netflix

Rumors Of The Death Of The Rom-Com Are Greatly Exaggerated

The debate about whether romantic comedies are — or ever were — dead is an old one by now. In fact, I wrote about it five years ago.

It’s a sad but true fact that genres that fall between giant big-budget tentpoles and itty-bitty indies have receded in the last 20 years or so: the adult drama, the sports movie, the live-action family movie, and yes, the romantic comedy. It’s not a complete vanishing: Rom-coms continue to be made, and they continue to be recognized. 2017’s The Big Sick is an example that managed both a sizable audience and an Oscar nomination (for best original screenplay).

But we certainly don’t have the abundance of sunny rom-coms that we did from, say, the late ’80s through the early aughts: When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, yes, but also While You Were Sleeping and Clueless and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Maybe it’s changes to the business, maybe it’s the declining quality of scripts (does the genre have a new Nora Ephron? — of course not, nor could it ever), or maybe it’s that we don’t have the durable stars we did then who want to work in such a likability-driven form.

Come to think of it, maybe we’ve even made it nearly impossible to have those stars. To quote that piece from five years ago that’s even truer now:

Take note: Jennifer Lawrence is no longer neatly on the right side of this equation. Neither is Emma Stone. In fact, Lawrence recently interviewed Stone for Elle and — guess what! — it wasn’t universally received as adorable.

Still, we find ourselves in the middle of what many of us hope is a rom-com resurgence. The current box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians is partly a romantic comedy, though it’s not the classic meet-cute kind. It’s the meet-the-parents kind. What it does have is swoon-worthy beauty, wacky friends and a makeover, all of which are classic rom-com elements.

Much of the action at the moment, though, is on Netflix, where they’re cranking out what a lot of us loved in the ’90s — straight-up, unapologetic, sparkly-eyed rom-coms.

Note well: this isn’t to say they’re all good. The runaway winner for quality is To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, adapted from Jenny Han’s YA romance, starring Lana Condor and Noah Centineo. It’s impeccably cast (which is half the battle), it’s well written and directed, and it has brought out in viewers what Alanna Bennett at BuzzFeed has cleverly — and accurately — termed “radical softness.”

Set It Up, which was released in mid-June, was also chatted up favorably on social media, although it’s not nearly as deeply felt or as well executed as To All The Boys. Its story of a couple of assistants trying to force a romance between their bosses was appealing mostly because it was such pure romantic comedy, such pure artifice that you rarely see anymore in service of the real center of any rom-com, which is Cute People Flirting.

The Kissing Booth, starring Joey King as a girl stuck between a possessive best friend and his possessive older brother, has its partisans. Given that its story romanticizes both violent tempers and boys fighting for control of a girl’s sexuality, I am not one of those partisans. (By which I mean to say: It’s very bad.)

But! The good and the bad often appear together. If Netflix is going to crank out original movies along these lines — thus dropping what once seemed to be its plan to make its reputation for original films on the back of Adam Sandler — then they won’t all be successes. Theatrically released romantic comedies weren’t either, which you know if you ever saw The Ugly Truth. (I hope you didn’t.) What matters is staying in the game.

What’s more, Netflix’s first best rom-com meant a lot to another underserved audience: The one that doesn’t want romantic comedies to be dominated by white casts and writers, as they were in previous “golden ages” (which is not to dismiss films that broke that pattern, like Brown Sugar and Hitch). Jenny Han wrote a lovely piecefor The New York Times that was in part about how hard it was to find a production company that wanted to have her heroine, Lara Jean — who was Asian-American in the book — played by an Asian-American actress. Netflix does some things well and some things poorly, but it does seem to have an interest in wriggling into spaces where more content would be welcome (as with comedy specials and baking shows). If that — and the success of To All The Boys — brings a broader variety of love interests to the screen, then all the better. (So far, this little mini-run has entirely heterosexual couples; there’s no reason that needs to be the case in the long run, and I’d bet it won’t be.)

