Why Don’t Today’s Romantic Comedy Couples Stay Together?

Photo: Everett Collection/REX/Shutterstock.
The late night movie is one of late summer’s greatest pleasures. Not too long ago, I spent a sticky summer evening in the Prince Charles Cinema, a former blue movie theatre specialising in repertory cinema (aka old films) and smack bang in the middle of London’s Chinatown. I watched Modern Romance, a film about a couple who break up and make up in a toxic, seemingly never-ending loop. You might’ve seen its curly-haired writer, director and star Albert Brooks in Broadcast News (your mum’s favourite late ‘80s romcom, and mine too), but you’ve almost certainly never seen this film – after all, it was never released on DVD here in the UK. Made in 1981, it derives a big chunk of its comedy from its main character’s compulsive drunk dialling habit – but swap the landline for an iPhone and you’ll see that not much has changed over the last 25 years. However, the most modern thing about Modern Romance isn’t the way it prefigures boozy bad decisions, but its cynical ending. Although (spoiler!) the last scene sees the film’s central couple get engaged, an epilogue that plays over the top of the seemingly-happy ending tells us that they will eventually divorce. As I waited for the night bus home after my screening, I couldn’t help but wonder… does it matter if a romantic comedy couple end up together? Wracking my brains for examples of romcoms in which the couples broke up, I tried to come up with a list. There’s Annie Hall, of course, and Broadcast News too, although people don’t like to think of these films as romcoms. My Best Friend’s Wedding counts. Indie anomalies like 500 Days of Summer, Celeste and Jesse Forever, the TV shows New Girl and Master of None, and the new Bridget Jones film in which her Darcy is dead. This depressed me. A quick Google of modern romcoms will throw up lists and features (nearly all of them written by men) about tolerable exceptions to the sea of supposed shit since the genre’s golden age of the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Recently, the romcom has lurched into the friend zone, with buddy comedies like Bridesmaids and the Magic Mike franchise suggesting that the greatest love affairs are platonic – and that in modern life, romance figures as a subplot. Even films that stick more closely to the classic formula, like Appropriate Behaviour or Obvious Child seem to settle for relaxed definitions of ‘relationships’. That’s not to mention the Judd Apatow school of bromantic comedies – male-centric stories that skew more com than rom, swapping romance for raunch and witty banter for jokes about bodily fluids. According to a recent study, millennials are having less sex than ever – but in these movies, it’s more that there’s an absence of intimacy rather than a lack of sex.

Movies, like life – post-Internet, post-recession, post-Brexit – just aren’t as romantic as they used to be

At a time when the romcom is going through a dry spell, or else, has mutated into something almost unrecognisable, the genre’s history seems ripe for re-examination. A recent Channel 4 documentary certainly thought so, devoting an entire hour to the subject and focusing on the glut of romcoms that were released both here and in the U.S. in the '90s and early '00s. Never mind the fact that it kept calling a meet cute a ‘cute meet’, or its offensive (and straight-up bizarre) suggestion that The Inbetweeners Movie could be considered either romantic or comedic. ‘There’s Something About Romcoms’ is a reminder that movies, like life – post-Internet, post-recession, post-Brexit – just aren’t as romantic as they used to be. The absence of solid romcoms that depict millennial love lives leaves the slightly uncomfortable question of whether long-term monogamy is simply unrealistic, hanging in the air. One recent film that suggests as much is How to Be Single, which turns its nose up at the pursuit of men espoused by the romcom format itself. Says Leslie Mann’s Meg to her younger, tearfully single sister Alice: “You get yourself all hopped up on Sex and the City, and Bridget Jones, and thinking that you need to have some Big Single Experience – which by the way is total bullshit, all those girls ever did was look for boyfriends.” Alice (Dakota Johnson) describes her predicament as “being stuck in dicksand” (“It’s like quicksand, but with dicks"), lamenting the fact that she is so obsessed with the idea of being in love that she has completely lost herself. “It’s like I forget what I want and I just disappear,” she explains to her ex-boyfriend, sounding just like an Ask Polly column. How to Be Single suggests that there’s something more romantic about friendship and finding yourself than dating itself – and that the search for love at the expense of personal development simply isn’t feminist.
The Hollywood romcom – one of cinema’s whitest, straightest, most heteronormative endeavours – isn’t exactly revered for its liberal credentials, but as feminism begins to seep into the mainstream, perhaps it’s a good thing that the genre is changing to more realistically reflect the lives of the women watching. And, in any case, even if the romantic comedy couples in question don’t end up together, there’s still pleasure to be found in witnessing the friction between them. In ‘There’s Something About Romcoms’, genre veteran Meg Ryan describes perfect screen romances as two people speaking in the same rhythm. She’s onto something there – there’s something delicious about the Pride & Prejudice style push-pull of couples who quarrel before getting together. Jill Soloway, the creator of Amazon’s transgender family dramedy Transparent, has recently adapted Chris Kraus’ cult novel I Love Dick. When writer Chris (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband, a revered silver-haired academic named Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), come into contact with charismatic scholar Dick (Kevin Bacon), she begins to write letters to him – letters that stir her both intellectually and sexually. I Love Dick is more interested in the stickiness of an emotional affair than it is in conventional coupledom. Though only the pilot has been released, Soloway’s take on Kraus’ sexy mash-up of critical theory and relationship taxonomy is both funny and romantic – and feminist. It might just be the rebirth of the romcom.

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