How to build a better rom-com
Same formula, new context
The romantic comedy, long deemed dead, is poised for a comeback. The box-office success of Crazy Rich Asians — making a $34 million debut after projections held it at $18 million — and Netflix's recent release of the well-received rom-com To All the Boys I've Loved Before have proven there's an obvious, powerful hunger for more movies in the long-dormant genre. But they also show there's value in not just reviving the genre, but improving it.
The beautiful serendipity of Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I've Loved Before is that they're both movies led by Asian actors playing Asian characters, in a genre they've long been excluded from, released on the same weekend. By this point, Hollywood's lack of diversity has become exceedingly clear, and a more inclusive Hollywood is a demonstrably better one.
But rom-coms in particular present a unique opportunity for Hollywood to rectify past mistakes. It all comes down to the fact that the existing canon of romantic comedies is a problematic one — which, in one of its most fascinating scenes, To All the Boys I've Loved Before actively addresses.
Midway through the film, a few characters — protagonist Lara Jean, her kid sister, and her sort-of (it's complicated) love interest, Peter, are relaxing, watching Sixteen Candles as Gedde Watanabe's foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong appears onscreen.
"Isn't this character Long Duk Dong ... like, kind of racist?" Peter asks.
"Not kind of, extremely racist," Lara confirms.
When Peter asks why the girls even like Sixteen Candles, Lara's little sister provides the answer: Jake Ryan, the movie's heartthrob.
There's a lot going on in that 10-second conversation. It's a moment that speaks to our complicated relationship with problematic art, and the ways in which cinema's dismal representation of people of color has trickled down. If there are no Asian characters on screen for Asian viewers to identify with, then they move on to the next best thing — the universal feeling of having a crush. But even there, Sixteen Candles and movies like it fall short by modern standards. There's a long list of romantic comedy tropes that play poorly today: Stalking or obsession as an expression of earnest longing; men not taking no for an answer; and some all-around bad ideas about gender.
This is not to say that these movies should be thrown out. Lara Jean and her sister, after all, still love Sixteen Candles — but they acknowledge it has problems and have decided to keep it around anyway. And that's fine! Loving problematic, imperfect art is normal. The drag is that there aren't many choices out there that reflect where we are today.
And there lies opportunity.
Here's the secret to romantic comedies: They don't have to change much. Like just about any popular film, the secret to their success is formula. We know, generally, most of what's going to happen in a rom-com: We'll meet a character and get to know their lives a bit. Maybe they're a mess, maybe they've got it all together — but they have something to learn. Unbeknownst to them, they're going to learn it from someone hiding in plain sight. Maybe they've long loathed this person, maybe they've never really noticed them, but circumstances bring them together and push them to admit they have feelings for each other. Something then drives them apart, and we spend the rest of the film rooting to see them get back together or reach an understanding.
That's pretty much it. On a plot level, rom-coms are deceptively simple, and that's because they're not here to blow your mind with plot twists. They're here to charm you and make you believe in a relationship. And that's largely done through how and what characters are communicating. In short, rom-coms are great because they're formulaic. New contexts are where they sing — and there's never been more willingness to explore new contexts as there is now.
Like in Crazy Rich Asians, this new context can be ethnic, celebrating a group of people who we haven't had a chance to see onscreen in a big studio movie. It can also be cultural, examining the ways we fall in love now, providing a funny, heightened look at what it means to date, crush, and pine after one another — but in a way that reflects our values in 2018, as opposed to the standards of 1984.
And doing it, of course, with plenty of wit, banter, and irony — the stuff all good rom-coms are made of.