This article was originally written for and published in The Georgetown Voice. Read it there, and check out the latest issue!
As I spent my Valentine’s Day devouring cookies and avoiding whatever it is Fifty Shades of Grey is offering, I got to thinking about the state of romantic comedies, as I do from time to time. Raised on the sappiness of gems like Love Actually and The Notebook, I find myself terrified by the dearth of successful romantic films in recent years.
Gone are the glory days of Sleepless in Seattle and Notting Hill, delightfully formulaic movies led by endlessly bankable stars. In their place, the past decade has brought us middling work from the likes of Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler, and just about everyone else willing to foray into the field. Hollywood is simply running out of crowd-pleasing storylines, forced to regurgitate beloved tropes to the point of mediocrity.
This is not to say that this millennium has failed to produce winning films about relationships and their complexities. The films have simply matured and morphed, adding depth and new forms of adversity. This is displayed in films like Knocked Up, (500) Days of Summer, Silver Linings Playbook, Her, and Don Jon, which all center around relationships but contain much more nuance. Even the recent films that come closer to fitting the traditional rom-com mold—entries like About Time and Crazy, Stupid, Love—go beyond the leading stars to consider the impact of family and loss on one’s life and loves.
Perhaps we can trace these developments to the evolving priorities of Hollywood and its stars. Titans of the rom-com world like Julia Roberts grew into increasingly serious and challenging roles. Even younger stars like Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey matured quickly, ascending from the environs of Legally Blonde and Failure to Launch to consistent awards contention.
We are still waiting to see who will emerge as the next group of superstars with staying power, but for now that group looks capable of making names for themselves without coasting through shallow parts. Jennifer Lawrence may already be the most recognizable actress on the planet, and she has accomplished this not by playing soft, lovable characters but instead by doling out heavyweight performances seemingly at will.
In similar fashion, Shailene Woodley finds herself at Hollywood’s forefront before the age of 25. The Secret Life of the American Teenager may not have offered her a profound role, but like Lawrence she has already shown off award-worthy talent alongside George Clooney in The Descendants and significant profitability headlining the Divergent series. Even when these young superstars test the romantic genre, they avoid superficial throwaways, instead turning to projects like The Fault in Our Stars and Serena that allow for worthwhile artistic expression.
For budding and established male stars, our culture’s affinity for big-money blockbusters paves the way to stardom. The Chrises—Pine, Evans, and Hemsworth—have all found their way into franchise films. Who needs more of This Means War when you can simply wait for the next Star Trek or Avengers to roll around? Even Ansel Elgort, Woodley’s lover in The Fault in Our Stars, finds himself following her to Divergent and all of its crowd-pleasing moneymaking.
At this point, it seems unlikely that breezy love affairs will take over our cinemas any time soon. Besides the fact that Marvel and DC plan to dominate our moviegoing lives for the foreseeable future, cinephiles continue to hone their self-awareness. Hatred and prejudice and bias endure in the news, and people want discussion and dialogue regarding these issues in their entertainment, making it difficult to swallow stories and films that show a lack of interest in social discourse. We have reached the point where vapid rom-com characters feel misguided and maybe even detrimental to the cause of ensuring equality throughout American life.
But thankfully if you still find yourself in need of a rom-com fix, plenty of classics have survived. You can still watch Harry and Sally or Edward and Vivian. You can transport yourself back to the golden ages of predictable onscreen romance, when the stars were willing to play the parts, when we did not ask quite so much of our movies and our stars.
Sad Katherine Heigl image via rebloggy.com