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Embracing the Latest Trend: Real-Life Romance Takes Center Stage in the New Rom-Com Wave

I’m not ashamed to confess that I indulge in all types of romantic comedies: the excellent, the not-so-great, and everything in between. (I do have a limit when it comes to movies featuring Ashton Kutcher. Hollywood: Please consider Pedro Pascal for your list of leading men in romantic comedies. Many thanks in advance.) Recently, I’ve noticed a change in the air. A shift in the atmosphere. A subtle, slightly nostalgic scent lingering: It’s not overwhelming like the saturated rom-com market of the 1990s and early 2000s, but still vibrant, cozy, and mood-lifting. The success at the box office ($218 million globally) and the popularity on streaming platforms (currently in the top 5 on Nielsen’s movie chart), the new deals being struck, and the upcoming rom-com releases with renowned actors attached — all these developments mirror the audience’s enthusiasm for well-crafted, character-driven content with humor, heart, and wish fulfillment.

What the latest romantic comedies bring is a return to a fictional era untouched by smartphones or social media, where genuine interactions and spontaneity govern real-life connections. Let’s consider dating apps. In a recent article in the New York Times, writer Magdalene J. Taylor criticized Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble for fostering a culture of endless, superficial swiping and charging premium fees without fostering “meaningful, lasting connections offline.” In response, Netflix’s fresh rom-com Players showcases Gina Rodriguez encountering her romantic interest at a bar party. Rodriguez’s character, a determined sportswriter, dismisses Bumble as artificial — the antithesis of real life. “I’m 33 and I’m drained,” she remarks. “I desire a mature relationship.”

Gina Rodriguez stars in Netflix’s romantic comedy. K.C. Bailey/Netflix

The resurgence of romantic comedies — if indeed it is happening, and there is compelling evidence for it — is a welcome development. To echo Jerry Maguire: We exist in a skeptical world. Just observe the news cycle. It’s bleak out there, with the harshness of the internet, political divisions, conflicts, and crises, alongside the challenges to reproductive and civil rights, the mental health struggles among youth, and the increasing isolation due to smartphone addiction. It’s challenging not to become cynical and let the monotony of daily life drag you down; however, cynics often hide a romantic spirit within them. They long to experience joy, silliness, and a sense of belonging beyond themselves.

This sentiment is precisely what led Gen Z to flock to theaters to watch Anyone But You, where they danced to “Unwritten” during the end credits. In 2022, audiences eagerly anticipated films starring A-listers like Julia Roberts and George Clooney (Ticket to Paradise) and Sandra Bullock (The Lost City), although neither crossed the \(200 million threshold. Not since _Crazy Rich Asians_ (\)239 million globally) has a romantic comedy achieved such success.

“There hasn’t been a shortage of romantic comedies in the past decade,” notes Anyone But You writer-director Will Gluck in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “They’ve just predominantly been on streaming platforms. They’ve been on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. And I believe the quality has been just as good as in theaters. The issue is that we don’t laugh at home. You don’t laugh when you’re watching alone at home. You don’t laugh when you’re watching on a phone. You don’t laugh watching on your laptop [while] multitasking.”

Gluck elaborates, “When you’re in a theater surrounded by others — this is purely my speculation — I believe you open yourself up to enjoy something. … And for some reason, comedies and romantic comedies haven’t been perceived by studios or distributors as requiring a theatrical release. I think our movie happened to be in theaters. I made an effort to ensure it was grand and humorous in scale, but a significant aspect of our film was the communal experience of watching it with others in a theater.”

The communal bonding experienced during Anyone But You resonated with that of Barbie last summer. The comedic highlights included physical gags: Glen Powell sticking out his tongue like a lizard; Sydney Sweeney mimicking Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment while stealing his airplane cookie; a muscular surfer swimming with the enthusiasm of a wild dolphin. The movie’s most captivating scene involved Powell and Sweeney’s chance encounter in a coffee shop.

