It’s time to re-invent the romcom, says Donald Clarke
Happy belated Valentine’s Day. Why don’t you celebrate by taking your significant other to a romantic comedy? Just as horror movies colonise Halloween, films featuring cute meetings dominate mid-February. Don’t they?
You can probably guess where this is going. A glance at the release schedules confirms that – through cynicism, carelessness and sheer bad faith – Hollywood has finally managed to kill off one of its most cherished genres. Only two current films come close to meeting the criteria: the morose, shrill This Is 40 (see review, page 11) and the cynical, pessimistic I Give It a Year. You could, at a stretch, argue for zombie romance Warm Bodies. But, in truth, the season is bereft of any decent comically romantic (or romantically comic) entertainment.
Peruse the box-office chart for 2012 and the diagnosis seems starker still. Get this: the highest grossing romcom released in 2012 sits at a distant 46th place. Yes, the almost entirely terrible This Means War is the only romcom to break the top 50 – and then only just. (No, you can’t have The Vow. That wasn’t a comedy.) This is an almost unprecedented act of self-mutilation on Hollywood’s part.
It is true that, once a reliable staple, the western was gradually wiped from schedules in the 1960s. But that was, for all its flexibility, a very thinly defined genre: a historical picture set during one era in one corner of one country. The classic Holly- wood musical was an even more eccentric beast: a delightfully lunatic amalgam of operetta and high melodrama. By way of contrast, the romantic comedy has, in various forms, been with us since Shakespeare began devising unlikely scenarios involving cross-dressing twins.
There is some cause for satisfaction in the grim news. Throughout the medium’s history, glorious films such as It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, Roman Holiday, The Apartment and Manhattan demonstrated that the genre offers inexhaustible scope for reinvention. The current demotion of romcoms to the status of cinematic sludge results from a slide in standards that set in during the mid-1990s.
Noting that audiences for When Harry Met Sally . . . and Four Weddings and a Funeral skewed towards the female, the closet misogynists in head office took themselves down a slippery path towards oblivion. These were “women’s pictures” and women were not to be treated as adults. A lowering of wit, an increase in sentimentality and – worst of all – a devotion to crass consumerism eventually led to the terrifying tyranny of the Lopez-Aniston chick-flick axis. It’s not that punters won’t pay to watch reconstituted horse dung. But they will only pay for so long.
The genre collapsed because the public refused to be treated like raving idiots. The time is ripe for one more reinvention.