“The Big Sick,” the indie-crossover hit of the summer, is the sharpest, funniest, and most touching romantic comedy in a long time, and that should be a shot in the arm for romantic comedies everywhere. Except for one small detail: There aren’t any! They’ve all disappeared! Gone to that great big DVD player in the sky! (Somewhere up in Heaven, Nora Ephron is watching one right now, smirking and sighing.) There’s surely a micro-budgeted exception or two I’m not thinking of, but in the ’90s, the ’00s, and into the ’10s, you could count on the appearance, every few months, and certainly once or twice a summer, of a major movie that was some sort of cheesy-tasty screwball knockoff of the romantic comedies of old. It might star Sandra Bullock or Reese Witherspoon, Renée Zellweger or Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Garner or Marisa Tomei, Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl, or — in what now looks like the genre’s sunset stage — Emma Stone or Aubrey Plaza.
It’s telling that five years ago, when she was 22 years old and just coming into her own as a movie star, Jennifer Lawrence co-starred in what is probably the most artful romantic comedy of its time — “Silver Linings Playbook” — but she has never made another one since. She certainly could have; she could have made anything she wanted. But Lawrence, who has always been singularly shrewd and tasteful about choosing her projects, must have read the writing on the romcom wall. She must have thought that there were better things in store for her than heading up another generation of bad Goldie Hawn knockoffs.
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If so, she probably made the right call. By the time Lawrence came along, the romantic comedy, with rare exceptions, had become a benignly junky, second-rate cookie-cutter form. Even the nickname “romcom” had a guilty-pleasure pep-pill functionality about it. Take two romcoms and call me in the morning! The romantic comedy was a movie to see with friends, or — seriously, I don’t mean this to sound dated — while out on a date, but maybe the quintessential way to view it was at home, all by yourself, with the proverbial pint of designer ice cream (or something stronger), so that one could feel every bit as teary and lovelorn and cliché as the heroine of the movie.
Like any time-tested genre, the romcom wasn’t just a form or a fashion; it was a business model. These movies got made because they connected at the box office. But the success, in this case, had a special meaning, since Hollywood, in the post–studio system era, considered the romantic comedy to be the reigning big-screen form driven, demographically, by women moviegoers. That meant something significant when viewed against the backdrop of a fanboy/fantasy/FX culture that targeted teenage males — and overgrown teenage males — as its proudly arrested sweet spot. “Wonder Woman,” a superheroine adventure that has been embraced as a one-film gender-role paradigm shift in pop culture, is, in many ways, a romantic comedy. The heart of the movie is the fish-out-of-water mid-section, which a number of critics have compared to “Splash,” one of the key romantic comedies of its era.
So why did the genre fade away? With hardly anyone even noticing? “The Big Sick” provides an answer that is also a counterexample — one that points to how the romantic comedy, with a little luck, could come roaring back. The feisty beauty of “The Big Sick” is that it’s a joyfully, zestfully, entertainingly smart movie: one that digs into the discombobulation of an age when cross-cultural relationships have become the new normal. It’s a Pakistani-American-Muslim-stand-up-comedian-falls-for-spiky-girl-who-goes-into-a-coma comedy (you know, one of those) that’s really about the tug-of-war between what you love and what you value, and what happens when those two things feel as though they aren’t going to line up.
There’s a vibrant history of smart romantic comedy: “Annie Hall” and “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Bridesmaids,” every picture that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy ever made together, not to mention the movie I wouldn’t hesitate to call the greatest romantic comedy of the ’90s, “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” a potently hilarious, ruefully honest look at the combustible high stakes of love. (Julia Roberts is genius in it.) Yet the smart romantic comedy is so much the exception rather than the rule that the drumbeat of mediocre chick flicks eventually wore out its welcome. The genre never stopped working at the box office, though far less so than it did when a klutz-fest like “Miss Congeniality” could gross $100 million. But everyone knew that the thrill was gone, that the romcom had begun to create a waxy buildup of kitsch.
The shift was generational. The role model that had been in place ever since Goldie Hawn got tossed “Overboard” was starting not to connect with a generation of Tinder addicts and tattooed SJWs. Yet don’t they deserve romantic comedies too? The genre has been built, for too long, around a ritualized spectacle of feminine insecurity, when what’s needed now are movies that can tweak those who’ve mainlined a whole new style of digital confidence. You could argue that the defining romantic comedy of our time isn’t a movie at all (and doesn’t need to be); it’s Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” Yet I persist in thinking that there’s something magical about this form — the dreams and hang-ups of two characters smashed into two glorious hours — and “The Big Sick” points to how it can, and should, be done. You can list all the reasons why the romcom went away, but the truth is there’s no good reason for it to go away, since the things it’s about are here to stay.