Is the most maligned genre enjoying a long-overdue resurgence? Journalist Sarah Gill investigates.

Leaves are falling, evenings are getting shorter, and the gravitational pull towards an evening spent watching Meg Ryan exchange emails with Tom Hanks is becoming almost too much to bear.

'Tis the season for Heath Ledger to dance across the bleachers singing Can't Take My Eyes off You with a brass band accompaniment, and for Hugh Grant to utter ‘whoops-a-daisies' as he struggles with his eternally foppish hair.

Julia Roberts has returned to her roots alongside George Clooney in Ticket to Paradise, Meg Ryan is currently directing and starring in one of her own, and Irish Wish will see Lindsay Lohan carry the romantic comedy torch onto Netflix in 2023. Could this mean what I think it means? Is the rom-com making a highly delayed return?

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that cinema simply has not been the same since Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey singing You're So Vain, Meg Ryan simulated climax while out for lunch with Billy Crystal, or Julia Roberts was just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.

These movies defined generations, and set the tone for the genre at large. They left a huge cultural footprint, and are referenced and recreated time and time again — yet somehow, very few movies have managed to recapture the heady excitement and utter perfection of the rom-com heyday.

The formula was simple: boy meets girl in an unexpected yet adorable way, there will be some form of vague deception at play that leads to a a big old bust up, an outstanding gesture that may or may not take the form of a grand musical number, and a beautiful montage of the good times and the bad times until our leading couple ride off into the sunset, happily ever after.

The predictability is immensely satisfying, and provides just the right level of escapism so that you can simultaneously see some aspect of yourself in the film, while losing yourself in it entirely.

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In 2017, Vanity Fair did the heavy lifting and analysed 79 of the best romantic comedies of all time, and dug up some quite jarring statistics. In their research, they looked back as far as 1931 and found that in over 90 years, the building blocks of a top-notch rom-com remained largely the same.

In addition to the overwhelmingly all-white, heteronormativity of the relationships we were brought up on, a whopping 87% of the movies VF looked at saw the couple clearly and unequivocally end up together. (Earlier this year, it was estimated that 41 percent of all first marriages end in divorce — just saying.)

Their requirements for rom-coms included two romantic leads who were not well-acquainted, a serendipitous situation by which they met, and a plot revolving around the question ‘will it work out’. There were many love triangles and quadrangles, quite a few ‘adorkable’ leads, and a myriad of deception playing out in a number of different ways.

Tom Hanks knew Meg Ryan owned the independent book store his chain store was squashing; and just think of the amount of love stories that began with a bet, dare or a challenge to change their counterpart in some fundamental way?

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Vanity Fair found that of the 93% of films revolving around a straight white man and a straight white woman, 8.7 times out of 10, there was a grand gesture (read: boombox over head), and in 37% of the movies studied, the final shot was a kiss — more often than not in the rain.

So, with a framework so clearly carved out, where did it all go wrong?

Well, for starters, changing tastes and the gift of hindsight allowed for greater interrogation of the morality and messaging of these films. While many chalk that down to new age cynicism, it cannot be denied that revisiting any of our favourite films today can leave you with a sour taste in your mouth.

Patronising and problematic, viewing many of the intrinsic elements of a rom-com today can throw up quite a few question marks. Why did so many of these movies have to involve some sort of compromise on the part of the female lead?

Typecasting is also at play here. It seems as though big name actors are reticent to make a name for themselves through rom-coms only, and view more typically "serious" cinematic genres as much more worthwhile.

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In conversation with AARP Online last year, Matthew McConaughey addresses the reasoning behind turning down a $14.5 million rom-com leading actor role because he felt it didn’t challenge the vitality he was feeling in his personal life.

Having become known for his roles as the go-to guy in films like Failure to Launch, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and The Wedding Planner, McConaughey took a sabbatical from Hollywood and from the genre at large because he wanted to wait out script for more reputable drama projects like The Lincoln Lawyer, True Detective and Dallas Buyers Club.

The fact that romantic comedies are somehow seen as lesser, despite incredible box office numbers and seamlessly informing the zeitgeist, naturally, is a thinly veiled form of misogyny. Movies that appeal to typically female interests, tell stories of love in a light hearted way, and offer a wish-fulfillment type of escapism fall into — wait for it — ‘guilty pleasure’ territory.

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However, it seems as though we’re currently experiencing a turn in the tide, and filmmakers are coming to terms with the pitfalls of the genre, and paving a new way for the future of rom-coms.

The resounding flaw of the rom-com genre is its inherent uniformity, and at long last, we’re finally seeing some varied perspectives play out on screen.

From Crazy Rich Asians and The Love Birds to The Big Sick and Single All The Way, the new era of rom-coms manages to maintain that same feeling of serendipitous excitement and foot-popping kisses while offering a self-awareness and element of reality that was missing from those classics of days gone by.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.