At some point in the past seven years, we forgot how to love. At least, that’s what you might think if you walked into a cinema. Romantic comedies — true romantic comedies — have slowly dwindled from the marquee. The groundwork laid by writers like Nora Ephron and John Hughes in the '80s and '90s endured into the early 2000s. Audiences could rely on a steady stream of rom-coms making its way through cinemas every couple of months, and the genre could rely on them to show up. Now-classics like You’ve Got Mail, Bridget Jones's Diary, and The Holiday all held their own at the box office, and stayed in cultural rotation thanks to their frequent appearances on cable TV, where unsuspecting channel surfers were sitting ducks. In fact, if you were to name your favourite romantic comedy, it’s likely it came out when you could still rent it at Blockbuster.
Enter Netflix. The DVD-rental-by-mail company launched its streaming service in 2007 which, ostensibly, should have been good news for movies. And it was! Just...not for the culture around them. Blockbuster closed. Channel surfing became superfluous once you could just DVR and stockpile your shows or stream them instantly. Hell, DVD players nearly became obsolete. Why go to a movie theatre (or rental store) when you could watch one in bed? Suddenly, everyone needed to find their place in this new modern, experimental, fast-paced world of entertainment, and in order to keep up, both studios and big-name actresses pivoted away from romantic comedies and towards more sure-fire genres. Rom-coms, as we knew them, went into hiding. However, the platform that indirectly helped kill the culture of rom-coms might just be the one to bring them back.
On June 15, Netflix released its latest original movie, Set It Up, which came on the heels of another original romantic comedy, The Kissing Booth (released on May 11), and kicks off what the brand is calling its “Summer Of Love.” More rom-coms are on the way, with Netflix capitalising on the stand-out success of these releases. According to the company, 80 million accounts watched a “love story” in the past year, and of those who watched The Kissing Booth, one in three have gone back to rewatch it. As for Set It Up, it’s been met with overwhelmingly positive critical reception, prompting more than one outlet to come to the same conclusion: the rom-coms of our youth have returned.
You know what kind of rom-coms I’m talking about. In the late '00s to very early '10s, they were on a roll. From She’s The Man to 27 Dresses to The Proposal to 500 Days Of Summer. Commercial success varied, but they still reliably attracted big names to star in them, and devoted fan bases that can quote the most memorable lines to this day (“My favourite’s gouda” from She's The Man and “Help me, I’m poor” from Bridesmaids are surprisingly applicable to everyday life). So why did these movies vanish?
“I think what's happened is they — they being, like, studios — just meddled too much with the process in general,” Set It Up director Claire Scanlon previously told Refinery29. “[They] probably overwrote, over-script-doctored, just tried to use the same template. Guy meets girl, girl has a problem, guy has a problem, girl fixes guy, guy fixes girl. Conflict ensues, and they're reunited in the end. They took that very literally without thinking of real human beings. So everything felt a little two-dimensional. It felt like, 'Oh, I feel like I'm watching a formula.' And I think in a lot of ways, we were.”
There’s no greater example of this than No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits. Two romantic comedies with similar star power (Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher versus Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake) regurgitating the exact same plot (mostly-platonic friends who sleep together) coming out in the exact same year (2011). They performed around the same in the box office (hovering just below and above $150 million worldwide, respectively) and faded from our memories just as nonchalantly. I only think of them in the context of the other, as a marker of when it seemed Hollywood had truly run rom-coms into the ground.
While there’s something to be said for rejection of a formula, it’s not like audiences were that excited about new ideas for romantic fare, either. Hollywood tried going indie, with movies like Obvious Child and What If, going mumblecore (Drinking Buddies), going back to the friends-with-benefits trope (Sleeping With Other People), or going really, really dark-to-dystopian (Silver Linings Playbook, The Lobster). For what these films – some of them critically lauded – tried to make up for in originality, they lost in the effortless spark that attracts fans to rom-coms in the first place.
Which brings us back to Set It Up and The Kissing Booth. These aren't Netflix's first stabs at rom-coms. They found earlier success with Jessica William's The Amazing Jessica James, and stumbled through less well-received attempts like Happy Anniversary and When We First Met. This isn't to say Set It Up and The Kissing Booth are amazing movies, the same way How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days wasn’t up for any Oscars, or 13 Going On 30 probably won’t end up in the Criterion Collection. But they’ve gripped people in a way, as a rom-com hero would say, they haven’t felt in a long time. Finally, with all the horrible things happening in the world, here’s something to indulge in. Something that checks our boxes without reading like a grocery list, because directors Scanlon and Vince Marcello modernised the right aspects while still maintaining rom-coms’ essential elements.
For instance, both movies feature a dramatic airport scene. They feature a meet-cute. They feature “the look,” when a character realises they’ve fallen in love with the one person they weren’t supposed to. They feature a secret that could bring the whole thing crashing down at any moment. And while we’ve seen these moments before, Scanlon and Marcello use them in new ways. Set It Up, in particular, takes a meta approach to the romantic comedy. Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell) are two overworked assistants who realise they could forge a path to freedom if they got their demanding bosses to fall in love. Of course, they’re the ones that end up doing the falling. Everything they plan for bosses Kirsten (Lucy Liu) and Rick (Taye Diggs), like meet-cutes and grand romantic gestures, they end up organically performing for one another as their own relationship blossoms.
Meanwhile, The Kissing Booth veers towards the absurd. Based on a story by Beth Reekle published on Wattpad, the Netflix original is about high school students Elle (Joey King), her best friend Lee (Joel Courtney), and the consequences of the kissing booth they decide to run at the Spring Carnival. Somehow, Elle ends up lip-to-lip with Lee’s older brother Noah (Jacob Elordi) and the newly-minted lovebirds must keep their romance a secret as to not ruin Elle and Lee’s friendship. The sometimes bizarre dialogue and often goofy scenes are a huge part of the appeal, yet these elements don't water down the realities of the high school experience. It also pulled many of its creative devices straight from the teen rom-coms of the 80s (even though teens today may not be aware of it). Lee is in some ways the Duckie (Jon Cryer) to Elle's Andie (Molly Ringwald — who also happens to play Lee and Noah's mother) à la Pretty In Pink, although more explicitly platonic. Noah is Sixteen Candle's seemingly unattainable popular guy Jake (Michael Schoeffling). In perhaps its biggest nod, the prom scene in The Kissing Booth is set to Simple Mind's "Don't You (Forget About Me)" which played most iconically at the end of The Breakfast Club.
And this is just the beginning. In the next few months, Netflix will be releasing Chinese drama Us And Them, teen romance To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (based on the book of the same name), and Sierra Burgess Is A Loser starring Chrissy Metz and Shannon Purser. In the traditional theatrical release realm (yes, that still exists!), things are going in a similar direction. With Love, Simon in the rearview mirror, the next big rom-com hits theatres this August. Crazy Rich Asians is yet another glimmer of hope that the rom-com is on the up-and-up.
This burst is promising, but a true return is marked by more than a couple of months. Luckily, audiences have made clear that they’re ready and willing. Let’s just hope their love doesn’t end up unrequited.