It can be hard to celebrate another’s happiness when you are struggling to find your own. Watching former classmates land a high-paying dream job while you’re navigating the gig economy. Seeing the house your affluent Facebook friend(‘s parents) bought as you’re struggling to pay off your student loans, which somehow only increase as the months go by. Liking and commenting “Congrats!” with several heart and champagne emojis when your one-time best friend shows off their engagement ring on Instagram, then immediately flipping over to Tinder in desperate search of someone, anyone, who seems attractive enough, interesting enough, and normal enough to get a drink with one night after work.
The fact is, a lot of millennials and Gen Zers aren’t happy. Can you blame us? We’re underpaid and underutilized, staring down uncertain financial prospects and certain environmental doom. As a result, we’re delaying the one thing that is supposed to be all you need: love. (OK, we’re delaying marriage and having children. Still!)
It’s so easy to see the highlight reel of the happiest moments and forget that no one’s life is perfect, even if it looks that way on social media. That is precisely why today’s romantic comedies are so satisfying — because they are as painfully aware of that facade as we all are, and they’re tired of pretending.
All of these characters, embarking upon probable relationships, remind us that we don’t have to have our lives together before we welcome someone else into them.
It’s a level of awareness that we’ve been missing since roughly 2012, when rom-coms completely flatlined at the box office. As LA Weekly reported in 2014, the last few years of the 1990s saw multiple romantic comedies occupying spots among the top 20 box office performers. By 2005, five flicks earned over $100 million. Then, in 2013, not one light-hearted love story cracked the top 100.
Much has been mused to explain this drastic drop, with fingers pointing at a lazy reliance on tired tropes, hard-to-believe narratives, and even (rather rudely) at the likability and profitability of the choice leading ladies of the time, Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson. There’s some validity in most of those assessments (not the last one — Heigl and Hudson are successful, award-winning actresses), and for proof, look no further than 2008’s critical and box office dud My Best Friend’s Girl, which was in the regrettable company of 2009’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and The Back-Up Plan in 2010.
But recently, a glimmer of hope for the genre has been restored. 2017’s The Big Sick was a festival darling-turned-Oscar nominee, and in 2018, Netflix boasted some of its highest streaming numbers ever with the Summer of Love, while Crazy Rich Asians became the sixth highest-grossing romantic comedy in modern box office history. This recent series of messy, sloppy, yet somehow still idyllic stories have revived the heartbeat of the genre that had seemed all but dead by restoring the humanity that had been forgotten.
Consider the horrifyingly relatable moment in The Big Sick, when Emily (Zoe Kazan) wakes up in the middle of the night and attempts to discreetly haul ass out of Kumail’s (Kumail Nanjiani) apartment because she has to “take a huge fucking dookie.” Or Set It Up’s most beloved scene, when Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell) drunkenly climb into his bedroom via the fire escape to eat pizza on the floor. Then there’s the entirely ridiculous moment in Plus One when Alice (Maya Erskine) and Ben (Jack Quaid) are awoken by a graveyard groundskeeper repeating “cooter’s out” the morning after they consummated their attraction in their unceremonious location.
All of these characters, embarking upon probable relationships, remind us that we don’t have to have our lives together before we welcome someone else into them. And we actually believe that reminder because these stories are grounded in real emotions — just as in the film said to have birthed the modern romantic comedy: When Harry Met Sally…
Written by the incomparable Nora Ephron, directed by Rob Reiner, and starring Meg Ryan (yes, mom to the aforementioned Quaid in Plus One) and Billy Crystal, the 1989 classic has been praised for three decades for its refreshing interpretation of love as an equal partnership, where women can have strong opinions and men can be vulnerable. The film launched the genre into a heartfelt exploration of human emotion in the presence of love, paving the way for movies like Sleepless in Seattle and She’s All That in the ‘90s, and Sweet Home Alabama and My Big Fat Greek Wedding of the early aughts.
And yet, these new rom-coms are giving us something that previous movies haven’t. They exist just beyond the world earlier rom-coms so carefully curated, with their giant apartments, exceptional wardrobes, and trope-soaked romance; right here, in the romantic comedy-inhabited world we grew up in. “We frequently talked about, in rehearsals with Jack, that [Ben is] just sort of someone who has seen too many romantic comedies, and particularly the kind that we look at and go, ‘That's not really realistic,’” Andrew Rhymer, co-writer and co-director of Plus One, tells MTV News. “And it's kind of warped his brain a little bit.”