So fear not for the future of the romantic comedy — the collision in a public place where people drop their possessions, the mistaken identity, or the idea of pretending to date your obvious perfect match. Don’t worry about the encouraging sidekick, the wise older person with their own rich history, or the fight that takes place in the rain. The meaningful glance, the misunderstanding, and the fancy party where the person who seemed ordinary suddenly seems extraordinary? They will all do fine. They will all persevere. The screen might get smaller, but the heart will swell, just the same.

Here’s To The Romantic Comedy Pleasures Of ‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’

Well, it’s safe to say Netflix giveth and Netflix taketh away.

Only a week after the Grand Takething that was Insatiable, the streamer brings along To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, a fizzy and endlessly charming adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA romantic comedy novel.

In the film, we meet Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), who’s in high school and is the middle sister in a tight group of three: There’s also Margot, who’s about to go to college abroad, and Kitty, a precocious (but not too precocious) tween. Unlike so many teen-girl protagonists who war with their sisters or don’t understand them or barely tolerate them until the closing moments where a bond emerges, Lara Jean considers her sisters to be her closest confidantes — her closest allies. They live with their dad (John Corbett); their mom, who was Korean, died years ago, when Kitty was very little.

Lara Jean has long pined for the boy next door, Josh (Israel Broussard), who is Margot’s boyfriend, and … you know what? This is where it becomes a very well-done execution of romantic comedy tricks, and there’s no point in giving away the whole game. Suffice it to say that a small box of love letters Lara Jean has written to boys she had crushes on manages to make it out into the world — not just her letter to Josh, but her letter to her ex-best-friend’s boyfriend Peter (Noah Centineo), her letter to a boy she knew at model U.N., her letter to a boy from camp, and her letter to a boy who was kind to her at a dance once.

This kind of mishap only happens in romantic comedies (including those written by Shakespeare), as do stories where people pretend to date — which, spoiler alert, also happens in Lara Jean’s journey. But there’s a reason those things endure, and that’s because when they’re done well, they’re as appealing as a solid murder mystery or a rousing action movie.

So much of the well-tempered rom-com comes down to casting, and Condor is a very, very good lead. She has just the right balance of surety and caution to play a girl who doesn’t suffer from traditionally defined insecurity as much as a guarded tendency to keep her feelings to herself — except when she writes them down. She carries Han’s portrayal of Lara Jean as funny and intelligent, both independent and attached to her family.

In a way, Centineo — who emerges as the male lead — has a harder job, because Peter isn’t as inherently interesting as Lara Jean. Ultimately, he is The Boy, in the way so many films have The Girl, and it is not his story. But he is what The Boy in these stories must always be: He is transfixed by her, transparently, in just the right way.

There is something so wonderful about the able, loving, unapologetic crafting of a finely tuned genre piece. Perhaps a culinary metaphor will help: Consider the fact that you may have had many chocolate cakes in your life, most made with ingredients that include flour and sugar and butter and eggs, cocoa and vanilla and so forth. They all taste like chocolate cake. Most are not daring; the ones that are often seem like they’re missing the point. But they deliver — some better than others, but all with similar aims — on the pleasures and the comforts and the pattern recognition in your brain that says “this is a chocolate cake, and that’s something I like.”

When crafting a romantic comedy, as when crafting a chocolate cake, the point is to respect and lovingly follow a tradition while bringing your own touches and your own interpretations to bear. Han’s characters — via the Sofia Alvarez screenplay and Susan Johnson’s direction — flesh out a rom-com that’s sparkly and light as a feather, even as it brings along plenty of heart.

And yes, this is an Asian-American story by an Asian-American writer. It’s emphatically true, and not reinforced often enough, that not every romantic comedy needs white characters and white actors. Anyone would be lucky to find a relatable figure in Lara Jean; it’s even nicer that her family doesn’t look like most of the ones on American English-language TV.

The film is precisely what it should be: pleasing and clever, comforting and fun and romantic. Just right for your Friday night, your Saturday afternoon, and many lazy layabout days to come.