Glamour peaked when the female lead in a romantic comedy was created. More specifically, I mean the female leads in the romantic comedies that were mass-produced in the late 90s to early 2000s. Sometimes when I’m spending a night alone, I picture myself as one of them, dressed in a uniform of curry-stained sweatpants and a pullover from my alma mater (regardless of what they do or where they live, it’s always an Ivy League), hair piled on top of my head in a glorious mess. As I pour myself another glass of wine, I take a stab at one of two meals: Chinese straight from the old-school takeout box, or a lukewarm Lean Cuisine. If I’m lucky, a Natalie Cole song soundtracks my evening. In an effort to romanticize my life, I frequently pretend that I’m Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail.
It makes me feel like anything’s possible.
There is nothing more indulgent than giving in to the trappings of a romantic comedy. A good romantic comedy should hold within it all of the things that make us maintain our love affair with movies: stories about people who act and talk and feel like us, placed in situations that remind us of how beautiful life can be if we go for it. They are escapism at its absolute finest.
There’s been lots of discussion lately about those women and the worlds they inhabit. Many have waxed poetic about how they wish the mid-budget studio romantic comedy would make its triumphant return. In an era where tentpole franchises and reboots have swallowed up cinema, it can be tough to see the light. A world where romantic comedies were able to be released by major studios and gross $15 million in their opening weekends sounds like a utopia. Even recently, two studio romantic comedies were released on separate streamers — the Charlie Day and Jenny Slate will they-won’t they I Want You Back and JLo and Owen Wilson’s Wattpad fanfic-turned-film Marry Me (believe it or not, the latter was better) — to mixed reviews.
I like to think that perhaps it isn’t that the romantic comedy needs to be revived but that the genre’s been alive and well this entire time, just evolved from its frothy beginnings into something much more mature and self-aware. I’ve unofficially grouped these movies under the same umbrella; I like to refer to them as “romcomassaince” movies.
Romcomassaince movies borrow the themes we love from classic romantic comedies — goofy best friends, will-they-won’t they storylines, a montage of intimate and adorable gestures of affection set to swelling music — and adapt them for our current times. It is, however, easier to chart the trajectory of the romcomassaince by films that fall under its umbrella. While not exhaustive, here are six romcoms that have kept hope for the genre alive for the past 14 years.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
There’s something about Forgetting Sarah Marshall that feels like a sophisticated departure from the romantic comedies of the mid-2000s. When Peter (Jason Segel) gets broken up with by his TV star girlfriend Sarah (Kristen Bell), he decides to cope by going on a solo vacation to a dreamy Hawaiian resort. Moments after checking in, he realizes not only is his ex at the resort as well, but she’s brought along her new boyfriend, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Hijinks ensue.
While Forgetting Sarah Marshall does have a cute romantic plot, with Peter falling for hotel receptionist Rachel (Mila Kunis), much of the film focuses on the complicated feelings that surface following a breakup. Segel, who also wrote the film, adds an element of humanity to the script, making it feel like it could have been written by Albert Brooks or Elaine May. It should be lauded for its gentle and humorous approach to grief, vampire puppets, and that opening scene. All are groundbreaking for the genre.
Away We Go (2009)
Director Sam Mendes is known for his gritty war films and dark depictions of American suburbia, but he lightens up for Away We Go, which is part rom-com, part road film, and all Valentine to love and its many shapes. Expectant parents Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) embark on a crisscrossing international trip after deciding that they must find a new place to live and raise their baby following some unexpected news. Its set-up feels tropey and impossible in the way only a great rom-com can be.
Perhaps not a rom-com in the traditional sense, Away We Go spends no time getting our starring couple together, instead slowly revealing the layers of their love and care for each other by introducing us to the people who color their lives as they travel. It mines comedy from its stellar supporting cast, Catherine O’Hara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Melanie Lynskey, and has scenes so personal and sweet they sometimes feel like home movies.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
Any list of modern romantic comedies would be incomplete without (500) Days of Summer, which, even when watched today, feels like it’s saying something new about the genre and the proliferation of Manic Pixie Dream Girls in earlier films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Elizabethtown. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel) at work, and they fall in love. But as the movie says, before anyone gets too comfortable, this isn’t a love story.
(500) Days of Summer holds a mirror up to its viewers and asks them to ask themselves: Why do you watch romantic comedies? More importantly, what do you take from these movies and apply them to your life in potentially dangerous ways? The movie serves as a potentially sobering reminder that real life isn’t a romantic comedy, no matter how much we may want it to be. An incisive skewer not only of the genre’s fluffier elements but also of its fans, (500) Days of Summer remains essential viewing for any rom-com head.
Enough Said (2013)
Something about director Nicole Holofcener’s work makes you feel like you’re coming home within the first five minutes of every film, and Enough Said is no exception. It’s a charming story that follows Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a divorcée and soon-to-be empty nester, as she meets Albert (James Gandolfini), who charms her despite her later realization that he’s the ex of her new, enlightened friend.
A comedy of errors and an incredibly sweet love story, Enough Said enters this list as a film that feels fully realized, realistic, and adult. Gandolfini gives a performance that, at the end of his too-short career, rings charmingly and irresistibly. This feels like an elevated hangout movie: most of the story involves watching the little things that make two very charming people fall for each other. If you don’t like that, then what do you like?
Sleeping with Other People (2015)
Out of all the entries on this list, Sleeping with Other People feels like it does the most, borrowing from tropey Sandra Bullock and Kate Hudson rom-coms. Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) are two commitment-phobes who reconnect after years apart and promise not to fall for one another as they help each other navigate dating in New York City. Unfortunately for them, that proves easier said than done.
Despite its very predictable setup, Sleeping with Other People isn’t something you’d turn on at a sleepover when you’re 13. Everything about it is mature, sexy, and very funny. This one highlights the inside jokes between love interests that always add an extra layer of cheek and charm to romantic comedies.
Palm Springs (2020)
A testament to how every movie can easily be bottled into 90 minutes, Palm Springs recycles the often-bungled time loop trope into something fun, refreshing, and ultimately existential. Bridesmaid Sarah (Cristin Milioti) finds herself stuck in a time loop at her sister’s wedding. Lucky for her, she meets Nyles (Andy Samberg), and the two fall for each other — over and over and over.
What’s so lovely about this movie is that it spends little time explaining its logic to the audience. You strap in and enjoy the ride, and everything eventually falls into place. It lends itself to the rom-com sentiment so well that you forget you’re watching a sci-fi movie with time loops, quantum physics, and dynamite. Come for the goofy love story; stay for the Kate Bush needle drop.
In a genre that is quickly becoming overcrowded with purposefully bland and gimmick-ridden entries, it feels good to see so many films that continue to allow the romantic comedy to mature. Each of these entries is unique, though they share a palpable love of and respect for the genre. It makes it much easier to adopt “long live the romcom” as a battle cry when the ones leading the charge are just like us admirers: hearts on our sleeves, listening to Natalie Cole in the kitchen, waiting for the microwave to tell us our Lean Cuisine is ready.