America Needs a Rom-Com Bailout

“It’s this or porn, people.”

Jennifer Lopez in "Marry Me"
Barry Wetcher / Universal; Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

The romantic comedy was once a tentpole of Hollywood. The genre defined A-list careers, won awards for studios, and made piles of cash. Then one day, rom-coms seemed a thing of the past, and their relative absence from theaters has been an open mystery for the better part of a decade. What killed the romantic comedy? Did studios or audiences abandon the genre first? Did streaming television do it in—or just transform it into something new?

But while the rom-com’s demise can be forever debated, its future remains unwritten. What can be done to bring the genre back?

The week of Valentine’s Day brought a rare crop of two rom-coms: the glitzy throwback Marry Me and the indie-inflected I Want You Back. Both movies offer something to recommend them (especially the always-great Jennifer Lopez’s magnetic performance), but they also served to remind audiences of what they’d lost.

On an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review, David Sims, Hannah Giorgis, and Sophie Gilbert discuss the state of the rom-com and what can be done to resurrect it. (Perhaps casting male leads more for chemistry than comedy?) Listen to their conversation here:

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

David Sims: We’ve spent the week ruminating on romantic comedies because, in honor of Valentine’s Day, there are a couple of new movies out about grown adults falling in love!

There’s Marry Me with Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, which is in theaters and on Peacock. And then there’s I Want You Back with Charlie Day and Jenny Slate, which is on Amazon. Are you guys, like me, a fan of the romantic comedy and maybe a little nostalgic for the days when they used to really get churned out by Hollywood?

Hannah Giorgis: Absolutely. I think that was the greatest era in cinema, if I may.

Sims: The golden age of the rom-com being the post–When Harry Met Sally rom-coms of the ’90s and 2000s, right? Obviously, Hollywood has made romantic movies, screwball comedies, and films about love since time immemorial.

Giorgis: Right. Julia Roberts. Hugh Grant. Richard Gere. That era.

Sophie Gilbert: Yes, and there’s a lot of controversy over the question of: Have they died? Are they really dead? Are they alive on Netflix? And, for me, I think that golden era experienced its last rites around about the time of Bride Wars.

Sims: Yes. Bride Wars is, of course, the 2009 film with Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson that is, I agree, a perfect example of an end-stage rom-com. That’s the last-gasp era.

Gilbert: Right: a time of movies with Gerard Butler being mean to women.

Sims: That’s a little mini-boom, right. And with Katherine Heigl as the final star whose entire career, for a few years, was rom-coms. Post–Knocked Up, there was 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth, Killers, Life As We Know It. She was there at the death rattle around Bride Wars, where critics at the time thought: This is warmed over. They’ve been pushing this on us for 20-plus years, and we’re sick of it.

Everyone kind of booed that era as not as good as what had come before. But now I wish I had three of those a year, instead of the maybe one we get. I wish Hollywood still relied on the $20 to $30 million movie about some people who should kiss.

Giorgis: (Laughs.)

Sims: And, mostly, rom-coms have been shunted to streaming or television, as with so much of Hollywood stuff that’s not huge-budget. Now it’s just TV, which is expanding and expanding with all these streaming companies.

Giorgis: Which is great—but sometimes I want 94 minutes wrapped up with a nice bow at the end!

Sims: Right. I want a city! I want you to take me on a tour of whatever city it is. I want some landmarks, some nice restaurants maybe.

Gilbert: Some kind of cute indie store.

Sims: Yeah, one of them works in a tchotchke store, or at a local paper, maybe.

Gilbert: I’ve been thinking a lot about rom-coms recently. I will confess: I loved Marry Me. I did not like I Want You Back at all. And I think it’s for the same reason I really got into watching formulaic TV at the beginning of the pandemic. We’ve talked about comfort TV before. There is something, in these uncertain times, deeply satisfying about watching an episode of Frasier, for instance. You know what’s going to happen. Someone’s going to do something pompous. There’s going to be some kind of misunderstanding. Etc.

A rom-com is the same. There are a few exceptions, where the people you think are going to get together don’t—but for the most part, you know what’s going to happen. And there is a deep comfort and security in the formula. You can trust it. You won’t be brokenhearted at the end. And there’s something lovely about that.

Sims: Absolutely. There’s always the second-act reason for why the two people can’t get together, like: “I can’t believe you told me you were a baker, and in fact, you’re a blacksmith.”

Giorgis: (Laughs.)

Sims: “I’m never going to get over ...” whatever it is.

Gilbert: "We should break up because I don’t fit.”

Sims: Which is what happens in Marry Me. So let’s talk about Marry Me. It’s based on a graphic novel with the basic premise of: What if a pop star married a random person in the crowd who’s holding a sign that says, MARRY ME? It stars Jennifer Lopez as Kat Valdez, a popular singer about to have her fourth marriage, this time to a hot young star played by the Colombian singer Maluma. I got the hint of some mild, affectionate J.Lo satire here. J.Lo has been married three times herself—with a few high-profile relationships on top of those three marriages. So there’s a little bit of self-aware Is J.Lo ever going to figure it out? layered onto this character.

