The romcom’s dead, judging by the number of thinkpieces calling time of death.
In one sense, they’re not wrong: the “golden era” romantic comedy, undemanding fare in which a man and a woman who are perfect for one another work their way through whatever personal problems or situational roadblocks the story throws in their way to find true love, has been all but abandoned by mainstream Hollywood. Sony and Fox aren’t out there making a new Sleepless In Seattle or Picture Perfect, and it’s not immediately apparent why, seeing as they can be made for what’s effectively pocket change, are seemingly critic-proof and every once in a while become a smash hit with a colossal return on investment.
Dig under the surface, though, and it becomes clear the romcom is another victim of the studios’ general withdrawal from mid-level movies as they instead chase blockbuster franchises or prestige pictures, ceding that traditional middle ground to the indie scene. Regardless of their ultimate artistic merit (and, let’s be honest, there’s a lot of insipid bullshit to be found in the genre), romcoms stand as pretty much the last remaining vestige of what used to be termed “the woman’s film”, a horribly reductive term for movies which give the experiences, goals and desires of women equal footing to those of men whilst celebrating the differences in their emotional expression and experiences of attachment, motherhood and sacrifice.
The romcom’s been down this path before. As early Hollywood sought to figure out its identity, the bawdy vaudeville routines it adopted in the silent era first gave way to sex farces imported from Broadway, then pushed the envelope further into sensational sex and violence before the imposition of the Hays Code’s strict morality forced a clean-up. 1927’s It is easily recognisable as bearing all the hallmarks of a romcom, but the directness of its empowered sexuality is in stark contrast to the gentle romance of 1940’s The Shop Around The Corner on the other side of the Code divide.
Folding the farce back into the romance and scaling back the sex gave rise to the first golden era of romcoms in the form of screwball comedies, but these were on the wane even by the end of WWII, strong women taking charge of their destiny presumably considered surplus to requirements, and so things came full circle with the rise of the ‘50s sex comedy even as the studio system was collapsing. Forced to divest themselves of their cinema chains due to an anti-trust suit, the studios started making fewer movies with larger budgets (sound familiar?), nervously looking over their shoulder both at TV and foreign films which weren’t subject to the Code. Romcoms had a part to play here, with changing public attitudes along with direct assaults from Otto Preminger’s 1953 The Moon Is Blue and Billy Wilder’s 1959 Some Like It Hot serving as fatal blows against the Hays Code (the latter more for its implied homosexual content rather than Marilyn Monroe’s generous sexuality), but in doing so they essentially drove themselves out of existence: by the late '60s the romcom had all-but disappeared, and with it stories which put women’s desires front and centre, even as they gained greater autonomy and independence in the real world.
After a twenty-year hibernation, the romcom exploded. The late ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s saw a wave of romantic comedies like nothing before, ranging from Nora Ephron’s definitive 1-2-3 of When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail (effectively a remake of The Shop Around The Corner) through Pretty Woman, While You Were Sleeping, One Fine Day, My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Wedding Planner, Along Came Polly, Rumor Has It, Bride Wars, Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past, Larry Crowne… the list goes on, and this is just a selection of the most familiar titles people know even if they haven’t actually seen the movies in question. Featuring seemingly interchangeable characters, these are movies with happy endings that downplay the sex again, and aren’t really about anything other than achieving idealised, almost fairy-tale relationships. Maybe it’s that absence of expansive dramatic conflict or examination of the broader human condition that leads to the romcom being considered a lesser form, but this is the era those thinkpieces are mourning.
However, the genre is nothing if not flexible, and even during the fallow period there were movies which took the romcom’s essential structure and applied it to more innovative effect: 1967’s The Graduate is an oft-cited example, Benjamin’s affair with Mrs. Robinson representing the roadblock to his relationship with Elaine, with the permissive ‘60s twist that it was the older woman who seduces him. Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 What’s Up Doc? attempted a screwball revival, but it was Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall which really reinvented the genre, taking a psychoanalytical approach to neurosis as a relationship roadblock, the fundamental differences between the emotional behaviour of men and women, and love itself.
The golden era also had attempts to do something different with the form, such as 1984’s Romancing The Stone fusing a classic mismatched couple romcom with a jungle adventure, or 1997’s As Good As It Gets using screwball elements to form a different kind of love triangle as a single mom and a gay artist enter the life of an intolerant obsessive-compulsive, leading to him becoming a better man. The same year’s Grosse Pointe Blank tosses a hardboiled hitman played by off-kilter romcom staple John Cusack into a high school reunion comedy of second chances, using its absurdism to explore its characters and theme of past obsessions and mistakes, literalise conflicts and still provide a happy ending in which the reunited lovers drive off into the sunset.
