Film Fund-amentals: Where Love Has Gone

Long considered a staple of the movie market, the romantic comedy appears to be dead. Well, maybe not dead. But it has taken a beating and seems to be mutating. The new variation could be called the anti-romantic comedy with an emphasis on mismatched lovers that are more missed than matched.

Or you could call it the no-mantic comedy, a term coined by reporter Jordan Zakarin in his recent article on the upcoming movie Friends With Benefits. Zakarin may be only half-right about this film and the genre. However, the modern romantic comedy has been headed in this direction for a while, either through conscious intention or just plain old fashioned ineptitude. Just look at the films of either John Cusack or Ben Stiller. They are the anti-Cary Grants of this anti-romantic age. Cusack weirdly excels at playing whiny manic depressives, while Stiller has created a unique combination of passive/aggressive hostility made mildly lovable by random incompetence.

Future sociologists will have to determine the how and why of these developments (though one possible cause may be the modern TV sitcom, which has conditioned viewers to a comedy of insults). But from a box office perspective, it’s a problem. The romantic comedy has long been viewed as a pretty stable form, and the shifting currents now make it potentially more iffy than a horror film (another genre that has undergone some major shifts). Most romantic comedies are made for budgets of around $20 to $50 million (extremely modest today). The low budgets make them desirable. If they do well, they can make anywhere from $90 million to $130 million. Few do well. Many have recently bombed. The genre is a risky gamble involving high effort and, more often than not, low rewards.

A quick look at the top 100 box office winners in the genre from provides some insights. Technically, nearly half of the titles were made within the last ten years. However, you then have to adjust for inflation. Once you do that, the list radically changes. Pretty Woman suddenly becomes the highest grossing romantic comedy (adjusted box office of $293,780,157.81). Once you start adjusting these figures, the top ten on the box office list will primarily be movies made during the 1980s (to test this, just use an online inflation calculator). In some respects, this is the period when the genre last truly thrived.

Now, start pecking away at the titles from the past decade. A few of the titles (e.g. My Big Fat Greek Wedding) are obvious choices. Sex and the City isn’t. It’s actually a comedy about sexual mores rather than a romantic comedy. There is a difference. So we remove some of the stranger titles in the list and reduce the recent decade to what becomes a more manageable group. Once we do that, the top ten romantic comedies of the past decade become a strangely schizophrenic lineup. The first three titles are reasonably traditional in form (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, What Women Want, and Hitch). With the next three titles, things get a tad more varied as The Proposal, Knocked Up, and Bringing Down the House move up the line.

So what does this list tell us? Absolutely nothing. Which is my point. In the old days of the classical Hollywood system, the romantic comedy was cookie cutter simple. Heck, you just had to decide what actress would play opposite Cary Grant and line up Ralph Bellamy for what became known simply as the Ralph Bellamy part. Experienced screenwriters and directors were readily available. The resulting movies often had the flat insincerity of a greeting card, but they also had the acceptable emotional response of a good greeting card. Basically, the romantic comedy was a type of movie ideally suited to the old Hollywood system.

But now it is a wild crap shoot. Few modern screenwriters actually have any experience with the form. In turn, many modern screenwriters have problems writing strong roles for women, and the genre normally demands such roles. Basically, they are just “guy” writers and they haven’t a clue what to do with a “girl.” This is one of the reasons why the female leads in many modern romances come off as either boring or bitchy. The writer is often at a loss about how to build their character.

Likewise, romantic comedies are extremely difficult to direct. A mediocre director can turn out an OK action flick or horror movie. But romantic comedies need a more skilled touch. It’s a bit like real life, where often the important moment is not the kiss but the sudden fleeting emotion just before it. Most modern directors are experts in rapid cutting and digital effects and other techniques that are largely useless in the romantic genre. Timing, subtle nuance and careful handling of actors are more the forte of old school directors (many of whom are now dead).

Round all of this off with the biggest obstacle of all, casting. The male and female leads in a romantic comedy have to successfully achieve several key objectives. First, they have to get the audience to like them. Yes, the audience has to really, really like the performers (sometimes known as the Sally Field effect). Even worse, they have to like watching the two leads together. This is the part that most modern movies miss. In a romantic comedy, the viewer needs to care enough about the leading players to actually feel invested in seeing the couple get together.

These are the three main pillars for any romantic comedy, traditional or modern. Most modern romantic comedy movies cannot achieve all, or even most, of these requirements. Failure in any of these areas cripples the commercial prospect of the movie. Failure in any two of these areas will doom the movie. This is why the romantic comedy is the trickiest genre around.