New Rom-Com Wave Is Big on Imagining Real-Life Offline

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I’m not embarrassed to admit that I consume all kinds of rom-coms: the good, the not-so-good, the somewhere-in-between. (I draw the line at anything that stars Ashton Kutcher. Hollywood: Please put Pedro Pascal on your rom-com leading-man shortlists. Many thanks in advance.) Anyway, I’ve sensed a shift of late. A change in the vibe. A subtle, faintly nostalgic perfume in the air: It’s not overpowering, like the glossy rom-com-a-minute marketplace of the 1990s and early aughts, but still bright and warm and mood-boosting. The box office success of Anyone but You ($218 million globally) and streaming hit Irish Wish (currently top 5 in Nielsen’s movie chart), the fresh deals being made, the rom-coms rolling out this year with big names attached — all this activity reflects audience enthusiasm for polished, character-driven entertainment with jokes, heart and wish fulfillment.

What new rom-coms offer is a return to an imagined time that wasn’t run by smartphones or social media, where authenticity and spontaneity reign in real-life interactions. Take dating apps. In her recent New York Times essay, the writer Magdalene J. Taylor blamed Tinder, Hinge and Bumble for fostering a culture of endless, empty swiping and charging premium prices without producing “meaningful, lasting connections offline.” To that point, Netflix’s new rom-com Players has Gina Rodriguez meeting her love interest at a party in a bar. Rodriguez’s character, a strong-willed sportswriter, says that Bumble is fake — the opposite of real life. “I’m 33 and I’m exhausted,” she opines. “I want an adult.”

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(L-R) Augustus Prew as Brannagan, Damon Wayans Jr. as Adam, Gina Rodriguez as Mack, Liza Koshy as Ashley and Joel Courtney as Little in Players.
Gina Rodriguez stars in Netflix’s rom-com Players.

The rom-com revival — if it’s here and there’s good evidence for it, finally — can’t come soon enough. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire: We live in a cynical world. Just look at the news cycle. It’s dreary out there, what with the cruelty of the internet, the political polarization, the wars and famine, the war on reproductive and civil rights, the youth mental-health crisis, the growing isolation among the smartphone-addicted. It’s tough not to be a cynic and let the doldrums of daily existence get you down; however, cynics can be hopeless romantics in disguise. They can yearn to smile and be silly and be part of something bigger than themselves.

Which is exactly how Gen Z wound up buying tickets to see Anyone but You at the movies, where they danced to “Unwritten” amid the end credits. (And posted the evidence on TikTok.) In 2022, audiences flocked to see A-list offerings from Julia Roberts and George Clooney (Ticket to Paradise) and Sandra Bullock (The Lost City), though neither cracked the $200 million mark. Not since Crazy Rich Asians ($239 million globally) has a studio rom-com breezed past that figure.

“There’s been no dearth of rom-coms in the last 10 years,” Anyone but You writer-director Will Gluck tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They’ve just all been on streaming. They’ve all been on Netflix and Hulu and Amazon. And I think the quality has probably been just the same as in theaters. The problem is we do not laugh at home. You do not laugh when you’re watching at your house. You do not laugh when you’re watching on a phone. You don’t laugh watching your laptop [and] doing other things.”

Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney in Anyone But You.
Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney in Anyone But You.

Gluck adds, “When you’re in a theater with other people around you — this is my theory based on nothing — I just feel that you’ve given yourself up to want to enjoy something. … and for some reason, comedies and rom-coms have not been thought of by studios or by distributors as something that needs to be in theaters. And I think that our movie just happened to be in theaters. I did work hard to try to make it big and funny in the scope, but I think a big part of our movie was how people felt watching it with others in a theater.”

The communal bonding of Anyone but You echoed that of Barbie last summer. The funniest moments involved physical humor: Glen Powell shooting his tongue out like a lizard; Sydney Sweeney contorting herself like Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment while stealing his airplane cookie; a beefcake surfer swimming with the zeal of an unhinged dolphin. In the movie’s most electric scene, Powell and Sweeney meet for the first time in a coffee shop.