Giorgis: Yeah, J.Lo’s heard the talk for years and years and is like: “Okay, I’m aware of this. It’s not great. And also, I’m going to have a little fun in this movie.”

Sims: If you try to describe the plot of Marry Me, you really sound like you’ve been hit in the head.

Giorgis: (Laughs.)

So she’s going to marry Maluma’s character on stage at a concert. Meanwhile, Owen Wilson—a divorced-dad middle-school math teacher—has been dragged to the concert by his friend played by Sarah Silverman. She has a sign that says MARRY ME. She hands it to him, and then when Kat Valdez finds out her fiancé cheated on her, she calls off the marriage, invites Owen Wilson on stage, and kisses him.

Gilbert: And marries him! It’s preposterous, but that’s fine. It didn’t bother me. You have to meet the movie where it is, and this is where it is.

Sims: And then she decides to at least go along with it for a while, and for some reason he’s not like, “No, give me $2 million, and I’ll never speak again,” which is what I would do.

Giorgis: I think that’s what the manager thought that was going to happen, but I love a good fake-relationship trope. I don’t know that I love this movie, even though I can forgive a lot. For me, I just didn’t feel like J.Lo and Owen Wilson had a shred of chemistry.

Sims: This is the issue. I can’t disagree. Wilson and J.Lo had fine friend chemistry, but not a huge spark.

Gilbert: The movie is 90 percent carried by J.Lo, five percent by Sarah Silverman, and five percent by kids doing math.

Giorgis: (Laughs.)

Gilbert: Owen Wilson is very sweet. He’s very charming. He just felt fundamentally miscast to me. And I have the same issue with Charlie Day in I Want You Back.

Giorgis: Yeah, exactly.

Gilbert: If we’re going to revive the rom-com, which is fundamentally a female-oriented genre, maybe we can think a little more about what women want?

Sims: I agree with you, Sophie. It’s fine to bring back a rom-com, but they need sexual chemistry. I need to believe these two actually want to kiss, not just want to be pals.

Gilbert: The rom-com is such a weird genre. It’s always been belittled because it’s supposedly targeted at women. And so no one takes it seriously. But then it was kind of reclaimed by bro filmmakers; Seth Rogen managed to cling on to his career as a rom-com star, even as Katherine Heigl lost hers. I just think we need to think about what the rom-com does and who it’s for. And that doesn’t mean that there can’t be sharp, well-done variations on the genre—but at the end of the day, you want to see two cute people falling in love. That’s what it’s about.

Sims: And I do feel like both of these movies we enjoyed to some extent, but mostly what we enjoy about them are the memories they provoke of other great experiences.

Giorgis: It’s not the most glowing endorsement.

Sims: The thing with Marry Me was: I was kind of out of it in the middle, and then when she’s going to Peoria to go to the math concert and J.Lo is just turning on the charm, I was like: Okay, I’m fine with this.

Giorgis: I do love the trope of a fancy city person going to the small hometown of the other person.

Sims: Yeah. I love J.Lo. Any time Jennifer Lopez is in a film like Out of Sight or Hustlers, she can rise to the occasion. She’s always good if she gets that shot. But she can also drag some silliness to a fairly satisfying place.

Gilbert: One of the reasons she’s so spectacular in this genre, especially playing a version of herself in Marry Me—is that she is such a spectacular diva. The most gorgeous, non-aging, amazing performer. She sucks all the attention in the room into just a vortex of charisma and hotness. But at the same time, you totally buy it when she’s like, “Oh, I just want to live with this nice math teacher.”

Sims: (Laughs.) Did you guys see her at the Super Bowl with Ben Affleck?

Giorgis: God bless them. They really have been giving us what celebrity is all about.

Sims: I agree. And you almost wish Ben Affleck was in this. I feel rude to Owen Wilson. I want to support him.

Giorgis: I would like to see him in a rom-com, just not this one.

Gilbert: Why do we think that male stars of Ben Affleck’s caliber don’t do rom-coms? One of the highlights in recent rom-coms for me was Keanu Reeves in Always Be My Maybe. And he’s not the star, but he has a spectacular role. So why are these big male movie stars not doing rom-coms when they should be?

Sims: I think because the genre was dying out when they were coming up and it became too junky, right? As much as I love a lot of 2000s rom-coms, the genre was not as cool anymore.

Gilbert: But you’re getting a star of J.Lo’s caliber, and then you’re matching her with Wilson ... like, it still speaks to something deeply unequal in Hollywood.

Sims: I do not want to be rude about Owen Wilson. I truly support him, but I imagine he was not No. 1 on the list of people they called to cast this movie. Like, how do you get to Owen Wilson? They’re an odd pairing, energy-wise. Age-wise, they’re an appropriate pair.

Giorgis: But there’s plenty of people in that age bracket who could have been in this.

