Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?

Rom-coms used to be a cash cow and wildly popular with audiences. What happened?

Take How Do You Know, the 2010 James L. Brooks romantic comedy that banked its fortune on big names. Brooks spent $15 million to secure star Reese Witherspoon, $12 million on Jack Nicholson, another $10 million on Owen Wilson and a comparatively paltry $3 million on Paul Rudd. That's $40 million in salaries, and then somehow Brooks spent another $89 million shooting the thing.

How Do You Know proceeded to make just $30 million — $48.7 million if you tack on the total global gross. It's the poster child for how the modern romantic comedy went wrong: It was lazy and expensive, assuming its audience would show up for the names and forgive the clichéd script. But audiences aren't dumb.

That the major studios haven't funded another splashy romantic comedy since implies that they've once again drawn the wrong conclusion: If Reese and Jack can't make bank, why bother with the genre?

Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson in How Do You Know (2010), a pricey, star-filled flop.
David James, 2010 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.
Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson in How Do You Know (2010), a pricey, star-filled flop.
Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler play divorced parents in Blended, to be released in May.
Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler play divorced parents in Blended, to be released in May.

But that attitude, again, ignores Hollywood's own history.

When Julia Roberts was cast in 1990's Pretty Woman, she was so unknown that the studio got her for the bargain price of $300,000. Ditto Meg Ryan, who was a low-budget choice in 1989's When Harry Met Sally..., her first romantic comedy. The studios took a risk on unknown leads and not only did they make huge profits but also launched careers that would go on to reap major dividends.

Further evidence: The biggest romantic comedy ever is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a $5 million fluke with no name stars. It raked in $241.4 million at the domestic box office and another $127.3 million globally.

So what if the adage that stars sell romantic comedies is wrong? Or, more specifically, what if it has been exaggerated and misapplied? What if, instead of two stars or four stars — or, in the case of Valentine's Day, 14 stars — you need only one: the Richard Gere to your raw, red-haired beauty, the Billy Crystal to your untested blonde soap actress?

What if the key to a successful romantic comedy is simply getting the right leading man?

"Men are more interested in [romantic comedies] if the male characters have real roles and not just supporting parts," Meyers notes. "I've been lucky to work with guys men respond to, like Mel Gibson, Jack Nicholson, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. I think those actors help men feel more comfortable with the genre."

Perhaps, instead of an actress shortage, romantic comedies are experiencing an actor crisis. We can name ingenues who should be making romantic comedies: Emma Stone, Kat Dennings, Jennifer Lawrence. But who would they act against? As counterintuitive as it is to suggest, what if the key to a successful romantic comedy isn't the actress but the actor?

Suspect No. 5: Changing Mores

With four romantic comedies that have topped $100 million — The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates, Mr. Deeds and Just Go With It — Adam Sandler has proven that men will buy tickets to romantic comedies that offer a male perspective. The Farrelly brothers hammered home the point with There's Something About Mary, and then Judd Apatow scored two more touchdowns with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.

In fact, the last decade has seen as many male-driven hit romantic comedies as traditional female ones. The definition of a romantic comedy has stretched so much that the line where it stops and the R-rated sex comedy begins has become blurred: For every escapist stiletto flick, there's a raunchy Zack and Miri Make a Porno; for every wedding-centric Made of Honor, there's a free-wheeling No Strings Attached.

"In our opinion, Knocked Up was the last great romantic comedy, and that was seven years ago," says Evan Mirzai, who with his brother Shea co-authored the second unproduced rom-com script on the Black List, Doppelgangers, a naughty romp about identical twins (like them) competing for the same woman. "Every guy goes through the same things that women do in these movies. We all try to have relationships and keep things together. So why not do it in such a way where you can say 'fuck' 50 times and have a guy realize that he's falling in love?"

Call it evolution or devolution, but the change in tone dovetails with larger cultural changes: Both young men and women increasingly prioritize friends and careers over marriage and family. People are dating longer, settling down later and seeing relationships less as a one-shot attempt at a soulmate and more as another chapter in their biography.

In 2006, Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn's The Break-Up was novel because they didn't reconcile at the end. Now, bittersweet — or at least ambiguous — endings are expected. In pursuit of emotional truth, love stories that could have been comedies have sobered up and become winsome romantic dramas like The Spectacular Now, Blue Jasmine and The Best Man Holiday.

"There's a little bit of disillusionment with that perfect relationship," explains Los Angeles-based therapist Caroline Frost, who specializes in romantic angst. "More movies are puncturing the fantasy. Even on television, you're seeing more shows with couples counselors as a character, so you're getting more of a sense of people working through things, as opposed to fate swooping in and making everything happen."

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Great article! I'm growing tired of all the "dick flicks" and crave a good rom-com. I absolutely loved It's Complicated and Something's Got To Give. Apparently the only folks falling in love are over the age of 50 and black people. I loved Why Did I Get Married by the way.


Great article.  A minor FYI-- "romantic" is spelled wrong in the link; when I posted the article on FB, it showed up mispelled.


What would you call the Best Man Holiday? Chick - Flick. #50


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