He’s a smooth-operator finance bro; she’s a sardonic law student who desperately has to pee, but the barista won’t give her the key to the bathroom until she buys something. Unfortunately, the line to order is long. She makes a clever legal argument for skipping ahead, and while the barista is not amused, she charms an eavesdropping Powell, who pretends to be her husband and orders her coffee. The two strangers spend the day on an impromptu date, basking in the glow of a surprising, in-person connection, the sort that brightens your life when you least expect it. Gluck went old-school for his film, almost entirely removing phones and social media from the narrative. “The phone kills every plot twist because you just know [where] everyone is at all times,” he says.

THE BIG SICK, from left: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, 2017.
Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in 2017’s The Big Sick.

The new wave of rom-coms may date back to 2017, when Michael Showalter released The Big Sick and critics raved about the romantic comedy. They said it was a positive step forward for a genre that had begun to disappear from movie theaters in the age of IP-fueled franchises. They said the rom-com was back, and this time, really willing to get serious and tackle heavier topics like illness. These were fantastic things to say about a film that grossed $56 million on a $5 million budget and earned a best screenplay Oscar nomination.

Seven years, two American presidents and one global pandemic later, Showalter, who directed The Big Sick, has made another buzzy love story — The Idea of You, starring Anne Hathaway (out May 2 on Prime) — and once again finds himself on the receiving end of a familiar line of questioning about the state of the genre.

“For me, it’s never gone away,” Showalter says. “I’m always looking for a great romantic story to tell, but I do feel like there’s a desire to just feel good in terms of the kind of entertainment” being consumed and “also feel a sense of hopefulness. I think that romantic comedies offer that — that there is hope out there. Romantic comedies are always very aspirational about the world and life.”

The Idea of You
Nicholas Galitzine and Anne Hathaway in The Idea of You.

In The Idea of You, Nicholas Galitzine portrays Hayes Campbell, a sweetheart boy-bander with a chiseled jawline and an old soul for being all of 24. He sweeps Hathaway’s Soléne, a 40-year-old single mom, off her feet and melts her doubts about their age gap. At a time in a woman’s life when she starts to feel invisible, this handsome, nice, younger man truly sees and appreciates Soléne as her cheating ex-husband cannot. She’s got a cool rom-com job (chic Silver Lake gallerist), but in a refreshing reversal of the time-honored sad singleton trope, she is no hapless damsel in distress. She knows her own worth, and past disappointments have made her cynical. She accidentally walks into Hayes’ trailer while accompanying her daughter to his Coachella concert. Sparks fly. She laughs off his attempts to flirt; I relished seeing Hathaway in this light and so will my fellow elder millennials.

“Anne’s character doesn’t need Hayes,” Showalter says. “Anne’s character is just fine and she’s sexually active. She’s a sexual human being. She knows who she is. She’s not down in the dumps. She has some baggage, some emotional wounding as we all do, but she’s not in need of getting her groove back. She’s already got her groove.”

Meanwhile, streaming algorithms — filling the heart-shaped void of the cinematic experience — serve up films and series to suit a spectrum of tastes, from cozy holiday movies to steamy bodice-rippers to Lindsay Lohan’s Irish Wish, which topped Netflix’s most watched film rankings soon after its March 15 release. The algorithm presents a steady stream of choices, and sometimes swallows a gem of which I don’t become aware until months after it quietly dropped. In a previous era, such a gem might open the old-fashioned way — in the theater — and get the opportunity to stand out from the competition, for better or worse. In Irish Wish, Lohan meets Mr. Right on a bus. Kirsten Hansen, who wrote the screenplay during a trip to Ireland, sees romantic comedies made by Netflix and Hallmark trending funnier, with more physical comedy. In her previous scripts, “the notes would be to ‘tone it down,’” Hansen says. But now, wacky comedy is “sort of being encouraged. And I love that.”

'Irish Wish'
Netflix’s Lindsay Lohan rom-com Irish Wish.

Mark Waters, who directed Brooke Shields and Benjamin Bratt in the upcoming Mother of the Bride, arriving May 9 on Netflix, says his rom-com has “some legitimate comedy” and is “not just some cutesy jokes where two beautiful people hook up.” Feedback from early viewers caught him off guard. “In a romantic comedy, you’re always surprised that you’re getting big power laughs,” he notes.

Shields plays a woman who travels to an exotic location for her daughter’s whirlwind wedding; the plot thickens when she learns that the groom is the son of an old flame (Bratt). It’s a twist on Ticket to Paradise, and though the radiant, naturally funny Shields was game for shenanigans, Bratt required persuading that the movie wouldn’t be “rom-com trash,” Waters recalls, observing that male actors fear “cheesiness” as well as the thought of their guy friends thinking they’re uncool for participating.

