The saying goes that if something isn’t broken, why try to fix it? It could be applied to the romantic comedy and Hollywood’s regular attempts at remaking this stalwart of cinema, particularly when Valentine’s Day rolls around each year.
February 14 is an excuse for websites, this one sometimes included, to publish lists of the greatest rom-coms ever made. Movies sure to tickle funny bones and get hearts fluttering as woman and man meet-cute, have hilarious escapades on their journey to become a loving couple and live happily ever after once the end credits roll.
Over the decades Hollywood has attempted to update and refresh the genre in numerous ways and 2019 delivers two new additions to the canon.
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“Isn’t It Romantic” places a cynical architect, played by Rebel Wilson, into her worst nightmare: After waking up from a nasty bump on the head, her whole life now exists within rom-com confines and tropes. Much to Wilson’s character’s dismay, this new realm is rated PG-13 so there is no foul language or sex.
“What Men Want” stars Taraji P. Henson as an under appreciated sports agent trying to succeed in a male-dominated environment who, after (you guessed it) a nasty bump on the head following a sip of mystical tea, gains the ability to hear men’s thoughts. It’s a flip-the-gender reboot of 2000’s “What Women Want” in which a chauvinist character played by Mel Gibson is given the power to hear women’s thoughts.
“She’s trying to win this fight but she’s fighting like a guy and that’s foreign to men,” Henson told NPR of her “What Women Want” character. “What she learns is she needs to just fight like a girl, ‘cause God gave her a certain gift he didn’t give guys.” Similarly, Wilson’s character ultimately finds the answer to her dilemma of how to get out of her alternative rom-com world by looking inside and appreciating herself. (As RuPaul regularly proclaims: If you can’t love yourself then how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?)
Such resolution, along with ultimately falling for the already-obvious-to-the-audience love interest our lead was fated for, are traditional rom-com constructs. Regardless of where the story begins, audiences are almost always delivered a traditional ending in compliance with the established rules of the genre. Be it “The Philadelphia Story,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Beautiful Thing” or even last year’s Amy Schumer vehicle “I Feel Pretty,” the conclusion leaves us on solid, if regularly trafficked, ground.
That’s not a complaint. Such quirky narrative flips and fish-out-of-water tales are Hollywood attempts to refresh the genre and keep the box office ringing while remaining cognizant of #TimesUp and #MeToo, as well as battling the current onslaught of streaming services proffering Valentine Day fare both old and new. But studio powers-that-be should only look to a recent success that proves the romantic comedy, even in its most traditional form, is as popular as ever.
“Crazy Rich Asians” follows a pragmatic heroine (Constance Wu) who must navigate the ultra-wealthy world of her Singapore-born boyfriend. It’s a classic rom-com setup that has earned almost $175 million at the domestic box office, almost $240 million worldwide, and was the seventeenth highest grossing movie of 2018 according to Box Office Mojo. The only rom-com to place in the top 20, it had a reported production budget of $30 million.
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, “Crazy Rich Asians” checked the all-important rom-com foundations: It had a unique point of view not often seen on screen; it had a protagonist relatable to most audiences; it delivered some truly funny moments and, most importantly, ended on a happy note.
Whether “What Men Want” or “Isn’t It Romantic” can achieve the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” is currently unknown. What we do know is that rom-coms, in whatever reworked or reimagined guise, will continue to arrive on screen year after year. Because, despite the hackneyed constructs, good romantic comedies make us believe in love, even if only for a little while.