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Rom-com movies have evolved. But they still need these 3 simple elements

Rom-coms have been a go-to for Hollywood for years, but they have definitely evolved recently.
Catie Dull
/
NPR
Rom-coms have been a go-to for Hollywood for years, but they have definitely evolved recently.

There's a lot of hype around romance on Valentine's Day, but what is love without laughter?

Romantic comedies — aka rom-coms — have been staple Hollywood fare for decades, but in recent years have undergone something of a transformation.

So grab that popcorn, find some chocolate, and drink something bubbly, because we're diving into the wonderful world of rom-coms — tackling everything from what the definition should be, why they were great (and sometimes not so great), and what a modern one looks like.

Our guide is Scott Meslow, who has just released his new book, From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy.

Meg Ryan has starred in her fair share of rom-coms.
Gabriel Bouys / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Meg Ryan has starred in her fair share of rom-coms.

So what makes a rom-com?

This was one of the first questions Meslow grappled with, and so he came up with a simple test that he says anyone can try.

  • Is the plot centered around a love story?
  • Does it make you laugh more than it makes you cry?
  • If you pull the love story out of the movie, is there still a movie or does the whole thing collapse?
  • "There's a reason it goes all the way back to Shakespeare," Meslow said. "There is something just fundamentally pleasing and satisfying about the arc of love. It's a story that many, many people can relate to in one way or another."

    "It's enjoyable to watch people spar and banter and fight about what they really want. And when they come together, I mean, that's as satisfying as it gets."

    Meslow said the genius of his three-point test was its simplicity and its ability to correct some misconceptions.

    Take Miss Congeniality, for example. The 2000 Sandra Bullock film is not a rom-com, according to Meslow.

    "That is a comedy with a romantic subplot," he said. "Because it's a movie about an FBI agent going undercover at a beauty pageant, and she happens to fall in love in the course of her mission. You could still make a great movie about that without the love story."

    On the other hand, Julia Roberts' 1997 hit, My Best Friend's Wedding is most definitely a rom-com, even though she doesn't get the guy at the end.

    Who knew rom-coms could be so complex?

    When rom-coms really took center stage

    For Meslow, the late '80s through to the early 2000s were when rom-coms really hit the mainstream.

    Just look at the playlist – When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Waiting to Exhale, My Best Friend's Wedding, Bridget Jones's Diary, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Love Actually, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days.

    And within those films, there are the now-memorable scenes. Like the "men and women can't be friends" debate in When Harry Met Sally.

    The key to knowing if a rom-com has hit the sweet spot, Meslow said, was if you want to watch it again. And again. And again. And did the actors involved really sell it.

    "Basically every major star of the era came up through rom-coms," Meslow said. "From Meg Ryan to Tom Hanks to Julia Roberts, all of these actors who went on to do lots of great work in lots of different genres came up through romantic comedies."

    They did have their problems, though

    After the rush of the '90s, Meslow said there was a dip when romantic comedies became a bit too contrived; when Hollywood tried to make each movie better than the last. For rom-coms, Meslow said this meant they became "untethered from reality."

    At the same time, some filmmakers tried to modernize the love story, but missed the mark.

    "Like, we're going to get into how the kids are dating these days, and it's going to be these casual hookups," Meslow said. "But inevitably, those movies turn into very traditional romantic comedies. They become stories about how the protagonists were wrong, they should not be having casual relationships, they should actually be in a traditional monogamous relationship."

    Audiences didn't buy it, Meslow said — they can tell when they're being condescended or pandered to.

    And then there's the issue with diversity, where the cast during this run of rom-coms was overwhelmingly white — a problem endemic to Hollywood, Meslow said, but particularly notable in rom-coms.

    "It is one of those things that there is now halting progress on," he said. "And you can see that in a lot of the rom-coms that are coming out now. But I think for the ones at the time, to a degree, it's always just about cowardice. It's, 'The Meg Ryan movie did well, so who's a Meg Ryan type? Oh great, Sandra Bullock is an up-and-comer, let's put her in While You Were Sleeping'. And over and over again."

    "It's to the detriment of the movies that were made, and it's the detriment of the audiences that would have enjoyed them."

    Meslow said there were exceptions — most notably Jennifer Lopez, who starred in films like Maid In Manhattan and The Wedding Planner.

    "She's a really fascinating example, because the simple answer is she just loved romantic comedies and really wanted to make them," Meslow said. "And no one was encouraging her to be making romantic comedies. She just wanted to."

    But rom-coms have evolved

    Meslow pointed to Crazy Rich Asians as a sign the genre was changing and the industry was embracing more diversity from filmmakers to stars.

    "It is a very traditionally structured, crowd-pleasing rom-com," Meslow said. And the lead actor Henry Golding, "is as charming and dashing a male lead as you're going to find in Hollywood anywhere right now."

    And then there are others, like Palm Springs and Happiest Season where the relationships feel more realistic, but still feed the hunger for a good rom-com.

    "[They are] subversive enough that they could have played with the form a little more when it came to the ending, there were legitimate reasons for the couples in both of those movies to not be together at the end of those movies, and in the end they both double down on the very traditional, 'and now it's true love' type of ending,' but I think audiences like it."

    And audiences liking movies and paying to watch them means Hollywood will keep making them.

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.