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25 Years After 'When Harry Met Sally,' Can The Rom-Com Be Saved?

by Oliver Lyttelton
July 14, 2014 2:05 PM
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Twenty-five years ago today on July 14, 1989, “When Harry Met Sally” went into limited release (MGM carefully platformed the film, something of a rarity for a major summer studio release even then). It became a giant hit, grossing $92 million in the U.S.—about the equivalent of double that when adjusted for inflation. Rob Reiner’s film, made from Nora Ephron’s script, and following the titular mismatched pair (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan) who set out to explore the question of whether a man and a woman can be friends without sex and/or love getting in the way (spoiler: no), left a permanent mark on pop culture, influencing countless romantic comedies that came after. But did it also break the genre?

“When Harry Met Sally” still feels positively miraculous, as close to perfect as a latter-day example of the rom-com can be (while acknowledging that yes, it’s very bourgeois, and projects a pretty narrow-minded take on NYC life, even for the 1980s). But it's also both witty and laugh-out-loud funny, still truthful a quarter-of-a-century on, admirably timeless (many films from the same period have dated much faster) and even a touch profound in places. Everyone involved made it look easy, which is one of the reasons that few have matched it ever since. Vulture assembled a list of the 25 best romantic comedies since the film’s release earlier this year, but of their picks, or even the ones they left out, I’d probably only allow “Jerry Maguire,” “Groundhog Day,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Defending Your Life” and “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” to be spoken of in the same breath as Reiner’s picture, and the latter three are hardly as accessible or mainstream as "When Harry Met Sally." 

That said, “When Harry Met Sally” is not the last great romantic comedy, and neither is it the last successful one. Most of the biggest movies in the genre were released after it (though few outgross the film’s adjusted take), including “Pretty Woman,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “Hitch,” “What Women Want” and “Knocked Up,” not to mention the biggest-ever film of the genre, hailing from 2002 when everyone was apparently losing their minds -- “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which took $241 million in the U.S alone.

But the hits have become fewer and further between, and since “The Proposal” took $163 million five years ago, there’s only been three $100 million dollar grossers in the genre -- “Valentine’s Day,” “Just Go With It” and “Silver Linings Playbook” (you could add a few more if you loosen the genre restrictions, but I’ll come to that in a bit). They’ve been joined by a few modest successes, but even those are becoming rarer: 2013’s top-grossing rom-com was “The Best Man Holiday” with $70 million, this year’s is “Think Like A Man Too” with $61 million. And the bargain racks are still stuffed with starry underperformers: “How Do You Know,” “Morning Glory,” “Love & Other Drugs,” “When In Rome,” “The Dilemma,” “Friends With Benefits,” “The Five Year Engagement,” “What To Expect When You’re Expecting,” “Blended” et al.

Indeed, one almost feels that Hollywood has stopped trying: “Blended” aside, it’s hard to think of many recent mainstream studio rom-coms, with the genre only propped up by indies like "Obvious Child" or “Begin Again” (which is performing strongly for a limited release, but note the caveat there). So what the hell happened?

Well, three things. Firstly, the general level of quality. Like I said, bona-fide classics like “When Harry Met Sally” are rare, but even then, there have been effective films in the genre, and they tend to be rewarded financially to some degree. “The Proposal” was formulaic, but at least knew how to work within that formula, and it took a huge sum as a result. “Silver Linings Playbook” gave an indie sheen to an equally familiar story, and thanks to stellar reviews and appealing leads, did nearly as well. But the mid-to-late-00s are littered with increasingly less appetizing takes on the genre, ones that attempted the “Groundhog Day”-style asshole-redeemed arc but failed miserably at it.

It’s no accident that Matthew McConaughey and Katherine Heigl, two of the stars most associated with the genre over the last decade or so, have both consciously stepped away from, and even denounced, films like “Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past” and “The Ugly Truth”--audiences simply weren’t  responding the way they did to the stars’ biggest hits, and a sort of exhaustion set in. Even titans of the genre like Cameron Crowe and James L Brooks botched things up with films like “Elizabethtown” and “How Do You Know,” and with the fresher takes restricted to the indie world, people just started to stay away in general.

