The Traditional Rom-Com Isn’t Dead Yet

By  · Published on April 24th, 2015


The golden age of the meet-cute (and then bicker a little bit, but still be totally cute) romantic comedy faded away sometime around the late nineties, as Hollywood steadily began eschewing traditional romantic comedies (sweet, funny, single-couple pairings that come complete with tons of good-intentioned hijinks and mishaps) in favor of, well, something significantly less sweet. The genre limped along for awhile, marked by attempts to turn starlets like Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson, and Katherine Heigl into the next major romance queen; features unafraid to get raunchy or mean instead of charming (see: Bride Wars, Something Borrowed, Friends With Benefits, etc.); and an awkward reliance on the frequently boring (and mostly cheap) “interconnected storyline” trope (Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, He’s Just Not That Into You).

The best examples of modern rom-coms are still the same titles that stood as sterling examples of the genre ten, even twenty years ago, including You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless In Seattle, Pretty Woman, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally. The “traditional” romantic comedy doesn’t get the kind of love it used to, and it definitely doesn’t get the same space at the box office (one notable exception: the films of Nancy Meyers, which are still undeniably and unabashedly true to the form and the genre). But don’t declare the genre dead yet, because it’s slowly making a comeback in the independent space, especially at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

This year’s festival – still going strong for three more days, folks – includes at least two extremely traditional (and extremely wonderful) romantic comedies on its very varied slate, along with a strong romantic dramedy (rom-dram-com?) that, despite its darker tone, still adheres to the kind of tropes and gags that litter the lighter side of the genre.

Leslye Headland’s Sleeping With Other People debuted back in January at Sundance (I gave it an effusive review over on The Playlist, and later talked to Headland for Cosmopolitan, which resulted in, quite possibly, my favorite interview ever) and is now screening at Tribeca. The film follows some pretty clear rom-com tropes – Headland herself as zero problem pointing to When Harry Met Sally as a major inspiration – but it stands out because of the tremendous chemistry between leads Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie, coupled with a wonderful ability to transpose big pain with lots of laughs.

In the film, the duo plays college pals (well, kind of) who run into each other years after graduating, both having struck out in the game of love. Sudeikis’ Jake is just kind of a dog, while Brie’s Lainey has spent almost a decade stuck in an emotionally fallow relationship with a really spectacularly awful Adam Scott (his character is awful! Scott is great!). The pair unexpectedly reunites at a sex addict group therapy session – neither of them is really a sex addict, but they certainly have issues attached to sex – and they soon decide to reform their worst habits through a newly invigorated friendship. Of course they fall in love, but Headland and her cast have such a wonderful time exploring that relationship and, again, Sudeikis and Brie are so good together, that the entire film feels like an instant classic of the genre.

Sleeping With Other People doesn’t have to jumpstart the genre all on its own, though, as Tribeca is also playing home to Ben Palmer and Tess Morris’ also very charming Man Up. Let’s be honest here: star Simon Pegg isn’t known for making the best choices when it comes to his non-franchise, non-Edgar Wright features, but Man Up course-corrects that trajectory.

Pegg stars alongside Lake Bell in the film, which is both a wonderfully traditional rom-com and a careful deconstruction of the genre. Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, Bell’s Nancy is mistakenly believed to be Jack’s (Pegg) blind date, an idea she goes along with for awhile, due to her utter confusion and a latent desire to be more spontaneous. Wackiness ensues! But so does charm. The film is very wink-wink, tongue-in-cheek, but with a loving, happy spirit. Man Up doesn’t make fun of rom-com tropes, it knowingly embraces them, and the result is a fizzy and funny film that flies right by.

Both Man Up and Sleeping With Other People are traditional charmers, but this year’s Tribeca also features another film that looks and acts a bit like those kinds of genre pieces, with a dramatic twist. Sudeikis also stars in Sean Mewshaw’s Tumbledown, alongside Rebecca Hall. The film comes from a place of sadness – Hall’s husband, a folk singer on the edge of stardom, has passed away years earlier, and she’s still mourning him when Sudeikis’ writer character comes to her small town, bent on writing a book about the guy – but it follows a lot of the same narrative lines as lighter romantic comedies. If nothing else, it announces Sudeikis’ arrival as a big romantic presence – the kind of leading man both rom-coms and rom-com-drams (sorry) have been in need of for quite some time.

Nope, the traditional romantic comedy isn’t dead…it just needs a little love. Tribeca is doing just that.