Seeing these characters dig themselves out of this saturated mindset and experience a more grounded love gives viewers hope that, no matter where we are in life, this kind of love can happen for any of us, at any time, and even if it doesn’t have the most beautiful execution, it’s real, and that’s what matters.
Seeing these characters dig themselves out of this saturated mindset and experience a more grounded love gives viewers hope that, no matter where we are in life, this kind of love can happen for any of us.
But the new wave of romantic comedies aren’t just tapping into the psyche and emotions of young adults; they’re also extremely fun, turning modern, everyday life into a fairytale.
There’s Love, Simon, a coming-of-age story about Simon (Nick Robinson) balancing friends, family, and high school as he navigates life in the closet — but a secret online romance starts to open him up in ways he didn’t know possible. And the Golden Globe-nominated Crazy Rich Asians, in which Nick (Henry Golding) invites Rachel (Constance Wu) to attend his best friend’s wedding in his home country of Singapore, only for her to learn that she has stolen the heart of the most desired bachelor in the country. Then there’s the surreal Isn’t It Romantic, which sees Natalie (Rebel Wilson), an architect who has always hated romantic comedies, finding herself living inside of one.
These films call to mind the high-concept styling of the other film credited with the genesis of the modern romantic comedy, Pretty Woman, the 1990 Garry Marshall film starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere about a prostitute and a wealthy businessman in need of a companion whose lives are mutually transformed after a few days together in the extravagant Beverly Wilshire hotel. Never Been Kissed, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and 13 Going On 30 are all descendants of the diamond-studded Cinderella story.
Only this time, these aren’t fairytales for just one type of person. There are happily ever afters for all people, regardless of sexuality, race, or size, right in the genre’s mainstream. The people who were once relegated to the sidelines or left out of the story altogether exist in a truer form, and a whole new range of audiences can insert themselves — and their family and friends — front and center into these ultra-romantic romps.
This need for authentic diversity was something Jeff Chan, a lifelong fan of the genre and the co-writer and co-director of Plus One alongside Rhymer, felt particularly connected to as they sought to cast Erskine in their film. “Maya, regardless of her race, is the best person for the role, but beyond that, just getting to work with an Asian American actress for that part allowed us to cast more Asians in the roles of her family. So then we got to cast Rosalind Chao, and Tom Yi, and Victoria Park,” he says. “It’s such an important thing to me to add diversity to films like this without making it a big deal — without making it an Asian movie. She's Asian because she's Asian, that's just who the character is. And that's something I've wanted from a movie like this for a really long time, growing up Asian and watching a lot of [romantic comedies], but never seeing someone that looked like me in those movies.”
There are happily ever afters for all people, regardless of sexuality, race, or size.
We can already see these patterns becoming the norm as we venture deeper into this fresh wave of romantic comedies: Billy Eichner and Kristen Stewart are both preparing to star in their own gay rom-coms, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has already wrapped filming two follow-up movies, the sequel to Crazy Rich Asians is moving full steam ahead, plus Golding is lending his romantic-lead energy to the delightful-looking Last Christmas alongside Emilia Clarke, due to hit theaters November 8. In order to be truly successful in their romantic comedy aims, what these films really need to do is paint an authentic, 360 portrait of love as we experience it now. It’s a craving for true emotions that we’ve seen reflected in genres adjacent to the classic romantic comedies — in Someone Great, for example, the end-of-love story that showcases the modern move to consider your friends as family and recognize when it’s time to make a big change just for yourself.
Today’s rom-coms don’t just grant us permission to fully be the work in progress we are, but they grant us all that freedom. They show that, even if we don’t have it all figured out like some of our most fortunate peers, that doesn’t preclude us from having our own funny love for the ages. That’s why we loved romantic comedies in the first place: These films remind us that love is attainable for all, even in the most unlikely circumstances — and at any given minute, it could be right in front of you.
Welcome to VOL.UME: Love Now, a new series of stories chronicling how we find and experience romantic connections in the digital age. For the full experience, head to volume.mtv.com.