The romantic comedy has fallen on tough times. After a decade of essentially printing money, the genre abruptly ran out of box-office steam in 2012. As the producer Lynda Obst, a rom-com doyenne (Sleepless in Seattle, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), told New York magazine’s Vulture blog in December, “It is the hardest time of my 30 years in the business.” In a departure from Februaries gone by, the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day this year were devoid of a single helping of romantic froth featuring Drew Barrymore or Kate Hudson or any of the multitude of Jennifers. No 50 First Dates. No Fool’s Gold. No He’s Just Not That Into You. So what happened? A range of explanations have been offered, from studios ever more obsessed with blockbuster franchises to a generation of moviegoers less starry-eyed than their predecessors.
But this line of inquiry misses the point. The proper question isn’t Why have romantic comedies suddenly stopped being profitable? but rather Why have they been so lackluster for decades? The fact that the 2009 Katherine Heigl vehicle The Ugly Truth made a great deal of money in no way alters the fact that it was atrocious. I am not by nature a cinematic declinist, and it’s true that classics of the genre have been sprinkled across the years, from the bittersweet doubt of Annie Hall, to the ascending optimism of When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman, to the raunchy resuscitations of Judd Apatow. But when one thinks back on the works reliably churned out by the likes of Tracy and Hepburn and Grant and the other Hepburn (apologies, Audrey—you, too, were one of a kind!), it’s rather hard not to get dispirited.