Is the romantic comedy dying? In so many words, Mark Abraham recently asked this question, listing the 10 worst rom-coms of the last five years in order to demonstrate the sad state of the genre. While there’s no question that the more traditional of romantic comedies have noticeably suffered in quality since their early-2000s heyday, rom-coms aren’t comprehensively in decline.
All this means is that the typical, clichéd structure of romantic comedies may have reached its natural limits. So rom-coms have had to grow, to mutate and expand, finding new life by exploring new territory, daring to redefine what a romantic comedy can be. The genre isn’t dead; it’s just changed—because it had to.
Call this a rebuttal to Mark’s list—or maybe just an alternate timeline. Either way: here are the 10 best examples of the rom-com’s evolution since 2010.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Out of all the choices on this list, this movie actually does the least to play with the formula of the romantic comedy, except for having the main character work as a stripper instead of an architect or journalist or something like that. Most of the story, characters and themes have all been explored by other romantic comedies: Young, wild and free character believes nothing is missing from his or her life; later, this character meets a special someone, and suddenly begins to reconsider his or her priorities and/or lifestyle.
The movie really doesn’t have much to offer in terms of forging new ground for the rom-com genre, but Magic Mike is an absolute thrill from start to finish. The key is in exciting direction and strong performances from everyone involved, allowing a fairly generic love story—between Mike (Channing Tatum) and Brooke (Cody Horn)—to feel as though it’s giving us insight into largely uncovered ground. Matthew McConaughey deserves special attention for his fantastic work as Dallas, the sleazy but charming owner of the club where Mike works. Seriously one of his best roles, McConaughey is seductive even as you discover his true, sinister nature. Overall, Magic Mike is the product of a genre revitalized through a simple shifting of context.
Director: Lee Toland Krieger
Played by Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg, respectively, Celeste and Jesse seem like a perfect rom-com couple. They’re best friends with endless inside jokes and a deep, genuine love for one another. Sounds familiar, right? It’s supposed to. Director Lee Toland Krieger knows what audiences have come to expect, and so the movie is deliberately set up to warp that typical perspective by having the couple decide to divorce. A relationship ending is obviously a rarity for romantic comedies, and watching this couple, who so comfortably fits into the archetype of rom-com duos, go through mundane, authentic struggles can be jarring, and, at times, even painful.
Celeste and Jesse do not fight and break up because of convoluted misunderstandings and heightened circumstances; they fall apart for the same reasons most relationships do: lack of honest communication and bad timing. Samberg and Jones deserve credit for bringing the right amount of humor and seriousness to their roles, convincing in both their affection for one another and their resistance to give into underlying tension. In all, the film and its ensemble masterfully deconstruct the rom-com by showing us two best friends who ostensibly find their Happily Ever After in each other, only to discover that Happily Ever After is never as easy as the movies make it seem.
Directors: John Requa, Glenn Ficarra
Romantic comedies tend to chronicle couples working their way towards marriage. Why? Because falling for someone is typically the most exciting part of any couple’s journey, while marriage is seen as the much more difficult denouement. Rom-coms, then, are easiest to watch as testaments to “grand gestures,” as dramatizing the moments that apparently prove true love. Crazy, Stupid Love, instead, offers an alternative, making the argument that true, lasting love is often found in the little, seemingly insignificant moments of care and trust between two people.
After middle-aged Cal (Steve Carell) is told by his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) of her unfaithfulness, Cal soon meets Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a freewheeling bachelor who teaches him how to get back in the game. What could have been a simple revenge tale decides to take a much more interesting, rewarding route by having Cal take a look inwards in order to understand what has become of his life. He learns that the failure of his marriage is as much his fault as his wife’s; he chose to stop putting in the work it takes to really love someone for the rest of your life.
One of the most powerful moments in Crazy, Stupid Love occurs when Cal acknowledges that he should have fought for his marriage every day, and then vows to continue to devote himself to loving Emily, though it will obviously never be easy. The film claims that the real challenges of any relationship begin long after finding the love one assumes will immediately fulfill every conceivable need. Crazy, Stupid Love stresses the importance of daily devotion in order to keep from taking love for granted, and demonstrates how much work marriage really can be.
