When writer/director Nora Ephron passed away in June, the industry lost not only an iconic filmmaker, but, it could be said, the grand dame of the romantic-comedy genre. Though she hadn’t been as active in recent years, her seminal “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally…” continue to be archetypes for what a whip-smart yet heartwarming tale of boy meets girl should be. So it’s curious, then, that as we were recalling Ephron’s achievements, the category was experiencing heartache of its own—with one of its least lustrous years in recent memory.
Of course, the questionable quality of romantic comedies isn’t a new discussion; it’s one we’ve been having for at least the last five years, if not the last decade. (Can you believe it’s been nine years since “Love Actually” was all around theaters?) But, perhaps even more telling, the box-office returns on these films were equally inconsistent. Surprise hit “Think Like a Man” grossed $91.2 million with a production budget of only $12 million, while the splashier “This Means War” made only $54.8 million domestically towards its $65 million budget.
Yet, our hearts will go on for one reason: Indies will never let go. Where studio films have been faltering in the genre (and here, I’m referring to quality only), independent productions are excelling—and without narrative crutches like overly contrived meet-cutes and fairy-tale-approved happy endings.
Leading the love train in 2012 was “Silver Linings Playbook,” a film some would categorize as a drama but which I think hems more closely to the Ephronic ideal: A man and woman, equally matched, discover life would be a little worse without each other in it. With pops of levity and light and stellar performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, the film transcends the usual in-treatment tropes to become something joyful and life-affirming. (I mean, that finale dance move? C’mon!)
In “Friends With Kids,” the trappings of parenthood might have been the conflict de jour, but the result was still the same: an affecting tale of ups and downs and unconditional love.
There are also plenty of examples of independent romantic fare with far less sunny outcomes. Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones made it hurt so good in “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” while Greta Gerwig decided it was high time she loved herself in “Lola Versus.” Something for nearly every romantic proclivity, it would seem.
I can’t help but think Ms. Ephron would be proud.
“The Big & Best of 2012: A Year End Celebration Presented by T-Mobile” goes LIVE at 12 p.m. ET on 12/12/12. Watch at BigAndBestOf2012.com for eight hours of live performances from stars like Bruno Mars and Miguel, special editions of “RapFix Live” with Ma$e and A$AP Rocky, “Big Morning Buzz Live,” “MTV After Hours” with Norman Reedus, “You Oughta Know,” surprise guest appearances, prize giveaways and much much more!