The Rom-Coms That Crashed and Burned

At this point, it’s trite to remind readers how long we’ve spent wasting away inside—and yet, here we go again. We self-isolated for nearly two years, thanks to the pandemic. We’ve felt lost and alone. We’ve been forced to watch celebrities’ sad attempts at community outreach and tune into every studio movie from our home televisions.

We didn’t get to see Turning Red and Luca in an auditorium filled with bubbling little children, giggling alongside them as if we were kids again. What I would’ve given to see Godzilla throw King Kong around like a bag of beans on a big screen in early 2021, to gasp at giant creatures pummeling each other while cheering on the ape. Yes, I even missed the audience-wide clapping at CGI heartbreak in Marvel movies.

Most of all, though, I yearned to yearn in the theater again. The act of watching a romantic comedy in a theatrical setting should be a right of all mankind—we were put on this planet to sit in a dark room with dozens of strangers to laugh, cry, and feel every wispy moment between two people falling in love. Movies like Palm Springs and The Happiest Season would’ve killed in theaters. Alas, we watched them at home; they still dazzled us, even so.

Which is why, when studios stopped throwing everything on streaming and theaters started jiving again, I figured the rom-com would thrive. Sure, we wanted to see movies, but after years of desperation, wouldn’t we want to indulge ourselves in sweet, nonsensical tropes like enemies-to-lovers and meet cutes? Palm Springs was one of the most popular movies of a dismal 2020 summer blockbuster season, during which theaters were closed—but when we returned to the silver screen, we failed the rom-com. To be fair, though, the genre also failed us.

2022 started out with what should’ve been a smash hit: Marry Me, Jennifer Lopez’s splashy return to her rom-com roots. The trailer for Kat Coiro’s bombastic movie blew everyone out of the water, featuring popstar Kat Valdez (Lopez) ditching her own concert-based wedding to marry a random man (Owen Wilson) in the crowd. The concept was so berserk, akin to the chaos of The Wedding Planner’s rogue-dumpster meet cute.

The movie was released on Valentine’s Day to good reviews—61 percent on Rotten Tomatoes seems par for the course with this genre. It only made $22 million domestically, less than the gross of the 2022 rerelease of Avatar. Ugh. Having loved the movie and even danced in my AMC recliner when J.Lo sang “Marry me, marry me, say yes,” I was gutted. But maybe folks weren’t fully ready to return to the theater yet. Marry Me was also released day-and-date on Peacock, which probably played a part in the dismal box office results—really, it should’ve been exclusively theatrical for a few weeks.

No, that wasn’t the case—that same month, Uncharted made nearly $150 million. Just a few weeks later, The Batman took home over $360 million. Now, these were both theatrical-exclusive, male-skewing action spectacles with a completely different audience from Marry Me. They’re designed for the big screen, also designed to rake in boatloads of cash. But Marry Me was also a splashy event destined for the crowds of people to enjoy together, in a better world.

Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane in Bros.

Universal Pictures

The population’s seeming rejection of the rom-com got even more blatant with the summer blockbuster release of Bros. Even after a nightmarishly massive marketing campaign, could only pull in $11 million. While Bros fans cried homophobia, I pinned the failure more to the cheesy marketing campaign, which even drove me (a queer rom-com enthusiast) to the brink of complete exhaustion.

Hearing the film labeled as “Nora Ephron on poppers” gave me a migraine.Nora made bookworms and farmer’s markets seem hip—I don’t want Nora Ephron on poppers! I do love rom-coms with clubs and partying, but a comparison to John Hughes or Garry Marshall would’ve felt more accurate. The marketing for Bros regurgitated stereotypical LGBTQ+ culture in a way that became alienating, especially for anyone who wasn’t a cis gay white man. In fact, nearly every lead character in the movie was a cis gay white man—inclusive, but only to a point.

When I finally got around to watching Bros, months after the discourse had finally died down, I was shocked by how terrible the film was. Maybe the marketing wasn’t at fault for the film’s box office failure. Though the film earned rave reviews, and the romantic chemistry between Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane had a nice sparkle, to me, Bros felt like a millennial’s nihilistic take on the rom-com. It’s a movie full of clunky rants and thinly veiled, poor attempts at capitalizing on a needed push for representation in movies.

My frustration with Hollywood’s botched rom-com releases skyrocketed with the release of Ticket to Paradise. I felt so betrayed. Rom-com legends Julia Roberts and George Clooney, working with the director of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, with Booksmart’s Billie Lourd and Kaitlyn Dever co-starring—this had to be a hit. It had to make bajillions of dollars. It had to make me laugh so hard my ribs hurt and put a lump in my throat in the wedding scene a la Crazy Rich Asians and The Sound of Music.

Instead, I walked out of the theater infuriated. Ticket to Paradise was offensively exoticized, and though Clooney and Roberts’ chemistry blew me away, the actual romance of the movie was not close to the rom-com charm expected from such a glitzy Hollywood flick. Ticket to Paradise was marketed to the high heavens as the rom-com of the year, with frocks of palm and Clooney’s killer smirk on the poster. But its story couldn’t even meet an ounce of the hype rom-com lovers had for it. Perhaps the anticipation was too high—then again, I wasn’t looking for the next When Harry Met Sally here. I wanted a fun, silly rom-com like Mamma Mia or My Best Friend’s Wedding. The jokes were so feeble that I figured Clooney and Roberts might’ve accidentally winced while filming their scenes. I would’ve.

George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Ticket To Paradise.

Vince Valitutti

Still, the movie made over $160 million, the second largest rom-com of the year. It fell behind The Lost City, holistically the best rom-com of the year, with stunning reviews, an amazing story, leads (Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum) with fantastic chemistry, and a gross of nearly $200 million. If there’s hope for the rom-com, it resides with this movie, which was both successful and entertaining—but this means Hollywood may be better off pairing the studio rom-com with other genres. The Lost City was an adventure and rom-com. Indie film has also found success with combining genres, with romantic dramedies like The Worst Person in the World playing well during awards season.

Though I love a good theater experience, another promising future of romantic comedies resides in streaming. Marry Me became Peacock’s biggest streamed day and date movie of all time. HBO Max’s Father of the Bride remake played with the same “disapproving parent at a wedding” plot as Ticket to Paradise, but made it fresh and hilarious—Andy Garcia can do anything. Fire Island was a queer rom-com that has since earned plenty of comparisons to Bros, despite premiering on Hulu months earlier. But this one, a clubbing romp entirely based on the sassafras found in the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, lacked the same level of obnoxious promo. In January 2023, J.Lo will release another wild-hearted rom-com with Prime Video’s Shotgun Wedding, in which her vows are interrupted by pirates. She’s realized that streaming is a good home for her return to rom-com royalty.

Be it because of their more modest marketing campaigns or because of their abundance, rom-coms on streaming were largely more entertaining than theatrically released ones in 2022—even without the thrill of going to a theater. Crush on Hulu gave us a silly teen rom-com starring two queer women leads. I Want You Back on Prime Video made Jenny Slate and Charlie Day fall in love, a charming pair. The Valet (another Hulu pick!) had an unpredictable romantic arc, a feat that feels impossible in a genre littered with the word “predictable.” And Netflix’s Falling for Christmas brought back our beloved Lindsay Lohan.

I want nothing more than to see flocks of people racing to grab the best seat for the latest studio rom-com—but Hollywood failed at getting us to the theater to see them this year. Changes in marketing will have to be made, especially while competing with an inarguably better landscape for the genre on streaming. Still, the studio rom-com has been around since Hollywood’s Golden Age, and I doubt 2022’s blip will kill the chemistry forever.

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