Stop Saving the Rom-com

As an empty vessel of a genre, the romantic comedy is not worth resuscitating, though what it once contained probably is. Photo: Universal Pictures

There is almost as much romance in the movie Bros as there is talking about romantic comedies — two intersecting but separate concepts. On the side of the romance, there’s a tetchy courtship between Billy Eichner’s character, a never-been-in-a-relationship podcaster and LGBTQ-museum employee, and a masculine, never-going-to-respond-to-your-tap-on-Grindr lawyer played by Luke Macfarlane. On the other side, there’s the meta narrative of Eichner’s character complaining that he had been asked by a Hollywood studio to write a gay love story that might appeal to straight people, and grousing that gay love stories can’t just follow the traditional heteronormative tropes you see in straight movies. Despite that, Bros, co-written by Eichner and auteur of straightness Nick Stoller, hews pretty close to all those tropes. The two impulses behind Bros seem to tag-team the film from either end, and the resulting movie feels sharply observed in one scene and then suddenly generic the next. The rom-com ends up on top, and gets the climax: Like Eichner’s character, Bros does all it can to insist that we’re past clichés, but it ends with a declaration of love, albeit conditional, and even a song.

But if Bros feels so obligated to be a rom-com, then what kind of rom-com is it trying to be? The more Eichner’s character talks about the genre in the movie, the more vague my understanding of what exactly it considers the obligations of a romantic comedy. At one point, Eichner’s character, Bobby, glumly watches a bit of You’ve Got Mail on his couch, and there are plenty of Nora Ephron touches to Bros — Bobby is a sort of gay male Meg Ryan, neurotic and improbably in possession of great UWS real estate. But he also watches corny Hallmark-style Christmas movies, and Macfarlane himself is a graduate of that network’s school of laying the contrivances on thick and smoldering, misty-eyed through it all. Expand to the movie’s press tour, and you’ll see that Eichner name-checked Holly Hunter’s legendary work in Broadcast News, specifically, as an inspiration — a film that has plenty of romance and comedy, but is as much about integrity and careerism. Bros’ closing song, in turn, smacks of the sentimentality of a Richard Curits film like Love, Actually, and the shaggy, wandering aspects of Bros owe a lot to the shaggy, wandering bromances and romances of Stoller and Judd Apatow (who produced Bros).

Those are disparate influences, and yet Bros seems intent on the notion that the rom-com is a fixed, restricted thing. That’s a gambit that’s useful for its press tour, which relies on the carefully worded achievement that Bros is the first rom-com produced by a major studio to star and be co-written by an openly gay man with a nearly all LGBTQ cast (and Debra Messing). But it’s an assumption that feels increasingly common within any major romantic comedy released at the moment. It’s as if the rom-com has both withered and been fetishized in equal parts. With the decline in mid-budget studio movies and the rise of megafranchises, there simply aren’t as many romantic releases. Yet, simultaneously, there’s been an online embrace of the concept and what romantic comedies can provide. Mindy Kaling defined and defended aspects of the genre in the New Yorker in 2011; at Vulture, we ran a state-of-the-rom-com package around the thesis that the rom-com is dead and yet alive (on TV and elsewhere) in 2017; today’s BuzzFeed is full of more rom-com-trope quizzes and GIF-sets than I can count.

The rom-coms that have been released over this period, like animals adapting to an arid environment, have developed a keratinous shell of self-awareness. The 2011 one-two punch of Friends With Benefits (better movie-star chemistry) and No Strings Attached (better script) premised their existence on the idea that you could adapt the genre, but now with sex. Trainwreck, in 2015 and about a guys’ girl, made Amy Schumer’s character’s reluctance to fit into what’s expected of her as a rom-com hero the text of the film. (I found it grating; you may disagree.) 2014’s They Came Together, meanwhile, put all those ideas in a blender to hilarious effect. This is also the period when, thankfully, the studio version of the genre attempted to become partially less white with films like 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, at its best when it’s Michelle Yeoh playing her fascinating, specific defensive mother, and at its worst when it’s Henry Golding caught up in silly misunderstandings with Constance Wu. Fire Island, out earlier this year, adapts Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, recasting the class dynamics of Regency England onto the class and race dynamics of gay relationships in the present. But that film also seems to throw up its hands when it comes to fulfilling what it imagines to be its rom-com obligations. Fine, if it’s what you really want, they will all race to the ferry at the end.

