Woody Allen’s 1977 classic Annie Hall finishes on a note of self-realization for Alvy Singer, realizing that love is complicated but worth it:
"I thought of that old joke: This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, my brother's crazy. He thinks he's a chicken.' And the doctor says, 'Well why don't you turn him in?' and the guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.' Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships. They're totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs."
But somewhere after Allen’s seminal "me" generation film and the many romantic epiphanies wrought in When Harry Met Sally came a barrage of rom-coms like the 1990 classic Pretty Woman and then almost everything Kate Hudson and Katherine Heigl have done from 2000 on. In today’s society, in which people are delaying getting married until “they have all their other ducks in a row,” and people asking if the basic ways millennials connect are killing romance, or if courtship still even exists in hook up culture, that kind of rom-com isn’t going to cut it. But it doesn’t mean the genre can’t become a viable cinematic venture.
Let’s use a TV evolution example: Girls works — despite some people’s objections — because everyone’s a mess, no one’s eternally happy, and even in the most romantic moments there remain twinges of irony, regret, narcissism, and misunderstanding. Sex and the City might not have the same impact today as it did in its 1998 launch because many millennials are more concerned with sky-high rent prices in New York than the newest pair of Manolos on the market.
Now let’s try a cinematic evolution parallel: the superhero genre. Look at Michael Keaton in the Tim Burton-directed 1989 Batman, and then see the '90s try George Clooney in 1997’s Batman & Robin; no one wanted to see the guy from ER wedged into a suit with fake pecs and be handsome and dashing during the day and semi-convincingly dangerous at night. It took multidimensional characters like Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne in the massive Christopher Nolan Batman revamp trilogy to bring the superhero genre into the new century.
Romantic comedies as a whole remain too addicted to the intoxicating formula that has propelled the genre in the past and rely on the chemistry of its leads to save sometimes dull screenplays, lackluster directing and no help in the editing room — 2009’s The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds and 2010’s Date Night with Steve Carell and Tina Fey come to mind. 2011's Friends With Benefits tries to buck tradition and does so more or less successfully, while still falling into some of its own stereotypical traps. So other movies that blend romance, comedy, and drama and shirk traditional tropes sneak in to try and uplift the genre — a trick that 2009’s The Ugly Truth tried to do poorly and the same year’s (500) Days of Summer got so perfectly right that it hurts sometimes that the movie always ends after only an hour and a half.
Romantic comedies aren't dead, but we need more attention and focus on hidden gems like 2012’s Take This Waltz with Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen and less on formulaic and ultimately unsatisfying flicks that ring less and less true for a generation that is still struggling with its own definition of romance.