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
In the tradition of 500 Days of Summer (which came out just a bit too early for this list), Ruby Sparks subverts the fantasy of the manic pixie dream girl by dissecting what that fantasy actually requires. Calvin (Paul Dano) is a young, brilliant author who writes a short story about Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), a smart, charming, adventurous girl who he has clearly always dreamed of finding. Until one day Calvin wakes up to find that Ruby has come off the page and into his arms.
Ruby is everything Calvin has ever thought he wants in someone, and he’s thrilled as she meets his every desire for what a companion can and should be. Plus, since she is totally his creation, he can change anything he wants about her with just a quick addition to the page. Yet, as his relationship with Ruby begins to deepen, we begin to see the darker side of Calvin’s personality. Ruby of course begins to grow into her own person, which in turn causes Calvin to become jealous, entitled, and controlling. Calvin expects Ruby to be exactly who he wants her to be—even while he refuses to grow or change in any significant way—which is to function only as girlfriend, and not as individual.
Clearly aware of the Zooey Deschanel-esque hipster fantasy that has become ubiquitous in romantic comedies during the early- to mid-2000s, Ruby Sparks focuses on those supposedly sensitive guys who feel they automatically deserve the girl of their dreams. In other words, “Happily Ever After” is a privilege, and not a predictable plot point.
Director: Jonathan Levine
How do you make the Romeo and Juliet romantic template anything but archaic and unoriginal? Make it a love story about a zombie falling in love with a human.
A clever mixture of two clichéd genres, Warm Bodies succeeds in both categories because it works overtime to make clear the humanity that still exists in undead protagonist “R” (Nicholas Hault). The audience not only takes part in watching how a mindless, flesh eating monster grows into a creature capable of love, we begin to understand that true love is a matter of casting aside our basest urges to become as selfless as possible. Think Beauty and the Beast, but grosser—and also a lot funnier. It’s sort of what Twilight could have been if it weren’t populated with awful teenagers who take their sophomoric love, and themselves, far too seriously.
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Nic (Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore, in her second appearance on this list) seem to have everything put together: they’re happily married, have both found personal success, and have raised two children. However, all of this is thrown into disarray by the arrival of the father of their children, an anonymous sperm donor named Paul (Mark Ruffalo).
Paul’s presence should have no effect on how these two feel about each other, yet each time they engage with him, their confidence in their marriage flags. Similar to Crazy, Stupid Love, The Kids Are All Right ignores the initial stages of a couple’s formation in favor of offering a glimpse into their much more established life together, showing how impossible it can truly be to know someone without clear and truthful communication. We’re allowed to observe the relationship from the perspective of both characters—Juliette feels unappreciated, while Nic feels forgotten and betrayed—ultimately revealing the fragile nature of the kinds of feelings we eventually take for granted in any long-term relationship.
Strangely, the movie is a warning against trusting too much in the idealistic feelings of romantic connection as a real foundation for anything substantial. Far from cynical, The Kids Are All Right strongly endorses the strength and reliability of the relationship built on both true love and a lot of open, honest work.
Director: Edgar Wright
The ultimate demonstration of how diverse the rom-com genre has become, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is, at its core, a love story. After all, the only reason that Scott (Michael Cera) is pit against “the world” is because he wants to earn the love of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). To do so, Scott must defeat Ramona’s seven evil exes, with each new ex a more terrible and treacherous enemy than the last. This is love translated into a matter of life or death.
The plot certainly sounds ridiculous enough, but director Edgar Wright wonderfully grounds this madness in the heartfelt, sincere portrayal of Cera and Winstead’s courtship, which helps us understand why Scott would be willing to go through all of this in the first place. Ramona, in turn, is a real character instead of a mere plot point that exists to serve as motivation for our protagonist. Many people have become wary of Cera’s awkward shtick over the past couple of years, but here it works perfectly: Scott begins as a timid, gentle guy, but soon transitions into a brave warrior willing to do anything for love.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World should be commended for willingly driving out of the designated rom-com lanes; it’s one more film that plays its part in paving a new path for the genre, a multi-hyphenate that makes the landscape of the romantic comedy seem so much broader, and its future so much brighter.
