The romantic comedy formula hasn’t changed much since Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert first traded barbs in 1934’s It Happened One Night: Two lovebirds have a meet-cute; comedic mishaps ensue; the two live happily ever after. For decades, rom-coms ruled the box office and cultural conversation, peaking roughly after 1989’s When Harry Met Sally… helped usher in a romantic gold rush. (Until 2018, the top 10 highest-grossing rom-coms were all released between 1990 and 2009.)
But somewhere in the past decade, the bubble burst, as rom-coms became less culturally ubiquitous than they used to be. And the films that were made faced critical derision and tepid box office receipts. “Romantic comedies were literally like ground zero for critical nastiness,” says Adam Shankman, director of 2001’s The Wedding Planner and the new Taraji P. Henson film What Men Want.
“A few years before, everyone was like, ‘Oh, rom-coms are dead,'” adds Rebel Wilson, who stars in the rom-com spoof Isn’t It Romantic (out Feb. 13). “If somebody offered me a rom-com, I’d be a bit like, ‘Nah, no one’s gonna watch that.'”
Then, suddenly, the drought ended: In 2018, Crazy Rich Asians catapulted to box office glory and awards recognition, while Netflix sparked social media buzz with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Set It Up. Two major studio rom-coms, Isn’t It Romantic and What Men Want, are out this month, with more on the way — and these films don’t just accept the rom-com label but embrace it.
“The ones that I love the most are the ones that make me fall in love with the characters and life again,” Isn’t It Romantic director Todd Strauss-Schulson says. “It’s the only genre that can remind you of that.”
So what triggered this romantic resurgence? For one, Hollywood has slowly started embracing fresh perspectives. People of color, queer people, and people of different sizes have been leading some of the year’s most talked-about titles.
“A lot of young and older Asian-American women and men have come up to me and said, ‘We’ve watched it five times, we can’t wait for our children to watch it,'” says Lana Condor of To All the Boys. “Or, ‘I’m so happy that I could see a girl that looks like me up on the screen going through the universal experience [of] high school and falling in love for the first time.'”
Another theory regarding the rom-com boom? In a pop culture landscape dominated by snarky superheroes and brooding antiheroes, rom-coms are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food: Sometimes it’s nice just to curl up on the couch and watch two people crushing on each other.
“Especially if you look back historically through time, all the great romantic comedies are satisfyingly predictable,” Shankman says. “If you gave them an ending that was too emotionally unfulfilling, the audience will 100 percent rebel against you.”
In fact, some of the most successful modern rom-coms don’t simply nod at their predecessors’ predictability but explicitly acknowledge it: Sixteen Candles is a key plot point in To All the Boys, while Isn’t It Romantic playfully references everything from Pretty Woman to Notting Hill.
Whatever the reasons behind the rom-com renaissance, there’s no slowing down. Sequel plans are already in the works for To All the Boys and Crazy Rich Asians, with a slew of new rom-coms slated for 2019.
“I think everybody does want love,” Wilson says. “And from that logic, I think movies about love will always be popular and have an audience.”
Every day until Valentine’s Day Entertainment Weekly is celebrating our special romantic-comedy-themed Untold Stories issue. Check out all our behind-the-scenes tidbits, reunions, and oral histories — and follow #LoveEWstyle on Twitter and Instagram.
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Additional reporting by Samantha Highfill and Shirley Li.