At a picnic a few weeks ago, the hot topic among a group of my fellow twentysomethings wasn’t the Pusha T/Drake beef or the lack of money in our savings accounts-it was Book Club, the summer sleeper hit about a group of four older women who discover themselves through reading the Fifty Shades trilogy. The film grossed about $67 million after being shot on a tight $10 million budget. As a friend mourned that there wasn’t available audio of Andy Garcia pouring Diane Keaton a glass of wine to listen to on a loop, it was clear that Book Club and a slew of other romantic comedies that are coming out in the next few months prove that the genre is having a certifiable moment.
Further proof: Netflix’s Set It Up, which centers around two scheming assistants (Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell) who set up their bosses (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs) in order to alleviate their workload. You can imagine how everything ends up: Both couples fall for each other, true to typical rom-com fashion.
Now, post-Book Club and Set It Up, there seems to be a verifiable trend of romantic comedies hitting within the next few months-with the Keanu Reeves/Winona Ryder-starring Destination Wedding, Crazy Rich Asians, and the J.Lo throwback Second Act. But why is the rom-com coming back now?
After a heyday of great (and not-so-great, but enjoyable!) romantic comedies in the ’90s and early aughts, the genre has served audiences few choices-like Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck in 2015 or Bridget Jones’s Baby in 2016. But with the critical acclaim for last year’s The Big Sick (which earned Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay) and the delightful Reese Witherspoon-starring Home Again (from writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer, the spawn of rom-com auteur Nancy Meyers) showed that maybe rom-com still had legs.
Lindsey Bahr, a film critic for the Associated Press, thinks that the industry’s thirst for the “franchise hit” has led a bit to the demise of the romantic comedy. “So many people I’ve talked to over the past few years, including [director] Nancy Meyers, have said that the powers that be in Hollywood love romantic comedies but ‘can’t make them right now,’” she says. “Their focus is on franchises and superheroes and intellectual property that will make guaranteed money for the shareholders and play internationally. People want to make [other] movies, they’re just having to come up with creative ways to get them through, whether it’s making them independently-like Destination Wedding or even The Big Sick-or taking them to Netflix, like Set It Up.”
Set It Up, written by Katie Silberman, was originally in development at MGM with Emilia Clarke to star alongside Powell; when Clarke’s Game of Thrones schedule conflicted, however, Silberman and director Claire Scanlon had to start at square one.
But when the pair brought the film to Netflix, they were surprised by how excited the streaming service was about the project. “Netflix really believed in this project,” Scanlon says. “[They didn't mess with] Katie's script! They let Katie be Katie... They just tested us, which was great, and you know what? We have a strong female point of view, and [that’s] what we would like to watch,” says Scanlon. Silberman agreed that Netflix was perhaps the best partner in getting Set It Up to the screen. “That first meeting that we went in with Netflix, their mentality really seemed to be: We want to see this movie. This is the kind of movie we want to watch,” she says. “And I think that seemed specific to the way they're able to develop things, because they don't have to worry about other aspects that other places do. It was such a wonderful momentum to carry with us.”
Book Club director Bill Holderman said he’s honestly a bit shocked by the reception of the film. “It’s one of those things that you hope and wish for, but the fact that it's actually happened and happening is still kind of shocking,” he tells me. “I mean, the whole thing has been a dream come true, but I would say the reaction and how passionate and inspired people seem to have been has been really rewarding.” And the kind of passionate response from audiences about Andy Garcia being a daddy (Holderman is happy that everyone sees how appealing he is) to wondering about Jane Fonda’s hair (yes, it was a wig) might be more shocking because of some of the hassle that Holderman had in getting the film made.
The roadblocks, as one would imagine, were primarily because of the stars’ ages-and Holderman admits he was asked to make them younger at one point. “I think some of the myopic Hollywood people thought in terms of an audience,” he says. “It's not just older women going to see the movie and enjoying it. We all struggle in love, we all struggle in relationships, we all struggle in self-worth and trying to figure out what we want to do with our lives. We all struggle in communication with our significant others. I think that has made it-or given it-a more universal appeal.”
While there are some practical guesses as to the genre’s sudden renaissance (the world, after all, is a mess-what serves as pure, unadulterated escapism quite like a low stakes, carefree rom-com?), the romantic comedy is branching out from the all-white casts (as with Set It Up) and twenty-something actors (Book Club boasts four esteemed, award-winning veterans in Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen). And then there is Crazy Rich Asians, which hits theaters on August 15 and could very well be one of the biggest hits of the year.
Based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel, Crazy Rich Asians stars Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, an NYU professor who finds out that her long-term boyfriend, Henry (Nick Young), is actually from one of Singapore’s richest families. It seems like a typical rom-com plot, but Crazy Rich Asians’ primarily Asian cast gives the film, much like Book Club’s focus on older women, the adrenaline shot that the genre needed.
Director Jon H. Chu admits he was nervous when the trailer first came out in April. But since then, he’s happy about the reception early screenings of the film have received-but what’s most important is that people go see it. “Hopefully people show up to the theater because that’s where it really counts,” he says. “[I hope there] are there other movies like this in the future-not just all Asian casts or Asian leads, but romantic comedies. It’s such a rare tone that we get to see movies like this anymore and these are movies I loved and grew up with.”
By focusing on groups that the rom-com typically underrepresents (i.e. anyone who isn’t white, in their mid-twenties, and likely working in some form of “the media”) is a way to revitalize a genre that so many moviegoers grew up watching-and have dearly missed. All of the creatives I talked to mentioned films like My Best Friend’s Wedding, anything from Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers, Pretty Woman, and The Philadelphia Story as personal favorites. Scanlon and Silberman in particular said that they thought about what they wanted out of the genre: something smart with well-rounded characters that doesn’t necessarily fit the typical rom-com formula.
But Chu is clearly a romantic; beyond the much-needed inclusivity and evolving formulas, he sticks to the narrative basics. “Love never dies,” he tells me. “We have such fast access to dating apps, and we meet people in all sorts of ways. I think when the rom-com went away, [we became more cynical about] love-maybe true love doesn’t really exist. And I think that’s not who humans are. We want to believe in the ultimate love and finding it in the craziest ways. I think it’s only natural in the world in which we live that love is the one thing that connects us. And I think people want that dream again.”
We’re living in horrifying, queasy times when a new horror awaits anytime we scroll through Twitter (or, honestly, receive a push alert on our phone). “We're inundated, in our 24-hour news cycle, with so much darkness and fear, and I think it's a genre that helps believe that there is hope and lightness out there as well,” Holderman says. “But you see it too-something like 30 million people watched the Royal Wedding? We still believe in the fantasy. We believe in it, and culturally it still has significance.
The rom-com has no doubt had a huge influence on pop culture (I mean, how many people do you think have faked orgasms at Katz’s Delicatessen?), but it’s also a genre that fuels optimism and joy, no matter the outlandish situations the characters get into. And if it can evolve along with the modern sexual politics of 2018-and not just focus on white, straight, young protagonists-there’s hopefully a whole new generation of movie fans out there who want to believe in love.
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