Director David O. Russell
On paper, Silver Linings Playbook is a pretty typical romantic comedy: Man is determined to win back his estranged wife, so he enters into a situation with Woman in order to do so, but Feelings happen and Complications / Misunderstandings ensue. Yet, what makes Silver Linings Playbook atypical comes down to the remarkable performances of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
Both Cooper and Lawrence play characters struggling with mental health. Pat (Cooper) has severe anger problems, while Tiffany (Lawrence) faces depression after the death of her husband. Instead of portraying the mentally ill as some sort of cringe-worthy punch line, or treating its complex characters with so much fear and tentativeness that they feel nothing like actual people, Silver Linings Playbook transforms these struggles into strengths. The film is sensitive to the potential devastation of mental illness, yet it refuses to portray the characters as total victims, showing how unfortunate circumstances can be overcome with good choices and a healthy perspective.
Not to mention that Lawrence and Cooper harness a believably astounding chemistry, finding the right balance between humor and tragedy as they slowly make the journey from reluctant partners to lovers. Their flaws and vulnerabilities are essential to their characters, and not quirky window-dressing to be easily sloughed off, which is a rare feat for a romantic comedy. The performances from two of Hollywood’s best earned this movie much-deserved critical acclaim, and it has become one of the most unexpected, but celebrated, romantic comedies of the last several years.
Director: Mike Mills
Beginners is a phenomenal film that delicately portrays relationships of all kinds in order to consider what it means to truly live. Ewan McGregor subtly plays Oliver, a man shocked by the announcement that his father Hal (Christopher Plummer, in his finest role) has come out as gay after the death of his mother, whom his father had been married to for several decades. The joy in Hal is palpable as he finally examines his true self for the first time in his life; so is the pain that has come with having to hide it for so long. Similarly, Oliver gets to see his father in a whole new light, realizing that he is a complex person just like everyone else. Their dynamic is a tender, miraculous thing.
As both father and son become closer due to these new circumstances, Oliver finds himself falling in love with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a vivacious actress who challenges Oliver to lust after life and all the experiences that come with it. Perhaps another manic pixie dream girl, Anna is anything but a fantasy, instead just as troubled by commitment as Oliver. Beginners, then, is about learning to recognize one’s truest self in and through love. A romantic comedy celebrating life and love hardly seems new, but to show that romance is the most difficult, but most successful route to satisfaction with oneself is a uniquely refreshing re-invention of the genre’s themes.
Director: Wes Anderson
Young love. Nothing quite like it, right? Wes Anderson is at his absolute best in telling the story of two adolescent lovers who are, in their eyes, forced to go on the run after life threatens to tear them apart.
The relationship Anderson creates is one that thrives in simple moments, encapsulating that difficult idea that, as a child, small moments seem epic. There is no better example of this than in the simple moment of the couple dancing together for the first time on the beach. The unspoken bond between the two is powerful: watch the strange mixture of fear, joy, and freedom that comes with finding someone with whom you truly connect play out in real time.
But what Anderson most gets is the excitement and wonder that accompanies falling in love for the first time. Probably because he portrays it without any condescension toward the young duo, celebrating their devotion to each other rather than mocking it. He’s not claiming their love will last forever, he’s just not dismissing their feelings simply because they are young. In fact, the relationship between Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) is placed in clear contrast with the broken relationships of all the adults around them, adults who struggle with bitterness, infidelity, and general boredom. If Moonrise Kingdom is one of the great romantic comedies of our young generation, it’s because it blissfully ditches cynicism to embrace the possible purity of love.
Blake Harper is a freelance writer living in New York. If you’d like, you can follow him on Twitter.