Sims: Is that the fix? Do we just need to cast hot dudes again? Do we need a talent infusion, with Matt Damon or Brad Pitt or whoever? It can be like a bailout program: All of you A-listers have got to make one rom-com right now just to fire up the genre.

Gilbert: To shore up the industry.

Giorgis: (Laughs.)

Sims: Let’s talk about I Want You Back. It’s streaming on Amazon. Charlie Day and Jenny Slate play two recently dumped 30-somethings. They meet and plot Strangers on a Train–style to break up [the new relationships of] each other’s exes. It is an unforgivable hour and 51 minutes long. My biggest problem with the movie is the length.

Giorgis: Especially the last five minutes, honestly.

Sims: But yeah; you’ve got Charlie Day and Jenny Slate. Gina Rodriguez breaks up with Charlie Day because they’re in a rut. And Jenny Slate gets dumped by Scott Eastwood—who’s really trying, God bless him—because she’s immature or whatever.

Gilbert: Yeah, and they meet in the stairwell crying.

Sims: Right; they work in the same anonymous office building in the anonymous town they live in. Which is Atlanta, not that this movie really cares. And they devise a plan to break up [the exes’] new relationships. That’s the plot. Manny Jacinto’s in it, being very handsome.

Giorgis: He is a delight.

Gilbert: It’s part of a new mini-subgenre of rom-coms, where you wish the protagonist would get together with someone else instead of the person that they eventually do. And I really wanted Jenny Slate to end up with Manny Jacinto. I thought they’d be a good pair. I’m also thinking of Happiest Season, where you really want Kristen Stewart to end up with Aubrey Plaza after they have that fun night out.

Sims: That was unforgivable in Happiest Season—a movie that had some charms, but you really don’t think these two [lead characters] should be together. They don’t seem happy at all.

Giorgis: Right? Especially when there’s this other person there.

Gilbert: It just felt like there was nothing in I Want You Back that wasn’t a cliche or a reheated piece of an old sitcom to me. Jenny Slate’s already been in a really great, quirky rom-com with Obvious Child, which was fantastic. And it was another thing where I didn’t really want them to get together. I don’t think they had any chemistry. I wasn’t compelled by them getting back with their partners, either.

Sims: So what do we do about the rom-com, guys? Are rumors of its death exaggerated? I feel like we all kind of agree that there was a boomlet that has faded now.

Giorgis: Yeah—or TV has taken up what we used to want from these films. The second season of Love Life is perfect. Great TV. But it’s pretty remarkable to me how much better Jessica Williams is in that than she was in The Incredible Jessica James. That was difficult to watch. Watching was a moment when I was like: Yeah, the rom-coms are really gone.

Gilbert: That was weird casting, too, because didn’t it pair her with Chris O’Dowd? Perfectly lovely man. Great with Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids. But I don’t know about that.

Sims: There’s something about these streamer movies where you watch them and they go down okay, but they don’t stick in the same way. And is it just because we watch them while we’re looking at our phone? Is it the classic streamer complaint? Or is it just that they’re, like, a little generic-feeling, a little algorithmic?

Giorgis: I think it’s that, and also the thing that we were talking about earlier. We don’t have the rom-com male lead—the rom-com hunk—in the same way anymore. They aren’t male stars in those roles who are super compelling. Even if they’re not like Brad Pitt, there’s just not that many of those. And the ones we have are like a William Jackson Harper—who's great on TV, but we don’t have him in I Want You Back.

Gilbert: Yeah, and Marry Me was really interesting, because—as you said in your review, David—it felt more like an old-school rom-com than anything else in a long time. We’re used to these slightly dejected, quirky things like Palm Springs. These small-scale things with TV stars.

But Marry Me is huge. The production. The spectacle. It will stick in my memory more than a lot of other films of this genre lately. Do you guys know that rom-coms were accused for a long time of giving women unrealistic standards about love?

Sims: Like, that some nice man will come sweep you off your feet?

Gilbert: Yeah, like women were expecting men to be too nice and too loving. And so that was great, because then rom-coms went away and we just got porn instead. (Laughs.) So things are looking good for us!

Sims: (Laughs.)

Gilbert: I will take the rom-coms back. We need stars with more charisma and more chemistry. I think we should have higher expectations, and maybe men should rise to meet them. That’s my Valentine’s Day treatise.

Giorgis: I’ll sign that petition.

Sims: There’s a lot of other genres that Hollywood ignores, but this feels like the easiest [to revive]. There’s a talent pool of handsome young actors and actresses. There’s an easy formula to follow. Come on! Just give me three or four of these a year. I don’t ask much. You’re making four Marvel movies a year. And I watch them! I enjoy the Marvel movies. I’m not against them. They just cost so much money. You could make four of these. Come on! Why hasn’t Oscar Isaac done a rom-com? Why is he busy playing Moon Knight? I don’t know how to save the rom-com or cinema, but I will be here championing it.

Gilbert: I mean, you’ve had my treatise. It’s this or porn, people.

Giorgis: (Laughs.) Incredible tagline.