Once sidelined, romantic comedies rise again this summer
LOS ANGELES – Summer is always full of action and superhero pics, but this year a once dormant yet utterly adored genre is coming back in a big way: the romantic comedy. After a 2017 without any from a major studio, this summer is proving to be a re-birth for this lost Hollywood staple with five notable releases, including “Crazy Rich Asians “ and a “Mamma Mia! “ sequel.
The reasons for the genre’s decline are many. A post-recession focus on international audiences, franchises and superheroes have helped to push rom-coms off the priority list for studios. Also, after a long and fruitful run in the late ’80s through the 2000s, enthusiasm started to wane. They had become stale. There were a few outliers, of course, like Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck,” but the big studio rom-coms became derivative, lazy and dull.
“They didn’t reflect the way that society was changing. They were all about white, straight couples. They fell back on the conventions that define the genre,” said Erin Carlson, author of the book “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy” and an upcoming book about the films of Meryl Streep. “People just got tired of them.”
A death, of sorts, was necessary for the genre to rise again with a new set of voices. It didn’t hurt that “The Big Sick” made a splash at the box office and went on to get a screenwriting Oscar nomination – the kind of prestigious recognition rarely afforded to classic rom-coms that don’t have a “Silver Linings Playbook” edge.
“(‘The Big Sick’) showed that people still want a good rom-com at the multiplex, but they want one that pushes the genre forward in new, interesting ways that reflect real life today, not tired tropes of yesterday,” Carlson said.
And indeed, the rom-coms of 2018 are continuing that forward movement. Earlier in the year there was Paramount’s “Book Club” and its focus on older women, 20th Century Fox’s “Love, Simon” with its gay, teen protagonist, and the bilingual “Overboard,” which has become the highest-grossing film for Pantelion Films.
‘Set It Up’: “Set It Up ,” a Netflix release out Friday, is perhaps the most throw-back of all the upcoming films. It is about people with actual jobs that consume their lives instead of playing a glamorous backdrop to whatever romantic exploits the movie dictates. Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell star as assistants who decide to set up their miserable and difficult bosses, played by Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs.
It was dreamed up by Juliet Berman, the head of development for Treehouse Pictures, and screenwriter Katie Silberman, both ardent rom-com fans who met as assistants in Los Angeles.
“I grew up at a time when rom-coms didn’t have a negative connotation, they were just my favorite movies,” Silberman said. “I wanted for a long time to try to write something that would make audiences feel the way the movies I loved growing up made me feel. They’re fun and kind and warm and nice and smart.”
The script got the attention of Hollywood with a spot on the coveted Black List in 2015, a survey of the industry’s best unproduced screenplays. It was picked up by MGM and even had “Game of Thrones’” Emilia Clarke to star, but it started to fall apart when the studio wavered and Clarke had to go back to shoot her television show. The team, including Powell, was undeterred.
“We met with a lot of people who really liked the script but so many people would say, ‘oh it’s not right for our platform,’ or ‘it’s not right for our slate,’” said “Set It Up” director Claire Scanlon. “There were so many rules for people who were picking up films and if it didn’t fit perfectly with exactly what they had coming out, then they didn’t want to do it.”
That all changed in a meeting with Netflix, when executive Matt Brodlie agreed to make it in the room – he said yes in January and they were shooting by May. Netflix has also released a few other romantic comedies this year including “Ibiza,” “When We First Met” and “The Kissing Booth.” And, likewise, Amazon was the shop that took a gamble acquiring “The Big Sick.”
Big studios: It’s not just streaming platforms re-embracing the genre – the big studios are too. Universal has “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” coming July 20, with many of the original cast as well as Cher and Andy Garcia. And Warner Bros. is releasing the adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s popular novel “Crazy Rich Asians” on Aug. 15.
Nina Jacobson, who produced “Crazy Rich Asians,” saw an opportunity in the story about a Chinese American woman who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s parents to take audiences to a world they haven’t seen in a mainstream American movie, and also touch on universal themes.
“So many (romantic comedies) became so formulaic,” Jacobson said. “But it is a genre that has been historically beloved and successful and this felt like a great way to re-approach it.”
The independent realm, which has been keeping rom-coms alive for some time, also has a few boundary-pushing releases on the schedule, both about people in their early middle age finding love. The Sundance charmer “Juliet, Naked,” based on the Nick Hornby novel and starring Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd and Ethan Hawke, comes out Aug. 17, followed by “Destination Wedding ,” which boasts a ’90s dream cast in Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, who star as single wedding guests.
“It’s a dark comedy,” said “Destination Wedding” producer Gail Lyon. “They’re playing the idea of two broken people who have had the (expletive) kicked out of them in the love department. Can they really find enough hope to find something or is cynicism going to rule the day? It’s really funny and really honest about finding love later in life.”
Back to basics: Lyon, who also produced “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!” knows that the movie business is cyclical, but thinks that rom-coms needed to get back to the basics – character and dialogue – while also “twisting the paradigm a little bit to keep it fresh,” which she says “Destination Wedding” (Aug. 24) does.
If 2018 is the start of a new era of the romantic comedy, Carlson thinks that one day we may trace it back to “The Big Sick.” She compares it to how “Moonstruck,” which won three Oscars in 1988, helped get the genre out of the cynical “Annie Hall” phase and pave the way for “When Harry Met Sally” and all the classics that hit spawned.
“People have written the romantic comedy’s obituary over and over and over again,” Carlson said. “But the genre will always survive as long as it’s pushed forward in ways that reflect contemporary society. And it will also survive as long as love and relationships elude and fascinate us – that is, it will never go away.”