The release of Set It Up by Netflix last month shook something loose, alerting the entire media world to the fact that the Romantic Comedy genre was making a resurgence, propelled in particular by Netflix. There was an entire media vertical for about two weeks devoted to discussing the topic.
First was Lindsey Bahr at The Associated Press followed by features at Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter, Quartz and Business Insider, which looked both backward and forward at how Netflix seems to be singularly responsible for reviving these kinds of movies.
All this comes just a year after The Big Sick was hailed as breathing new life into a formula that had become mired down in cliches and other problems. Not only that, but as many of the stories noted these aren’t the kinds of movies studios are making any more because they don’t come with built-in brand awareness and don’t play well overseas.
Netflix, to its credit, is seizing its moment. It’s had stars Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell doing videos about horrible bosses, dating dilemmas, and engaging in workplace hijinks. It’s also sent the pair around to outlets like People TV, TRL, Build and more, a *very* high level of press activity for the company that usually eschews this kind of earned media campaign and one that shows it needs to build on word of mouth to attract eyeballs.
It’s true that Netflix has leaned heavily into the romantic comedy genre, but there are some important points to make along with that admission.
It’s Not Selling Many of These As Rom Coms
For all the attention Set It Up has received, the trailer for the movie as well as much of the subsequent promotion and publicity have all focused more on the story of harried Millennials who want a damn moment to themselves. Yes, the romance that develops between the characters played by Deutch and Powell has come up repeatedly, but it’s not the main element by any stretch of the imagination. The trailer hints at it more than states it explicitly as a plot point.
So too the trailer for Tramps isn’t about the relationship between Danny and Ellie as much as it’s about the way they interact while committing various crimes.
Even the trailer for Happy Anniversary isn’t totally something that would seem to fit into the Rom Com category. In this case it’s more about the way passion fades as time passes and you have to make the choice to stay in love with your partner every day because you do love them and want to be with them, not necessarily because hormones are driving you wild for them.
Not included on many of the lists above and others was Alex Strangelove, which told the story of a young man who’s questioning his sexual preferences despite dating a girl who keeps wanting to seal the deal. The trailer for that movie positioned the story as being about identity, not just love and romance and sex.
Also missing from the lists was Candy Jar, a story about two driven prep school students competing to be the top Debate champion who find they have to work together to succeed. The trailer shows a movie that hits a lot of the usual beats but which might have a kind of loose charm about it.
All The Same Old Cliches…
One of the reasons the genre fell out of favor over the last few years is that it just started feeling very tired, with very little new or interesting being added to the formula.
Looking at the trailers for A Christmas Prince, Christmas Inheritance, When We First Met and The Kissing Booth, you see a lot of the same boxes being checked that were part of any romantic comedy being made in the 80s and 90s.
A Christmas Prince features the latest in a long line of female reporters committing massive ethical violations because a literal prince might whisk her off to some fairy tale life after she puts on a ball gown and catches him being a human being, not a stuck up snob.
When We First Met was sold as a creepy stalker flick about a man who uses time travel to try and get a woman he’s in love with but who doesn’t feel the same to choose him over another guy. The trailer was a terrible example of how men don’t respect women’s agency in making decisions and manipulates/guilts her.
Christmas Inheritance has a woman taking a break from her successful, busy life – including a fiance – to visit her quiet, laid back hometown. While there she not only embraces the slow pace of life but falls in lust with a local hunk.
The Kissing Booth tells the story of a young girl who’s always been invisible to the older brother of her male best friend until she hits puberty at which point he’s much more open to her advances.
Netflix Isn’t Alone Here
The streaming service has identified romantic comedies as a genre that fits very well within its mission to fill in the mid-budget “Yeah, it was fine” movie that studios have given up on, that much is clear. And it certainly has over-indexed on movies in that category in the last six months or so compared to other distributors. That doesn’t mean it solely owns the market, though.
The Year of Spectacular Men, directed by Lea Thompson and starring her daughters Zoey and Madelyn Deutch, has the latter playing a woman who realizes she’s unlucky in love and decides a change of scenery will do her good. Moving to LA, she tries to find a connection with a series of men while also reinforcing the relationship she has with her sister and mother.
Blockers, by all accounts, was a sweet and romantic coming of age story. The problem was in how that element of the story wasn’t included in any of the movie’s marketing, possibly because it featured a young girl crushing on and eventually admitting her feelings for another girl. Instead it was sold more on the hijinks of the parents than anything involving the kids.
The Clapper did not look good, and the age difference between Ed Helms and Amanda Seyfried gave off a weird vibe, but the trailer still featured all the hallmarks of the rom-com genre, including his awkward efforts to get her on a date and the way she eventually supports him through his troubles.
The Boy Downstairs had Zosia Mamet playing a young professional woman who inadvertently winds up living in the same building as the ex-boyfriend she pines for. Complicating matters, he’s now living with his current girlfriend. That doesn’t stop her from engaging in all sorts of often-comedic activities to get his attention and win his affection once more.
Love Simon, which was touted in advance of its release as being a great step forward for the teen rom-com sub-genre as it featured a main character who was going through all the usual awkward motions of dealing with a crush/budding romance, just of the same sex variety.
Destination Wedding, coming out later this year, has Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder reuniting as a pair of mismatched misanthropes who seek solace in each other while they endure a grueling experience. The banter seen in the trailer is absolutely familiar and clearly marks it as belonging in this category.
This is one trend that has been blown out of proportion. Not only is Netflix, heralded as the savior of the romantic comedy in 2018, far from the sole purveyor of such films, but its offerings aren’t nearly as innovative as those coming from other studios.
Consider that nearly all the Netflix originals cited here and elsewhere feature exclusively white characters, the exception being Candy Jar. And only with Alex Strangelove is there any deviation from the hetero-normative model.
That’s actually less inclusive and innovative than what others have offered when you look at both Blockers and Love, Simon. Both those feature same-sex relationships and the latter even offers a mixed-race couple that was so popular the lip-lock between Nick Robinson and Keiynan Lonsdale won Best Kiss at the MTV Movie and TV Awards.
I enjoy a good romantic comedy as much as the next guy, but while there’s certainly an uptick in their frequency that’s been aided by Netflix, there are other trends that company is ignoring that others aren’t when it comes to making and selling such movies.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.