I won’t deny the Pavlovian comforts of a story beat like that one. But with so many of the resuscitated rom-coms of recent years, the tropes feel like they’re driving the action, rather than the other way around. The rom-com, like a delicate houseplant, must be watered with a sufficient amount of meet-cutes, airport-chases, and forced misunderstandings. And like a ravenous Audrey II, specificity must bleed out in favor of these Beats You Know and Love. The characters, supposedly the reason we’re getting invested in these romances, get left in the dust. Why must Billy sing a song at the end of Bros? Because that’s what’s supposed to happen in a rom-com, not because it’s earned. The recent rom-coms that have succeeded have scrambled tropes consciously as a means to a larger point, like Starstruck on HBOMax, which lets Rose Matafeo run wild in a world of Curtis-isms as a vehicle for her own all-conquering charisma, or even Leslye Headland’s Sleeping With Other People, which feels like a 2000s Katherine Heigl film put through a particle accelerator. Or they have shied away from obvious lamp-shading entirely. I liked the recent low-key Plus One, which uses its concept more as an excuse for Jack Quaid and Maya Erskine to hang out. The second season of Fleabag is a great instance of a romantic comedy that feels no self-consciousness about whether or not it’s a rom-com. It’s a classic dangerous sign for the film industry that so many of the successful, idiosyncratic recent versions of the genre have greater freedom on TV, and even now, the squeeze has come there, too.

Nonetheless, movies continue to announce that they are here to save the rom-com. I wish they would kill it instead. As an empty vessel of a genre, the rom-com is not worth saving, though what it once contained probably is. Nora Ephron’s films have their cozy-sweater comforts, but as Rachel Syme pointed out in the New Yorker, thinking of her work that way ignores the real complexity of her fascination with language. Her characters might travel along expected plot points, but it’s the glitter and the slice of her dialogue that make it all worthwhile. There’s a similar dynamic to the performances in those films, and in the other great rom-coms of that era. They let Meg Ryan be Meg Ryan, or Holly Hunter be Holly Hunter, or Julia Roberts — who was recently bemoaning that we didn’t appreciate rom-coms when we had them — be the incandescent Julia Roberts. The Hollywood of today seems to have little interest in fostering stars with personalities of their own. Even in Bros, as much as Billy Eichner has built an acidic persona on being Billy on the Street, you can feel him straining to fit into the cuddlier mode of Ryan or Hunter. A genre that used to be light and breezy feels like it is suffocating itself with its own expectations.

Abstracting Ephron’s work — or the individual perspective of any other writers and directors and actors — into something vague and distant and supposedly dead makes the result so much less engaging. I’m not going to congratulate you for Frankenstein-ing together some gestures toward a received idea. That’s making a movie backward from the marketing. Unfortunately, going off of Bros’s limited opening-weekend sales, that marketing doesn’t even seem to work. The concept of invigorating a moribund genre may play well in a Hollywood boardroom, but it’s not the genre that people want. It’s the things that were inside it: chemistry, sexiness, wit. Actual personalities, not imitations thereof.

What would Bros be if it weren’t trying so hard to fit into what we now expect a rom-com to be? There’s so much going on in Bobby and Aaron’s dynamic that I wish it could have lingered on. Bobby’s obsession with masculine men, for one, and his continuing assumption that he has to get buff to be loved (which Aaron seemingly ascribes to since he’s injecting testosterone into his ass). There’s also the thread of Bobby’s resentment about feeling like he missed so many opportunities because he’s gay, and that, by the time the world has caught up to him, he’s suddenly passé because he’s white and cis. Eichner’s acting tends to be wooden throughout the film, but his speech about this is the most impassioned. Those are aspects of Bros that are less comforting, harder to resolve, and if pursued further, probably wouldn’t lead to a film where everyone cheers at the end.

Stop Saving the Rom-com