The world needs romcoms more than ever
And you only need to turn on your phone to see why
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There’s a reason Cameron Diaz is coming out of retirement to star in a Netflix action romcom, Sandra Bullock is currently in cinemas (in a dodgy mash-up of the 80s box office staples Romancing The Stone and Raiders of The Lost Ark) and Julia Roberts has just signed up to star opposite George Clooney as warring exes in Ticket to Paradise. (Any resemblance to another 80s movie, War Of The Roses is, I'm sure, purely coincidental...) And, yes, I’m sure money has something to do with it. But it’s not just that. The truth is, we have never needed to lose ourselves in a good romcom more than we do right now. If anyone's got a Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks vehicle in their back pocket, I am fully here for it.
I mean, who wants to spend any time in the real world when it’s careering towards hell in a handcart?
America: I give you the Supreme Court and back-to-back gun crime.
UK: no-one can afford to eat or heat their homes, polio has been found in the sewage system and… Boris Johnson. (Is he still clinging on? Has he gone? Who knows?!)
Europe: hello Third World War.
Australia: biblical floods hot on the heels of last year’s devastating bushfires.
The world: the climate is screwed, ditto the economy, poverty is rife, the number of refugees grows everyday, while certain countries anxiously guard their borders for fear of having to share something.
Oh, and monkey pox. And Omicron BA.4 and BA.5.
Excuse me while I stream Mamma Mia for the 935th time.
I don’t know about you but I can’t bring myself to read one more dystopian fiction or watch another episode of The Handmaids Tale. It's too much like watching the news. And I say that as someone who hasn’t watched anything without corpses, subtitles and long, dark winters in a decade. But in the face of chaos on just about every level, I need sun, I need sangria, I need sliding doors-style narrowly missed opportunities. I need meet-cutes. I need Kate Winslet teaching little old men to walk without their frames in the space of a week-long transatlantic house swap. I need a millionaire film star standing in front of me with a priceless painting asking me to love them. Or at the very least if they can take over running the country. (Go for it. You can’t do worse.)
My relationship with romantic fiction started early. Even if it was heavy on the rom, light on the com. Specifically, it started in the local library where I regularly strayed into the adult section and started devouring everything that was packaged to look like Lace. I didn’t understand that goldfish scene but that wasn’t for want of endlessly rereading it. Shirley Conran, Judith Krantz, Jackie Collins, a bit of Jilly Cooper, some bloke called Sidney Sheldon, and lots and lots of long-forgotten Lace-alikes. All fat and dripping with florid descriptions, bound in glossy covers, usually featuring unfeasibly glamorous women and brooding men. Then there was a questionable side-swerve into gothic romance courtesy of Victoria Holt (a pseudonym of historical novelist Jean Plaidy, which in its turn was a pseudonym of Eleanor Alice Burford), pilfered from my mum’s bookshelves. It was extremely heavy on the heaving chests and menacing-but-misunderstood romantic hero. And of course, every self-respecting 80s teenagers’ gateway drug to questionable ideas about what constitutes love: Flowers In The Attic. Which, with the benefit of substantial hindsight, had nothing to do with rom let alone com.
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From there on in my reading habits took a darker turn and ever since I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with crime and thrillers (put it this way Susanna Moore’s In The Cut is one of my all time favourites). But, every so often, when the going got tough, I’d slide Pretty Woman into the VCR (Remember those?!) and for a pitch perfect 90 minutes everything would suddenly be all right. The girl would get the guy, by way of endless misadventure, and everyone would live happy ever after. And yes, it was always a girl and always a guy. I didn’t buy into anything of that Prince Charming stuff in real life, but in the movies I couldn't get enough of it.
(Let me pause right now to say that I am fully aware how problematic all those 90s movies were, and still are. But I loved them. And I still do. Albeit with the occasional wince. So let’s just take it as given that if there was a Bechdel Test for problematic-ness, every single one of them would fail it.)
The romcom 2.0 had its heyday in the 90s. (Working on the assumption that version 1.0 was the screwball comedy of the 30s and 40s, usually starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.) But back to the 90s: the first George Bush was continuing Regan’s legacy in the States, while John Major was doing the same for Thatcher in the UK. We were in the midst of global recession and a Gulf War as When Harry Met Sally hit our screens in 1990, a couple of years after my personal favourite Roxanne (Steve Martin’s take on Cyrano). It was swiftly followed by Pretty Woman, Sleepless In Seattle, Groundhog Day, Four Weddings And A Funeral, While You Were Sleeping, My Best Friend’s Wedding, You’ve Got Mail (I know), The Truth About Cats And Dogs (more Cyrano, but this time with a gender switch), Notting Hill…
We needed an escape and they provided it. But while every single one had a love story at their heart, almost without fail, the friendships were where the comedy came in. Think Carrie Fisher (RIP) stealing every scene and getting all the best lines in the Nora Ephron classic, When Harry Met Sally. ("I will never ever want that wagon wheel coffee table.") Ditto Bruno Kirby as Harry’s wingman in the same movie. Think Bridget’s gang in Bridget Jones ('Fight! It's a real fight!"); think Cher’s posse in Clueless; think every bunch of middle class misfits in every Richard Curtis film ever made.
And in the book world Bridget Jones and Marian Keyes and Jenny Colgan were on top of the charts. Sound familiar?
While Julia and Cameron are dusting off their megawatt smiles, in preparation for a new round of Nancy Meyers films, the romcom 3.0 is already upon us, thanks to Gen-Z adding an inclusive twist to the romcom's traditional tropes: on screen Fire Island, Love, Simon, Heartstopper, Always Be My Maybe are topping the charts, with Love In Colour, Honey & Spice, You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty, just for starters, lapping up the love on BookTok.
What romcom queen Nora Ephron would have done with a perimenopausal love interest we can, sadly, only imagine. In the meantime, I'm off to watch You've Got Mail and pretend not to notice that Meg Ryan is being catfished.
My top 15 90s/noughties rom-coms (because I couldn’t get it down to ten):
When Harry Met Sally
Sleepless In Seattle
My Best Friend’s Wedding
10 Things I Hate About You
You’ve Got Mail
Four Weddings And A Funeral
While You Were Sleeping
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Something’s Gotta Give (Team Keanu, obviously)
The Truth About Cats And Dogs
Grosse Point Blank (chemistry!)
Plus an honourable mention to the very much not 90s Mamma Mia
•Love a good romcom? Tell me your favourites by posting a comment on the post. (And if you hate them and you got this far, tell me that too!)
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