The romantic comedy is dead. Film critics and audiences alike make the grand proclamation often enough, and somewhere down the line, the box office started to believe it. The answer to the brazen statement lies ironically enough within a beloved romantic comedy, 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, adapted from 1957’s An Affair to Remember.
Annie: ‘Now that was when people knew how to be in love. They knew it! Time, distance; nothing could separate them because they knew. It was right. It was real. It was…’
Becky: ‘…a movie. That’s your problem. You don’t want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.’”
The romantic comedy is not dead, per se – it’s been poorly rebranded, reimagined, and reinvented to fit a digital society, so much so that it’s become too formulaic to watch. Hollywood has killed the middle-ground budget that this genre used to exist in. Now, we’re riddled with indie films begging for distributors and the Marvel Cinematic Universe leeching millions of filmgoers’ dollars. Pair that with a world dominated by social media, and modern romcoms struggle to find a footing anywhere.
You can hardly blame romcom filmmakers for not venturing behind the high school sweetheart and work romance trope; organic meet-cutes are hard to engineer when hey, there’s an app for that! A 2019 GQ article ran the headline “Romcoms won’t survive if they don’t start talking about technology”, but on the flip side, an overreliance on recent technological advancements is what threatens to kill the genre – for real.
In her essay, “The Turn Within: The Irony of Technology in a Globalized World”, professor and cultural critic Susan J. Douglas concludes, “As we … struggle in our own lives with the multiple, contradictory consequences of the digital revolution … we must always remember the irony of technology … It is at this nexus … that we will find the most interesting and important stories to tell about technology and modern life in the twenty-first century.” The irony she refers to is that media technology has rendered the American public more isolated, and has led to the “implosion” of culture.
While she points to more pressing matters than the implications of such communication technologies and their representations in romcoms, Douglas’ argument cannot be ignored. In this very struggle, we can look outward and address the isolation that is apparent in the modern-day romcom – a genre meant to procure the opposite reaction. Modern life in the digital age can most easily be represented in romcoms because it is a relatable genre. Technological advances have redirected romance to swiping right or left, but it has not erased the natural cycle of love, heartbreak, and moving on.
Romcoms have always weaved cultural markers into stories: You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle are perfect examples of how technology (chat rooms and radio shows, respectively) could be used to generate happily ever afters but the advent of social media – especially in a genre that relies on an audience’s willingness to suspend reality – has diminished the impact of such an ending. Both aforementioned films have upgraded to classics of the genre, but their success in using such technology is yet to be replicated by a 21st-century film. Social media, texting, and dating apps would make romance wholly boring because it occurs largely off-screen on another screen, and that’s not why viewers flocked to the likes of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.
Modern romcoms would do well to adapt to society’s reliance on smartphones in small doses; recent examples include 2014’s Love, Rosie, 2018’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and most recently, 2023’s Rye Lane. But perhaps the most overlooked romcom of recent years got it right: Natalie Krinsky’s The Broken Hearts Gallery. Released in 2020, a pandemic summer premiere marred the film’s outreach and success. Nonetheless, while contemporary romantic comedies’ often fail to connect to audiences with an oversaturation of social media as drivers of conflict and building relationships, The Broken Hearts Gallery establishes a love story that audiences will gravitate to because, at its core, it tells a larger story of grief and sensitivity akin to the romantic comedies we now deem as classics.
Starring Geraldine Viswanathan and Dacre Montgomery, The Broken Heart Gallery’s potential to revitalize the romcom genre shines bright on the select streaming platforms where it’s available. The alleged death of the romcom is twofold: invasive technology in real life permeating reel life and Hollywood’s hesitancy regarding mid-budget movies. The Broken Heart Gallery managed to sidestep both problems with the tiniest hint of a tech-led meet-cute and the help of executive producer Selena Gomez. Its greatest accomplishment is its determination to generate an organic and authentic relationship.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger insists, “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it”, and The Broken Hearts Gallery’s brilliance is that it is painfully self-aware of this. Its meet-cute is orchestrated when Lucy (Viswanathan) drunkenly assumes that Nick (Montgomery) is her Lyft driver, ensuing in a hilarious scene where he fails to convince her that he’s actually not (and still drops her home!). But it stops there.
Lucy and Nick have another accidental run-in that paves the way for an escalating friendship that grows stronger as the story progresses. In doing so, it anchors the love story in a genuine relationship borne from two characters gradually relying on each other without social media rearing its head to push the two together – or apart.
The Broken Hearts Gallery knows it cannot entirely disengage from the period it is set in, which is likely why Lucy and Nick’s first meeting is contrived. Expanding on Heidegger’s philosophy, the world is now seen exclusively through the “modern [technological] mind” and so, moving forward, the film cannot divorce itself from the reality of social media. Thus, the decision to use Instagram as a literal visual aid is borne, but decidedly not for Lucy and Nick’s relationship. Instead, it’s used to show progress in Lucy’s career plans: opening her own art gallery that she ultimately hosts in Nick’s boutique hotel. The romcom finds the aforementioned “nexus” Douglas highlights, allowing the audience to experience their off-screen relationship with technology shrouded in movie magic.
It is naïve to assume any given film won’t actively reflect the ever-changing ideals of the time period it is set in as these markers invoke eventual nostalgia. That is why reason older romcoms haven’t lost their appeal among newer generations. It is this very nostalgia, though, that points to something that modern romcoms fail to take into account; these films were set before the absolute permanence of social media in an average person’s life and, at the very least, only used technology to drive the story to what audiences will never tire of: a love story. Watching Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks lock eyes atop the Empire State Building (thanks to radio!) in You’ve Got Mail is vastly different from seeing text bubbles pop up on the side of the screen to compensate for an otherwise weak plot. Digital advancements cannot replace the sheer emotion of human interaction.
As Heidegger would say, this technological way of “revealing” is now non-negotiable, but we can attempt to strip away its dominance in our stories. Social media has abruptly become an inevitable facet of our lives – and thus, our character’s lives – but it cannot possibly be the only vehicle of romance left for us to exhaust. If technology is merely one way of relating to the world, The Broken Hearts Gallery chooses to relate to audiences through a simple love story we’ve seen before. The film successfully delivers the quintessential romcom in all its glory. The clichés are expected (a karaoke scene, a quirky friend group, and a protagonist looking to make it big in New York City).
In other words, Nick and Lucy’s love story does away with the stifling dominance of technology and confronts the idea that the essence of romantic comedy can exist in the digital age. The inclusion of Instagram is limited and confined to a singular purpose: showcasing Lucy’s budding career. The romance is free to breathe and serves the film’s broader message:
There’s an art to letting go. The Broken Hearts Gallery is at its best when it does just that. It lets go of the expectations of what a modern romcom should look like and shows what it could look like.
The romantic comedy is not dead. It is merely at a crossroads that will decide its lingering presence. Modern romcoms would do well to remember that their predecessors succeeded because they gambled on their audience’s willingness to suspend reality. They knitted together cultural placeholders just enough to subscribe the film to its time, but never to hinder its ability to be intergenerational.
Characters set in the present day can still interact beyond the tiny screens of their glowing phones, and commonplace apps can be interwoven to enrich a love story. The Broken Hearts Gallery aptly opens with Lucy dancing to Betty Who’s “I remember” lyrics, “phone calls, your voice, it’s not the same,” reassuring us that even technology won’t get in the way of true love.
Douglas, Susan J. “The Turn Within: The Irony of Technology in a Globalized World”. American Quarterly. American Quarterly. Vol. 58, No. 3. Rewiring the “Nation”: The Place of Technology in American Studies. September 2006.