Can the romantic comedy live happily ever after?

Movie ending still - Editable Vector.For several years now, the romantic comedy has been kicked, maligned, and left for dead. Christopher Orr said in The Atlantic that they’ve been “lackluster for decades.” A.O. Scott of The New York Times thinks the actresses are too vanilla. And Linda Obst, producer of rom-coms like Sleepless in Seattle and One Fine Day says, “It is the hardest time of my 30 years in the business.”

And she’s got a point. The numbers don’t lie – when it comes to grossing big at the box office, traditional rom-coms have been disappointing at best. What was once considered one of the most bankable genres for studios and actors is suddenly risky business.

So what gives? Some say it’s just society changing. Marriage is no longer the life goal that it used to be. There are fewer obstacles to finding love. Technology has killed romance. And moviegoers are too savvy and cynical to believe in ‘happily ever after.’

Others blame the lack of charismatic movie stars: ‘They don’t make ‘em like Katherine Hepburn or Meg Ryan anymore!’ And the stars who really have that classic je-ne-sais-quoi are avoiding the genre altogether.

But to me, these arguments pinpoint symptoms of the rom-com problem rather than a diagnosis. Because the truth is, romantic comedies are an interesting beast. They’re inherently grounded in the social mores and cultural context that define courtship, sex, love, and marriage at that specific moment in time. For example, When Harry Met Sally wouldn’t be relevant today because well, these days, we know that men and women can be just friends.

Similarly, Working Girl, the 1989 romantic comedy that launched Melanie Griffith’s career, seems almost quaint now in its exploration of women in the workplace. At the time, the concept was novel – a beautiful woman with no breeding but serious smarts who wants to make it big on Wall Street. Maybe that’s why it attracted a big-name director (Mike Nichols), an all-star cast (Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver), and even a best-picture Oscar nomination.

The reality is, the best romantic comedies aren’t really timeless – they’re very much a product of their time. Think about the Katherine Hepburn classic Desk Set, in which a fact-checker falls in love with the man who’s installing a giant computer that’s threatening to steal her job. Or take Sleepless in Seattle, which is about a single dad’s search for love.

The problem with romantic comedies today isn’t that they’re out of touch with reality. On the contrary, they best ones have evolved to look nothing like rom-coms of the past – and they defy simple categorization. Think Juno, Bridesmaids, Silver Linings Playbook, or the upcoming Trainwreck. 

In other words, the true romantic comedy – the one that delights and inspires us – isn’t dead. It’s hiding in plain sight, inside movies that are widely regarded as witty, well-made, and very much relevant.

Romantic comedies don’t necessarily have a bleak future — they’re just in need of a genre makeover and a willingness to see them as a product of their time.