Which leads to the second point — the rom-com fix can be filled elsewhere. The truest successors to “When Harry Met Sally” (aside from straight-up homages/rip-offs like upcoming Daniel Radcliffe/Zoe Kazan starrer What If, or its across-the-pond cousin Love Rosie with Sam Claflin and Lily Collins) haven’t been on the big screen, but on the small: shows like “Friends,” "Sex And The City" and in particular “How I Met Your Mother,” combined the same mix of Manhattan fairy tale, dating etiquette and will-they-won’t-they to huge success. To find a time when one show or the other wasn’t on the air (other than a year-long gap in 2004/2005), one has to go back to 1994, a time when the rom-com was still a massive box office draw thanks to the likes of “Sleepless In Seattle” and “While You Were Sleeping.”

And with theater tickets more cripplingly expensive than ever, and VOD a more and more popular option, general audiences (as Scott Tobias eloquently pointed out over at The Dissolve recently), the ones that always drove these movies, need a real reason to go the multiplex, and with the lines between TV and movies collapsing, putting down $30 bucks to go see “Five-Year Engagement” on date night, when you can catch Jason Segel on 'HIMYM' for free at home, doesn’t seem like the smart option versus big-budget 3D effects-driven extravaganzas that demand to be seen on a giant screen.

And  that leads towards my last point: the movie business isn’t the same as it was back in the summer of 1989 (though let’s not forget Tim Burton’s “Batman” was released that year too), or even in the pre-”Friends” era. Studios are now more and more reliant on franchises and tentpoles, that will do handsomely at home, but even better abroad (particularly in the Asian territories, with Hollywood increasingly ensuring that their movies appeal to the ever-growing Chinese market). That increasingly means that middle-budget fare, which has traditionally included the rom-com, gets frozen out, as it doesn't have billion-dollar potential, nor will it (generally speaking) inspire sequels and merchandise.

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  • M | August 5, 2014 11:27 AMReply

    Definitely Maybe was really sweet. Its a pity the ending was a little lacklustre.

  • Andrew Heenan | August 2, 2014 11:56 AMReply

    Two thoughts:
    1. Sleepless in Seattle
    2. I bet there's as many romcoms as ever.

  • Wildbohemia | July 30, 2014 8:20 AMReply

    I'm surprised you didn't mention "500 Days of Summer", an un-romantic rom-com.

  • Ed | July 22, 2014 7:38 PMReply

    I really enjoyed "Your Sister's Sister," an unusual, recent rom-com.

  • Tara | July 21, 2014 2:49 PMReply

    Still my favorite romantic comedy EVER! Also one of the few rom coms that I know guys enjoy too

  • Shira Mizel | July 14, 2014 3:08 PMReply

    Oliver I'm in total agreement with you, the rom-com fan base is alive and well and will continue to turn out for quality films that acknowledge contemporary romance while playing to the tippy top of our intelligence. Bridesmaids was a game-changer and if the powers that be would bury sexist tropes, the film would mark the beginning of a new era where honesty and originality eclipse conservative notions of gender roles.

    I believe Bridesmaids' success comes from its simultaneous engagement with conventions in the previous and current rom-com cycles as defined by Leger Grindon: “The Reaffirmation of Romance” cycle emerged in 1986, interrupting nervous comedies that reject the possibility of happy, eternal union (e.g. Annie Hall). Reigning until 1996, reaffirming rom-coms present a return to optimistic courtship, traditional romantic values, and happy endings that the previous cycle abandons. Films in the current rom-com cycle, the ‘Grotesque and Ambivalent’, mock tenderness and challenge the possibility of lasting love (e.g. There's Something About Mary). Since Bridesmaids has a little of each cycle, our recognition of conventions makes the film's departures easier to swallow (aka accepting that female friendships take narrative precedent over romance).

    While engaging with well-trodden issues of romance and friendship, Bridesmaids consistently takes moments, character traits, and locations one would expect to see in a romantic comedy, and then mars the expectation with sexual or otherwise bawdy humor. The humor and sincerity in Bridesmaids liberate it not only from film conventions, but also from the traditional ideologies that produce them. Bridesmaids presents a successful pattern. The film industry can ignore audience desires and proceed conventionally, or emulate the film and give life to a cycle that prioritizes female characters and their journeys.

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