Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?

The long decline from Katharine Hepburn to Katherine Heigl

Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

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.

A few years ago, A. O. Scott of The New York Times suggested that for explanation we need look no further than the names just mentioned and others like them: the downslope from Katharine Hepburn to Katherine Heigl is simply too steep, and “the few remaining stars who show the kind of audacity and charisma that great romantic comedy requires tend to be busy with other things.”

This is certainly true, but it in turn begs the question of why today’s genuine stars (with all due respect to Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey) no longer bother to find the time for romantic comedy. Will Smith, for instance, displayed tremendous chops in Hitch—but apart from that toe-dip, he’s stayed clear of the water. And this generation’s most obvious fit, George Clooney, has modeled his career on that of Cary Grant in almost every way save his profound reticence to explore the genre that made the latter an icon.

No, there’s more at work here than the vagaries of stars or studios. It’s not just them; it’s us.

Among the most fundamental obligations of romantic comedy is that there must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome. And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by. They used to lie thick on the ground: parental disapproval, difference in social class, a promise made to another. But society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds. Love is increasingly presumed—perhaps in Hollywood most of all—to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status.

When Sydney Pollack, for example, made the disastrous decision to update the Billy Wilder classic Sabrina in 1995, one of the remake’s (many) flaws was its failure to modernize the obsolete dilemma of the rags-and-riches romance. As Samuel Taylor, who wrote the original Broadway play and collaborated on Wilder’s script, told The New Yorker at the time, “If they really wanted to make it interesting, they’d find a really good black actress to play [Sabrina].” Eighteen years later, of course, that wouldn’t be enough. She’d have to be a mummy.

Perhaps the most obvious social constraint that’s fallen by the wayside is also the most significant: the taboo against premarital sex. There was a time when carnal knowledge was the (implied) endpoint of the romantic comedy; today, it’s just as likely to be the opening premise. In 2005’s A Lot Like Love—a dull, joyless rip-off of When Harry Met Sally—Amanda Peet and Ashton Kutcher meet cute by having sex in an airplane lavatory before they’ve spoken a single word to each other. Where’s a film to go when the “happy ending” takes place at the beginning?

Serious obstacles to romantic fulfillment can still be found—illness, war, injury, imprisonment—but they have a tendency to be just that: serious. There aren’t likely to be many laughs, after all, in the story of a love that might be torn asunder by an IED. It is perhaps no coincidence that romantic melodramas (such as last year’s The Vow and the recent epidemic of Nicholas Sparks adaptations) are doing quite well at the multiplex even as their comic siblings falter.

So new complications must be invented, test-driven, and then, as often as not, themselves retired. (The idea that geography posed a substantial challenge to true love seemed a stretch all the way back in 1993, for Sleepless in Seattle. In the Internet age, it doesn’t pass the laugh test.) The premises grow more and more esoteric: She’s a hooker. He’s a stalker. She’s in a coma. He’s telepathic. She’s a mermaid. He’s a zombie. She’s pregnant. He’s the president.

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.