It’s no secret that the Rom-Com has become a tired genre. With the notable exception of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, there have been few straight romantic-comedies in recent years to make a significant cultural (and box-office) impact. On a more tangible level, the genre has simply become repetitive, relying on the same narrative tropes and comedic cliches that brought the rom-com to prominence back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. As much as we all might love When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle, we moviegoers can only tolerate clones of these films for so long.
What, then, is left for the romantic-comedy, if audiences have become anesthetized to its charms and conventions? How can the genre reinvigorate itself in the face of movie-goers who have seemingly gone and seen it all? Like a noble family with an empty bank account, the rom-com has opted to marry itself off to another genre. And the results have been impressive (and surprising) to say the least. The suitor? Perhaps the most unlikely genre imaginable: the science-fiction film.
The union began in 2011 with Woody Allen’s time-warping wonder Midnight in Paris in which a discouraged writer inadvertently travels back to 1920’s Paris, encountering an enchanting Parisian art-lover along with the famed artists of the era. The film was a critical and box office hit, in part, because of its unorthodox, Twilight Zone-esque twist on the romantic comedy. The high profile success of the film has inspired a wave of similarly situated, sci-fi-rom-com hybrids that are breathing fresh life into a genre that has been weighed down by its own conventions and structures. Films like Warm Bodies or Safety Not Guaranteed for example, which have tentatively explored the realm between science fiction and romantic comedy (or in the case of Warm Bodies, romantic comedy in science fiction). Over the last year, however, this hybrid genre has come into its own right, solidifying its unique strengths as well as its position in the film market.
Take, for instance, the recently released independent film The One I Love. Directed by first time director Charlie McDowell, the film follows an estranged couple, played by Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss, who go on a weekend trip to the Ojai Valley to try and reignite their passion for one another. Without spoiling too much (the film is still in theaters and everyone should go see it), the trip takes a dark, supernatural turn when the couple discover that their guest-house is not all that it appears to be.
It’s difficult to talk about the film without ruining its appeal, but it can safely be said that the film’s brilliance comes from the way in which it offers up certain conventions of the rom-com genre, asking both the audience and the film’s characters to decide whether the idealized narrative of the rom-com is ever actually in their the best interest. This examination is only made possible through the film’s bizarre, science-fiction-ified set-up.
Another recent romantic-comedy hybrid would be 2013’s About Time, the story of an awkward English lawyer, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), who learns that the men in his family have the uncanny ability to travel back in time. The film centers around Tim’s romance with the independent but adorable Mary (Rachel McAdams) and his fumbling attempts to use his ability to help shape the life that he dreams of having.
Rather than simply setting a romantic comedy within these unusual circumstances, the film utilizes its science-fiction elements to subvert the tropes of the rom-com itself. For example, Tim and Marry initially have the classic ‘meet cute’ introduction, in which the two share an adorable, chemistry-laden first encounter. This ‘meet cute’ however is inadvertently erased by Tim’s own meddling with time, resulting in a second, disastrous ‘first’ meeting that is anything but cute. By subverting this convention, as well as several others, About Time manages to inject fresh blood into a premise that has otherwise been played out – i.e. the awkward guy who just wants to get the girl. Interestingly, the film was written and directed by rom-com veteran Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually), proving that the hybridization of the genre has moved out of just the independent film market and well into the mainstream.
If About Time and The One I Love are any indication, then sci-fi is shaping up to be the unlikely savior of the rom-com, reinvigorating the genre’s tired tropes and helping it reconnect with jaded audiences. Its almost ironic that the redemption of the romantic-comedy is playing out just like one of its own cliched plots: an unlikely couple, thrust together, learn to need one another. In this case,it’s one cliche we can all be happy about.