He’s a suave finance professional; she’s a sarcastic law student in urgent need of the bathroom, but the barista won’t provide the key until she makes a purchase. Unfortunately, the ordering line is long. She cleverly argues her case for jumping the queue, charming Powell, who pretends to be her spouse and orders her coffee. These two strangers embark on an impromptu date, reveling in the magic of an unexpected, face-to-face connection that brightens their lives unexpectedly. Gluck opted for a traditional approach in his film, minimizing the presence of phones and social media in the storyline. “The phone spoils every plot twist because you always know [where] everyone is,” he remarks.

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in 2017’s. Everett

The new wave of romantic comedies may trace back to 2017, when Michael Showalter released The Big Sick, earning critical acclaim for revitalizing the genre. Critics hailed it as a positive step forward for a genre that had faded from cinemas in the era of franchise-dominated films. They declared that the rom-com was making a comeback, this time delving into weightier subjects like illness. These accolades were well-deserved for a film that grossed \(56 million on a \)5 million budget and received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.

Seven years, two U.S. presidents, and a global pandemic later, Showalter, the director of The Big Sick, presents another captivating love story — , featuring Anne Hathaway (set to release on Prime on May 2) — and once again finds himself discussing the state of the genre.

“For me, romantic comedies have never disappeared,” Showalter asserts. “I’m always on the lookout for a compelling love story to tell, but there seems to be a desire for feel-good entertainment in terms of the content consumed, and a yearning for hope. I believe romantic comedies offer that — the promise of hope. Romantic comedies are inherently aspirational, suggesting that hope exists out there. They are always optimistic about the world and life.”

Nicholas Galitzine and Anne Hathaway in The Idea of You. Amazon MGM Studios

In The Idea of You, Nicholas Galitzine portrays Hayes Campbell, a charming young musician with a mature outlook despite his tender age of 24. He sweeps Hathaway’s character, Soléne, a 40-year-old single mother, off her feet and dispels her doubts about their age difference. At a stage in a woman’s life where she starts to feel invisible, this attractive, kind-hearted younger man truly sees and values Soléne in ways her unfaithful ex-husband cannot. While she holds a chic job in the art world (a stylish gallerist in Silver Lake), she defies the typical damsel in distress trope. She knows her own value, and past disappointments have made her skeptical. A chance encounter at Hayes’ trailer during her daughter’s visit to his Coachella concert sparks a connection. She playfully rebuffs his advances; witnessing Hathaway in this role is a delight for me and my fellow elder millennials.

“Anne’s character doesn’t need Hayes,” Showalter emphasizes. “Anne’s character is content and sexually active. She’s a sexual being who knows herself. She’s not in a pit of despair. She carries emotional baggage, as we all do, but she doesn’t need to rediscover herself. She already knows who she is.”

Meanwhile, streaming services — filling the void left by the cinematic experience — offer a range of films and series catering to diverse preferences, from cozy holiday flicks to steamy romances to Lindsay Lohan’s Irish Wish, which quickly rose to the top of Netflix’s most-watched films after its release on March 15. The algorithm presents a plethora of choices, occasionally unveiling hidden gems that I only discover months after their quiet debut. In the past, such gems might have premiered in the traditional manner — in theaters — providing them with the opportunity to stand out from the competition, for better or for worse. In Irish Wish, Lohan finds her Mr. Right on a bus. Kirsten Hansen, the screenwriter who penned the script during a visit to Ireland, observes that romantic comedies produced by Netflix and Hallmark are embracing more humor and physical comedy. In her earlier works, she recalls receiving feedback to “tone it down,” but now, zany comedy is “actually encouraged. And I love that.”

Netflix’s Lindsay Lohan rom-com. Netflix

Mark Waters, the director of Mother of the Bride starring Brooke Shields and Benjamin Bratt, set to premiere on Netflix on May 9, assures that his rom-com offers “genuine comedy” and isn’t merely a collection of cute jokes leading to the union of two attractive individuals. Early feedback from viewers surprised him. “In a romantic comedy, you’re always amazed by the hearty laughs you receive,” he remarks.

Shields portrays a woman who embarks on a journey to an exotic locale for her daughter’s whirlwind wedding; complications arise when she discovers that the groom is the son of a former flame (Bratt). It’s a twist on Ticket to Paradise, and although the radiant, naturally humorous Shields was up for the antics, Bratt needed reassurance that the film wouldn’t turn out to be “rom-com trash,” Waters recalls, noting that male actors dread the idea of “cheesiness” and the thought of being perceived as uncool by their peers for participating.