If each generation of film-makers reacts to the cinematic landscape of their formative years, it’s only natural that we should now see the results in the generation that grew up during the most recent golden era. They weren’t just watching romcoms: between cable TV and home video it’s only become easier to gain a broader film education, and with it to start seeing new ways to take elements from one genre and apply them to another. Hence we get movies such as Michel Gondry’s 2004 Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, in which elements of sex farce, science fiction, romcom and relationship drama come together to examine the nature of love and memory, Judd Apatow’s 2005 The 40-Year-Old Virgin, one half teen sex comedy with adult characters, one half regular romcom, layered with commentary about honest discussions of sex and relationships, or Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air, which fuses a ‘50s-style George Clooney romcom with social commentary on the ways we define identity in our work and personal lives.
By the early ‘10s mainstream studio romcom output had dwindled again, leaving the way clear for further hybrids in this new vein. Reitman returned in 2011 with the Diablo Cody-penned Young Adult, which takes the idea of a homecoming reunion with a childhood sweetheart to explore how the measurements of maturity evolve as we age, the fairytale romantic ending replaced by a character only just realising that she needs to change if she’s to be happy. Zoe Kazan’s 2012 Ruby Sparks takes a high-concept romcom idea of a blocked and lonely author creating the girl of his dreams on the page only for her to come to life, then twists it into a psychological horror story about abusive controlling relationships, while Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed of the same year combines a time-travel mystery with a screwball romcom in which a woman slowly comes to realise the man she’s attracted to isn’t crazy after all, even as another man selfishly tries and fails to rekindle his own romance.
Romcom tropes and concerns can even be adapted to entirely different forms: mumblecore king Joe Swanberg’s 2013 Drinking Buddies asks the same question about whether men and women can ever truly be just friends as When Harry Met Sally… but reaches the opposite conclusion, while 2014’s They Came Together is an entirely postmodern reflexive exercise in romcom, running wild with the tropes of the genre while poking fun at them and still functioning as a fully modern romcom in which the happy ending isn’t guaranteed. Even the movie-adapted-from-an-Internet-phenomenon gets in on the act in 2016’s Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates, which harks back to classic two-handers such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in which women aim to take advantage of men who don’t realise what they’re up against, reflecting the reality of a more empowered generation.
Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is a straightforward development of this hybridisation, and also the way his 2012 Extraterrestrial uses its ‘50s SF movie UFO invasion to both motivate its characters as their romcom quadrangle plays out and serve as a metaphor for the way people can concentrate on their immediate problems at the expense of the bigger picture.
Colossal’s opening act is pure modern romcom: Gloria’s a boozy, unemployed mess whose boyfriend finally packs her shit and kicks her out of his New York apartment, leaving her nowhere to go to embark upon her voyage of discovery except her rustic hometown, which, of course, hasn’t changed any in the intervening 15 years, right down to the childhood friend who’s carried a torch for her all along. All this sets up expectations based not only on the credentials of the movie’s stars – expectations Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis lean right into, as does Vigalondo’s direction – but also on the audience’s understanding of the romcom and the way these two down on their luck, people are clearly going to look out for one another, furnish her house, reinvigorate his failing bar, fix their respective flaws, fall in love, yadayadayda…
Subtly at first, Vigalondo subverts those expectations, but only by playing entirely conventional romcom scenes totally straight. There’s just enough Manic Pixie Dream Girl in Hathaway’s Gloria to clue the savvy viewer in, but Sudeikis makes tremendous use of the natural charm that makes him so believable as a romantic comedy foil. Whereas a conventional romcom, certainly one from a different era, might set up a series of events in which her resistance is ground down by his charm and generosity until she finally realises she loves him too, Colossal has more on its mind in its gender politics and portrayal of Gloria as an independent woman who comes to understand her own failings.
And that’s where the kaiju comes in, Colossal turning it into a metaphor not of radiation, fear and destruction, but of feminism, empowerment and self-growth. In taking the basic format of the romcom abandoned by mainstream Hollywood and bolting it onto something else entirely, Colossal’s sum is greater than its parts, and that’s the encouraging lesson to be learned from this new era of hybrid romcoms: they can tell new, richer, deeper stories that better reflect our changing society, without being any less funny or kicking any less kaiju butt.
The romcom’s not dead, it’s just mutating. Sometimes into a giant monster.