The Hamilton Spectator
Has the rom-com formula died out?
One of Hollywood’s classic genres has bit the dust with recent flops
It breaks my heart to say it, but it might be time to let the rom-com rest in peace.
The anemic showings of some recent attempts to revive the once beloved genre seem to indicate its time has passed. Consider, for example, “Your Place Or Mine,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher.
At first blush, this Netflix original has all the hallmarks of an early-2000s romantic comedy delight: A “friends to lovers” trope, pithy sidekicks delivering zinging oneliners, New York and Los Angeles bathed in the soft-focus light that launched a thousand millennial dreams (dashed, of course, when you arrived there and realized the economics of real life and romantic comedies are very, very different).
Chemistry is everything in these films and, sadly, that ingredient was nowhere to be seen between Kutcher and Witherspoon at the profoundly awkward premiere last weekend.
On the red carpet, the vibe between the two co-stars was so wooden that even Kutcher’s wife, Mila Kunis, felt compelled to comment. “You guys gotta act like you like each other,” she reportedly texted Kutcher, who starred in a string of thoroughly middling romcoms in the 2000s. His rather lacklustre defence? If he put an arm around Witherspoon, affair rumours would ensue. (In fairness: Nobody needs a sequel to “Mr and Mrs Smith.”) But chemistry is the stuff of life, as proven by Kate Hudson’s and Matthew McConaughey’s Instagram Live together last week. The duo connected to discuss the 20th anniversary of “How To Lose A Guy in Ten Days,” which has recently enjoyed a resurgence of young viewers discovering the movie via TikTok.
The fizz between them that made the rom-com such a delight was still very much present on the split screen, especially when they discussed the movie’s kissing scenes. “With respect to our new partners, we do kiss nicely,” Hudson said. “I would have to agree,” McConaghey said with a wink. They concluded by saying they’d love to “play” together onscreen again.
Julia Roberts and George Clooney also undeniably still have chemistry. Their 2022 vehicle, “Ticket to Paradise,” was a box-office hit, and it was a delight to see people over 50 being sexy and fun onscreen. But the film’s success spoke more to the strength of our nostalgia for their previous pairings than any enduring merit of the film itself.
Other recent rom-coms seeking to revive the romance (and careers) of former genre stars have failed to launch. Last month’s “Shotgun Wedding,” an Amazon original starring Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel, was a tonally bizarre mix of rompy fun and disconcertingly intense hijinks. (Being taken hostage by terrorists is hardly the food of love.)
These recouplings feel like attempts to reignite a spark that went out in 2006, analogous to trying to recapture the magic with the ex of your 20s. (And, if Ben and Jen’s dismal-looking outing at the Grammys is any indication, that doesn’t always go well.) As you might tell a friend who’s tempted to try to make things work with her ex for the 33rd time: Don’t bring your past into your future.
In the case of those early ’00s rom-coms, the reasons for the breakup are complex. The once ironclad genre suffered a series of high-profile flops, including “How Do You Know?” a 2010 vehicle for Witherspoon and Owen Wilson.
Then there’s the rise of the superhero movie franchise, plus television’s Golden Age means we just don’t develop movies, or A-list movie stars, the way we used to. (It didn’t help that rom-com legend Hugh Grant bowed out; as he selfdeprecatingly noted in 2019, he got “too old and ugly” to do them anymore.)
At the same time, it’s clear that the appetite for the bubbles-in-your-tummy, foot-poppingly-delirious escapism the rom-com offers remains strong.
Spicy romance novels have seen a massive resurgence, driven by the Gen-Z-led enthusiasms of BookTok, proving we all crave a meet cute and happy ending as much as we ever have — if not more, in the dispiriting age of online dating and d--k pics. Ditto the success of YA adaptations — “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “The Summer I Turned Pretty” — which sprinkle familiar flirty fairy dust while speaking to the present moment. “Set It Up” managed to do that for beleaguered corporate-ladderclimbing millennials with Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell in 2018, while this month’s Netflix hit “You People,” with Jonah Hill and Lauren London, uses romance as a way to discuss contemporary race relations.
In short: Rom-coms need a fresh chapter, one that buries the ghost of movies past and clears the stage for a new generation of love stories. We don’t need another Nancy Meyers movie (this is blasphemy, I know) or Hudson and McConaughey doing “How to Lose a Guy 2.”
But we do need, say, Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet making sparks fly in their own rom-com, or Florence Pugh making her directorial debut in a romance written by Halle Bailey. We need a plethora of diverse, joyous, juicy stories about falling in love.
Just not from the same people who told them the first time around.