This summer, Netflix will unveil its own age-defying romance, A Family Affair, featuring Nicole Kidman as a renowned, Didion-inspired writer and Zac Efron as her younger paramour in his thirties. Richard LaGravenese directs from a script by Carrie Solomon; neither saw Kidman and Efron’s 20-year age gap as “an issue.” They were surprised to learn that during early screenings, LaGravenese notes, “millennial women were upset by it and wanted him to be with a younger girl that he dates in the beginning. And I didn’t really understand that because the age thing makes no difference. What matters is who you have a connection with and who you can be your authentic self with. And in the film, Zac [portrays] a movie star [and] can only be truly himself with Nicole because she doesn’t care about his celebrity status, unlike everyone else.”

Regarding Kidman, her character finds herself stuck in a personal and professional rut, and “this relationship rekindles her spirit,” LaGravenese explains, empathizing with her journey. He first sensed a romantic resurgence with Ticket to Paradise, where the Gen X exes reconcile their differences and reunite against a dreamy tropical backdrop. It’s mature content packaged in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

“When that film performed exceptionally well on a global scale, I thought, ‘Oh, people are returning to romantic comedies,” he reflects on the public’s interest. “I don’t know if it’s perhaps due to the pandemic. I thought maybe it’s also a personal response to feeling so traumatized since 2016 — [that people are] gravitating towards more enjoyable, aspirational tales, fantasy stories, stories that allow you to have a good time.”

George Clooney and Julia Roberts in 2022’s. Everett

Regarding categorizations, he isn’t entirely convinced by the term “rom-com” as a generic marketing label for films that encompass various themes, as the best romantic comedies often do. “One of my favorites was Four Weddings and a Funeral, which delved into friendship, death, and different forms of love. It was a multifaceted story,” he remarks, adding, “And it was a huge success.”

A Family Affair “contains elements of a rom-com, but it’s more than that,” he continues, describing it as a “coming-of-age tale” for characters at different life stages.

This fusion of heartfelt humor and profound emotional depth resonates across the pages of romantic literature, which has witnessed a surge in popularity in recent years. Fourth Wing and Iron Flame, both romance fantasy novels by Rebecca Yarros, have dominated the _New York Times_’ hardcover fiction bestseller list for a combined total of 70 weeks. On the paperback list, Abby Jimenez’s Just for the Summer holds the top spot, with Hannah Grace’s hockey-themed Icebreaker ranking fourth. The Idea of You initially gained acclaim as a beloved novel (authored by Robinne Lee) before Showalter and Jennifer Westfeldt collaborated on the film adaptation.

“With many popular romance novels, you feel like you’ve undergone therapy with a character by the time you finish the book — you understand their insecurities, hopes, dreams, and deepest traumas, which often extend beyond mundane issues like a demanding boss or high school unpopularity,” Becca Freeman, author of The Christmas Orphans Club and co-host of the Bad on Paper podcast, shares via email. “Numerous contemporary romance novels tackle serious topics such as physical and mental health challenges, racial discrimination, or complex trauma. There’s less reliance on the formulaic ‘cupcake baker antics,’ a trope that still prevails in film.”

Presently, three bestselling Emily Henry romances are undergoing adaptation into films. The author of Happy Place, known for her wit and sincerity, recently sparked excitement among her tens of thousands of Instagram followers by hinting at casting rumors involving Paul Mescal and Ayo Edebiri. If Edebiri indeed joins the Henry bandwagon, it would be a fantastic development for the future of romantic comedy, which relies on a continuous influx of fresh talent to thrive. The standout qualities of The Bear are humor and intrigue, traits she shares with genre icons like Roberts, Bullock, and Meg Ryan. We cheer for her. We want to spend time with her. We want to witness her journey into love.

We seek reassurance that she will be fine in the end. “There’s a sense of security in a happy ending,” notes Kirsten Hansen. “We know how things will turn out. There’s so much uncertainty in our world and lives.” Yet in a rom-com, “We know it will end happily ever after. The joy lies in watching [how it unfolds].”

I’ll gladly embrace more of that — whether it’s Happily Ever After or Happily for Now.