love rewards us with growth, not a happily-ever-after (Her).

These films still capture the deeply relatable idyllic honeymoon stages of early love; however, they do so in not only a more realistic way, but also in order to eventually push towards even greater truth. More specifically, this truth: Love is not always easy, nor is it always successful. These romances—with their hiccups and outright fallouts—understand that the greatest challenge around love is succeeding in keeping it alive.

Love doesn’t always stay alive, or stay healthy, in these films. Characters grow up and then away from each other (like Adele and Emma in Blue is the Warmest Color or Samantha and Theo in Her). Couples drift apart when the small cuts of disagreement get infected over years (Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight). Tragedy threatens to break apart what seemed unbreakable (Elise and Didier in The Broken Circle Breakdown when their child falls seriously ill). Despite all appearances to the contrary, this doesn’t make these movies any less romantic. In giving us the beginning and end of a relationship, these may not always be strictly speaking happy portrayals of romance, but they are complete ones.

And in that completeness they become more truthful, resonant, and fuller portraits of love. Which is to say, in their aspirations for realism, they do a better job of synchronizing themselves to our experiences because they understand them. In that they also prove they understand the other fundamental truth about love: It requires two people, and people are not perfect. The biggest threat to a relationship is often the people in it. As Junot Diaz—the author of some of this decade’s most acclaimed stories about love and all its dysfunctions—once put it: “Love is the great test of the human… Love is so difficult, it is so challenging, it demands of us that we wreck it with ourselves.”

Each of these films demonstrates that idea. Enough Said is about how lively divorcee and parent Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is held back by a common, paradoxical anxiety about dating: You want it to work out with a person as much you’re afraid it will. Committing to someone means a greater risk of heartache. Or, as Eva says when Albert asks why she’d want her perception of the man she was falling for “poisoned” by his ex-wife, “I was trying to protect myself… We know how things can turn out.”

Similarly, The Spectacular Now sees teenage party animal Sutter (Miles Teller) struggle to commit to a future with his wise, diligent girlfriend Amy (or anyone) because he’s afraid of becoming his father, of feeling pain if his relationship succeeds. So, he attempts to break up with Amy as she yells, “Don’t try to mess this up!” Long-term couple Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in Before Midnight, for their part, see their idyllic romance from the previous two films threatened by their inability to effectively talk and understand each other. Drinking Buddies is a cinematic romance about friendship, propelled by the idea of how characters grow apart by growing up. So is Her.

This particular characteristic of these films makes me see them as glimmers of hope as to where romantic comedies could go next. Because what if this wave of romances isn’t an anomaly—indicative of Hollywood’s curious ability to sometime provide the exceptions to its own status quos—but an evolutionary step? What if, to Orr’s point, humor can be found in self-sabotage as an obstacle to romantic fulfillment—like, say, Steve Carell’s sexual inexperience and struggle to grow up in The 40 Year-Old Virgin? What if romantic stories adopt this wave of movie romance’s willingness to tell a range of romantic stories about sexuality, class, middle-aged divorced parents, struggling married couples, young teens, and … computers? (If not ethnic diversity, because unfortunately all these movies skew overwhelmingly white in their casts.) A big reason rom-coms have failed is because they’ve run out of stories to propel them. Perhaps the solution resides in truth and representation: different romantic stories incorporating situations and demographic collisions that convey the range and complexities of romance.

I may be somewhat optimistic in anticipating the future of romantic comedies to be one so accepting of diversity and realism. Formula is, after all, comforting. Films that seek to emulate real life—heartbreak and tragedy included—can be less so.

It may also be optimistic to declare the synchronous timing of these movies to be a new emerging status quo. After all, these seven films didn’t exactly achieve massive popularity: Their cumulative box office total is less than $50 million so far. Which is perhaps not bad considering how few theaters showed these films, but still a sign of a piddling lack of support.

Still, I like to think prevalence could maybe mean change. Cinema, like nature, can abhor a vacuum. With no romantic-comedy revival in sight, and audiences’ ability to occasionally adapt, there’s a chance a different kind of romance could ascend. Or romantic comedies could at least evolve to adapt these characteristics. (According to Noah BerlatskyDrinking Buddies may already be doing that.)

The Spectacular Now begins with its lead character, Sutter, reading a college application question out loud. “Describe a challenge, hardship, or misfortune you’ve experienced in your life. What have you learned from this, and how has it prepared you for the future?”

It’s a good question for the romantic-comedy genre to consider. Perhaps the filmmakers who tell these romantic-comedy stories should reflect not just on what it can learn from its challenges, but from those movies that are succeeding. How another kind of movie is offering us romance that is as resonant and idyllic as it is realistic, complicated, and sincere. Because romantic comedies would also do well to remember Sutter’s answer, the last words of The Spectacular Now: “It’s never too late.”