This summer, Netflix will release its own May-December romance, A Family Affair, featuring Nicole Kidman as a prominent, Joan Didion-inspired writer and Zac Efron as her 30-something paramour. Richard LaGravenese directs from a script by Carrie Solomon; neither considered Kidman and Efron’s 20-year gap “any kind of issue.” They were surprised to hear that in some advance screenings, LaGravenese says, “millennial women were upset by it and wanted him to be with a younger girl that he dates in the beginning. And I didn’t really understand that because the age thing makes no difference. What matters is who you have a connection with and who you can be your authentic self with. And in the film, Zac [plays] a movie star [and] can only be really himself with Nicole because she doesn’t care about him being a movie star and everyone else does.”

As for Kidman, her character is stuck in a personal and professional rut and “this relationship wakes her up again,” says LaGravenese, who empathized with her story. He first sensed the whiff of a romance rebound with Ticket to Paradise, in which the Gen X exes learn to put aside their differences and reunite against a dreamy tropical backdrop. It’s grown-up stuff wrapped inside a pretty package.

“When that did so well globally, I thought, ‘Oh, wow, people are showing up for rom-coms again,’” he says, musing of public interest, “I don’t know if it’s maybe just from the pandemic. I thought perhaps it was also personally feeling so traumatized since 2016 — that [people are] leaning toward more fun, aspirational stories, fantasy stories, stories that you can just have a good time in.”

TICKET TO PARADISE, from left: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, 2022
George Clooney and Julia Roberts in 2022’s Ticket to Paradise.

As for labels, LaGravenese is not entirely sold on the word “rom-com” as a blanket marketing term for films that contain multitudes, as the best romantic comedies often do. “One of my favorites was Four Weddings and a Funeral, which was about friendship, and it was about death, and it was about different kinds of love. It was a lot of things,” he says, adding, “and it was a very successful one.”

A Family Affair “has rom-com in it, but it’s also something else,” he continues, calling it a “coming-of-age story” for characters at different stages of their lives.

This blend of heartfelt comedy and high-stakes depth ripples throughout the pages of romantic fiction, which has exploded in popularity over the past few years. Fourth Wing and Iron Flame, both romance fantasy (or “romantasy”) novels by Rebecca Yarros, have topped The New York Times’ hardcover-fiction best-seller list for a combined 72 weeks. On the paperback list last week, Abby Jimenez’s Just for the Summer ranks No. 1 with Hannah Grace’s hockey-themed Icebreaker ranking fourth. The Idea of You began as a beloved novel (the author: Robinne Lee) before Showalter and Jennifer Westfeldt co-wrote the film adaptation.

“With a lot of popular romance, you feel like you’ve been to therapy with a character by the time you close the book — you know insecurities, their hopes and dreams, their deepest traumas and usually they go far beyond a workaholic boss or being unpopular in high school,” Becca Freeman, author of The Christmas Orphans Club and co-host of the Bad on Paper podcast, tells me over email. “Many contemporary romance novels deal with serious physical and mental health diagnoses, issues or racial discrimination, or complex trauma. There’s a lot less of the formulaic ‘cupcake baker does hijinx,’ which still plays in film.”

Currently, three best-selling Emily Henry romances are in the process of being adapted into films. The Happy Place author, equal parts clever and sincere, stirred excitement among her tens of thousands of Instagram followers last month when she posted a picture of Paul Mescal and Ayo Edebiri, fueling casting rumors. If Edebiri were to hop aboard the Henry train, well, that would be terrific news for the future of the romantic comedy, which requires a pipeline of new talent to keep it alive. The Bear standout is hilarious and interesting, qualities she shares with genre all-stars Roberts, Bullock and Meg Ryan. We root for her. We want to spend time with her. We want to watch her fall in love.

We want to know that in the final stretch, she’s going to be OK. “There’s something safe in a happy ending,” says Kirsten Hansen. “We know how it’s going to turn out. There’s so much uncertainty in our world and in our lives.” But in a rom-com, “Things are going to end happily ever after. And the fun is watching [how it happens].”

I’ll take more of that — if not Happily Ever After, then Happily for Now.

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