Imagine, dear reader, that you and your beloved choose to spend Valentine’s Day at the movies this year. After all, what could be more romantic than sitting in the dark with that special someone, nibbling on over-priced popcorn, having to endure endless trailers, and resisting the urge to slug the jerk sending text messages… Okay, so maybe not everything about the modern movie-going experience is entirely romantic, but at least there’re the movies themselves.
This year, four movies have a wide release on Valentine’s Day: Beautiful Creatures, based on the bestselling supernatural young-adult series; Safe Haven, an adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ supernatural love story; Escape From Planet Earth, an animated feature about aliens trapped on Earth, and, well, A Good Day to Die Hard. Of these four movies, only two could even be remotely described as “romantic,” and both of those feature supernatural forces trying to keep lovers apart. Didn’t cinema used to make, you know, good old-fashioned date movies?
Actually, I know they did; as recently as last year, in fact. This Means War—in which spies Chris Pine and Tom Hardy fight, literally, over the attention and affections of Reece Witherspoon—opened in theaters three days after Valentine’s Day 2012. Apparently, that release date was the result of thinking along the lines of “Eh, three days after the holiday is good enough, right?”—mirroring those of forgetful spouses the world over. In box-office terms, as in marriage terms, the answer was an emphatic “no.” The movie’s total domestic take fell short of its budget ($54 million against $65 million), meaning that it pretty much flopped. More successful was 2012’s other romantic Valentine’s Day movie, The Vow, which became the sixth-highest-grossing romance movie ever made.
Such successes, however, strike me as outliers: unicorns amongst the unstoppable box office onslaught of the supernatural-YA romances, kid-friendly animated adventures, and action-packed blockbusters. In fact, if you take Twilight out of the equation, you have to go back to 2008’s Mamma Mia to find an upbeat romantic movie among the 10 top-grossing movies of the year, and even then there’s an argument to be made that it was Broadway fame and Abba nostalgia that drove its success. Beyond that, you have to go back to 2005, and Will Smith’s matchmaker-in-love rom-com Hitch, to find a romantic movie that could break the top 10 without the aid of Eurovision Song Contest winners and the lure of Meryl Streep singing. Have audiences abandoned romance for more obvious cinematic excitement and danger? And if so, why?
Looking back at the most successful movies in years gone by, it’s hard to ignore the fact that romance movies that didn’t feel the need to add vampires, werewolves or curses to draw crowds used to be significantly more popular than they are today. From 2002 back to 1997, the top 10 grossing movies of every year but 2001 featured a non-supernatural romantic comedy (2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding, 2000’s What Women Want, 1999’s Notting Hill, 1998’s Shakespeare in Love and 1997’s double-whammy of My Best Friend’s Wedding and As Good As It Gets), with 1997 also seeing the release of Titanic, the romantic epic to end all romantic epics, and still the second most-successful movie ever released.
Is it that the very idea of the romantic movie is off-putting? Certainly, there’s an argument to be made that the generic, swappable plotlines of such high-profile rom-coms as The Ugly Truth, 27 Dresses—and anything else in which a couple meets, immediately gets off on the wrong foot and spends 90 minutes realizing that their own preconceptions and prejudices could have kept them from true love—has cheapened the idea of a movie where the evolution of a romantic relationship is the main narrative thrust.
Talking during an episode of the Scriptnotes podcast, screenwriter Abby Kohn—who, coincidentally, co-wrote both The Vow and 2010’s rom-com hit Valentine’s Day—admitted that “it bothers me that people don’t seem to make a delineation between the smart, good movies—I mean, you can call [them] romantic comedies, but really, it’s a comedy about characters that [is] good and has a great story and something that makes you laugh… I don’t think that people make a distinction between that and the formula, by-the-numbers rom-com that they know they can put out and get a certain amount of money with a certain [kind of] casting. I feel like, am I the only one who notices that there is a real divide.”
I’m unsure if that’s necessarily true—I think that it’s possible that audiences can tell the difference on some level, even if they’re not aware of it. Perhaps that’s why romantic movies that lack special effects and underlying mythologies have seemingly fallen from favor in recent years. And I do believe that romances deserve more respect than they’ve received in recent years. For proof, just look at the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Love Stories: The Princess Bride! Lady and The Tramp! The Apartment! The English Patient! And that’s just from the bottom half of the list; get further up, and you’re in the presence of undeniable classics like Annie Hall, West Side Story and Casablanca. Those are some of the greatest movies ever made, filled with excitement and drama and comedy and everything you could ever want from a movie. And each have, at their center, the simple question of whether the guy and the girl will ever manage to get together.
And it’s not as if there aren’t any great romantic movies being made these days. They’re out there—only they’re being hidden in other movies. Bridesmaids had a lovely and sweet romantic subplot between Kirsten Wiig’s Annie and Chris O’Dowd’s shy cop, while last year’s Safety Not Guaranteed was really little more than a love story dressed up in sci-fi trappings (Silver Linings Playbook, for all of it’s Oscar-bait performances, is pretty much an old-fashioned love story, for that matter). The problem may be a loop of logic: Straight-up romance movies aren’t successful because they’re not promoted by studios because they’re not successful…
If that’s the case, then what is needed to break the cycle is one of two things: Either a blockbuster hit that comes out of nowhere and is so successful than it forces studios to once again consider romance a viable genre or, more realistically, have someone successful champion romantic comedy and re-invent it for today’s audiences. One obvious suggestion is Mindy Kaling, a gifted writer/performer who references romantic movies in her Fox sitcom The Mindy Project, and even wrote a New Yorker piece in which she admitted that romantic comedies were her favorite kind of movie, despite “the genre [having] been so degraded in the past twenty years that saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity.”
Admittedly, Kaling would have her work cut out for her; we apparently live in a world where audiences would prefer watch Robert Downey Jr. save the world in his high-tech suit of armor over watching two people fall in love. Clearly, Hollywood needs to take a moment amidst its obsession with depictions of chaos and destruction and consider audiences yearning for stories that favor relationships over explosions. If ever there was a time to consider the wise words of Hal David, it’s right now. Altogether now: What the world… needs now… is love, sweet love…“