I watch a lot of rom coms. I don't go out of my way to admit that, but if you look at my movie list, it's hard to deny. There's something of a concentration on Jane Austen movies among the rom coms on that list, but ... let's face it, they're just high quality rom coms. So I was curious what Elizabeth Sankey (who wrote, narrated, directed, and provided music with her band) had to say about the genre. As it turns out, I have a lot of strongly held opinions about the genre too - so this review is a bit longer than I meant it to be.
Sankey is clearly a fan of the genre, and had watched many rom coms before she dug in to research this thing. She has a lot to say about what's commonly wrong with them, and she's right about several of these:
- the protagonists are almost uniformly white and middle class
- if a woman wants sex, she can't have love
- women who have careers only really need them because they don't have a husband
- no (zero, nada, zilch) interracial couples. As she pointed out, the only exception is "Love Actually," and they're an already-established couple while the story line is about a man who loves the wife
She spends a fair bit of time on the "stalkers:" rom coms where genuinely creepy behaviour is rewarded, where a suitor goes to extreme lengths to win their beloved. She's right that there are a disturbing number of movies where lawsuit-worthy behaviour is used for humour and gets-the-girl. I've watched very few of these as they generally creep me out: what depresses me about them is that there's apparently a market for this.
Right in the middle, she names "When Harry Met Sally" as a great movie - in part because the romance isn't presented as the one-and-only, gotta-be-right-now thing. I agree, it's good - but I think several other rom coms she brushed over or didn't name at all ("Stranger Than Fiction," which she seemed indifferent to, and "Definitely, Maybe" which I don't think was mentioned) are better.
She talks about the stalkers, the improbable and unrealistic plots ... and then gets offended that critics don't take the genre seriously. Are you a fan of action movies? No? Why not? Is it because 90% of the genre is staggeringly formulaic and the actors wooden? And why is this? Because there's a huge market for manly men saving the day and/or taking revenge, and people will go to see those movies no matter how dramatically inert they are. As a result, there's a huge industry churning out cheap direct-to-streaming action movies. That describes rom coms as well, with its huge built-in market if you can find a good-looking guy, a good-looking girl, and a story that has them falling in love. Of course the critics disdain them: they want to see dramas because dramas don't have the built-in market that rom coms and action movies have, you've got to work harder.
She also calls out the oddballs - things like "I Love You Man," which she says is a rom com between two guys - except they're both straight and it's a platonic friendship. She's probably right about that one, but I haven't seen it (and don't intend to). However, her calling out "The Heat" as another "platonic rom com" would require reconsidering every buddy cop movie ever made. I mean, should "Tango and Cash" have got a room? (Umm, well, maybe.) Or perhaps "Rush Hour" was actually a romance? I get that she's seeing other kinds of movies borrowing tropes from rom coms, but that doesn't make the movie a "rom com." And borrowing happens all the time, movie genres cross-pollinate like crazy. Hell, she never mentioned "Bend It Like Beckham" which is a sports comedy that's closer to rom com territory than "The Heat." Nor did she mention "Under the Tuscan Sun," which is practically the definitive not-a-rom-com by borrowing every trope the genre has to offer and then NOT having a couple at the end.
Other movies she cites as "atypical" include "La-La Land," "Ruby Sparks," "The Big Sick," and "The Silver Linings Playbook." She sees these as being sort of sneaky rom coms: she thinks they pretend to be something else to avoid the critical disdain romantic comedies attract, but are essentially rom coms at heart. I don't see it that way: I like all these movies (except maybe "Ruby Sparks," which was at least interesting), and I think each of them has simply done a better job - better writing, different and/or better structure, better acting, better directing - to create a rom com that's actually a good movie and deserves good reviews regardless of genre.
Sankey seems almost surprised to find an explosion of mainstream queer cinema in the last couple decades, almost as if she's somehow not aware that Hollywood simply doesn't make films that challenge societal norms. They trail behind what's socially acceptable, they don't push the leading edge ... So now that it's socially acceptable, they're willing to cash in.
In the end, she's still right on at least a couple of her major points: most romances in rom coms are white, and middle class. And they're never, ever mixed race. But ... for her viewing pleasure, I present "Love, Simon" (it was released around the time she would have been doing post-production on this movie). Okay, it's a teen film. But (SPOILER ALERT (for "Love, Simon"), stop reading now etc.) it's a teen rom com and the punchline is both queer and mixed race. And it's a pretty good film. Arguably though, this supports her point: "Love, Simon" is unique to date among mainstream movies in presenting such a couple, and it's sad we've had to wait so long to see it to happen.