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Getting the (Romantic) Comedy Right
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in 'You've Got Mail'

Today in The New York Times, Brooks Barnes reports that the death of the romantic comedy has been greatly exaggerated . . . sort of.

As Barnes points out, big-budget rom-coms used to be as ubiquitous at the movies (especially in the summer) as superhero movies are now. But in the last few years, something has changed. These movies can be expensive to make—lavish sets, big stars—but they have flopped.

I pointed this out as well in an article earlier this year here at Christianity Today, and I posited that what's taking their place is a new breed of comedy-with-romance-(or-not): movies in which the leads do not ultimately end up together, but they learn something new about love. Or movies in which romance is just one piece of a larger lesson about love. I wrote about movies like Drinking Buddies and About Time, and having seen it this summer I think you can add Begin Again (and director John Carney's previous film, Once) to that list.

Barnes writes about something else that is also replacing the traditional big-budget rom-com: the indie rom-com. This makes a lot of sense. Romantic comedies don't have to be expensive, big-budget affairs. And the benefit of making them on the cheap is that even modest ticket sales make everyone happy.

There's another aspect to this, too: lower budgets mean that the movies don't have to have the broadest appeal possible. They can appeal to more niche markets: literary hipster types who like Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, the forthcoming What If with Daniel Radcliffe), sci-fi fans (Safety Not Guaranteed, next week's The One I Love), more edgy movies (Obvious Child, They Came Together), and other sub-sub-genres that wouldn't have played well at the cineplex, but do just fine at your smaller local theater or on video on demand. A moderate amount of business makes these a success.

So while there will always be a place for a movie in which Meg Ryan falls for Tom Hanks against a Manhattan skyline, that type of movie might be over, in the way that screwball His Girl Friday-style movies went out with hot curlers.

That said, what unifies these movies—from His Girl Friday to this year's crop—is that they are romantic comedies, and the word comedy is important here. Because we're attuned to thinking that a rom-com is a movie in which there is a romance, and at the end, the leads get together. (And if they don't, then it's a tragedy.)

But as I pointed out in my piece, and as several of this year's rom-coms illustrate, "romantic comedies" actually use the word "comedy" in an older sense: that is, a comedy as a narrative archetype in which the natural order of things is disrupted, but ultimately put right—in a way that is "more right" than they were at the beginning. In a tragedy, by contrast, things have changed by the end, and not in a good way.

Things for the comic hero end up ultimately better by the end; the tragic hero winds up worse.

So that's why a movie like, say, Begin Again—in which there is romance, but the leads, who clearly have chemistry, don't end up together, is still a comedy. It doesn't have a ton to do with humor (though it's funny); it's more about what structure the narrative takes. The characters mature. They become wiser. Love changes them.

That's why there will always be a place for a comedy, and for a romantic comedy, and for the comedy that focuses on love generally, especially when it's done well. Love, properly understood, makes things better, even when they externally seem worse.

Maybe the truth is that rom-coms aren't dying: they're just understanding comedy better.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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Getting the (Romantic) Comedy Right