You've Got Mail, Nora Ephron

Goodbye to Love: Death of the ’90s Rom-Coms

Their lingering demise wasn’t fitting, but the ’90s rom-coms of the most innocuous kind got their own happy ending.

You've Got Mail
Nora Ephron
Warner Bros.
18 December 1998

Arbitrary as it seems, society likes its cinema to be neatly organized. Films are sorted into yearly top tens, decade 100s, and the 1,001 Greatest Films of All Time. There are lists of great comedies, horrors, actioners, dramas … and segregation between black-and-white, color, silent, sound, American, and international. The American Film Institute and awards groups take it a step further. The art form is dissected into countless categories, with the best parts retained as an enduring legacy and the remainder discarded to a supporting role.

As self-fulfilling as this sorting method is, it’s a convenient shorthand to make sense of the hundreds of new films released each year and the thousands that came before. The roots of canonisation lay in this approach, as do those of genre. It’s the latter that most often dovetails film into the wider pop culture spectrum. Movements are born, not in a moment of inspired isolation but as a steady evolution of and reaction to the trends of years prior. Even if we weren’t around to see it (and perhaps it works better if we weren’t), the ’70s still stands out as the genesis of modern American cinema. Likewise, the ’30s epitomize romance a la old Hollywood, while musicals are best referenced by those made in the ’50s and early ’60s.

Five years on, it’s now nearly possible to judge the ’90s: a decade that encompassed the death throes of the classic star-driven enterprise (Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven), moved through the Indie boom, the rise of Miramax, and ended with the faint glimmer of a new true American auteur movement. It’s a discordant era, nowhere near as identifiable as the loud colors and Surround Sound of the decade preceding it.

Yet one film trend from the ’90s stares back through the esotericism. It wasn’t particularly inventive and rarely artistic, but it did endure throughout those ten years. It now retrospectively finds itself as the key illustration of what the decade meant for millions of moviegoers. Its lingering demise wasn’t fitting, but from 1989 to 1999, romantic comedies (or Rom-Coms, for short) of the most innocuous kind got their own happy ending.

While films have blended romantic and comedic elements since at least Buster Keaton’s 1923 comedy-romance, Our Hospitality, those made in the ’90s are unique in their use of formula. Specifically, there is never a question of whether the male and female leads are not only compatible but destined by some higher power to be together. Epitomised by “magical” moments, the meet-cute, the conversation montages, the first kiss, heartbreak, remorse, and reconciliation combine to separate simple love (as represented by the threatening third or fourth wheel) from fate. To suggest anything else is to subvert a delicate genre balance. Other parameters abound: likable supporting characters that act as facilitators and disappear as soon as they cease to serve the central romance; urban environments with plenty of scope for the range of emotions to show; a lilting soundtrack with emphasis on pure immersion and surrender.

The parade began in 1989 with Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally. Forged from the New York charm of Woody Allen and presenting a grown-up alternative to John Hughes and his brat pack, Reiner’s film set the precedent for middle-class entertainment. His message to Movieland was clear: follow my lead…that, and/or cast Meg Ryan. Take his advice, they did. Throughout the decade, Ryan was starring in rom-coms at the rate of one per year, playing roles ranging from a Canadian stranded in France (French Kiss) to Albert Einstein’s niece (I.Q.).

Julia Roberts is still lauded as the reigning queen of romantic cinema, but it was Ryan who was at the forefront throughout. Her triple bill, alongside Tom Hanks, represents the genre’s formative (Joe vs. The Volcano) and breakout (Sleepless in Seattle) stages as well as its zenith, the epically courteous You’ve Got Mail. Never once did Ryan hint at the narcissism that permeated Robert’s output, preferring instead to perfect the technique of complete doe-eyed submission to the mood of the piece. Ryan is as accomplished a genre actress as Diane Keaton but is forever handicapped by the lightweight charm that made her name.

Across the Atlantic, Britain was producing her male equivalent. Rarely has an actor been as synonymous with a single word as Hugh Grant is with “charming”. When Richard Curtis’ Working Title film company was emerging as the heavyweight producer of the genre, Grant was its Michael Jordan. His early American career survived an infamous dalliance with the law simply because he had the ability to laugh at himself. It seems ridiculous that the American public was so eager to embrace Grant – suave accent, supermodel girlfriend, and all – as a Hanks-style everyman opposite increasingly glamorous co-stars, but it says far more about the movie-going public than it does about the man himself. Contrary to the assumption, the rom-coms were far more than a singularly female arena. Presenting an idyllic portrayal of love, they left men reevaluating their own romantic perceptions and wishing they were like Grant.

Above all, the rom-com was a movement built around innocence. Unstained by the carnal desires and duplicity that continued unabated outside the movie theater, but, nonetheless, never ignorant enough to assume its product served as anything more than escapism. Michael Lehman’s The Truth About Cats and Dogs play on the disguise, for example, was cute as hell. The charm de rigueur, however, proved too little to run on.

A look at 2005 releases underpins just how surely the bubble did burst. Only Gary David Goldberg’s Must Love Dogs, and Claire Kilner’s The Wedding Date stand out as films that fit the rom-com criteria, and both failed to capture the public’s imagination of the box office. A case could be made for Andy Tennant’s Hitch and Doug Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but neither film stays true to the ideal of fate and the celebration of everyday life that has the audience walking on a cloud. Even the Bridget Jones films, hailed as something of a reimagination, are miles away from Roger Mitchell’s Notting Hill. Even Richard Curtis’ Love, Actually feels like a final ejaculation of half-finished ideas in anticipation of the end.

While some say America lost its so-called “innocence” on 9/11 and any film genre so New York skyline dependant is going to be hurt by an event of that magnitude, the rom-com’s slow fade from prominence is more likely the result of simple generational conflict. Rom-Coms, even at their height, were never aimed at teenagers. Instead, it was their parents and young professionals with an understanding of the white, middle-class universe they occupied that was the chosen demographic.

Therein lies the problem of finding new talent to fill the void that Roberts, Ryan, and Grant left. The target market and product aren’t compatible anymore. On the women’s side, the preoccupation has been to get younger female actors, but that hasn’t worked. Kirsten Dunst is too hip, Cameron Diaz too edgy, Julia Stiles too theatrical, and Drew Barrymore too cute. No one can picture Jennifer Lopez as a simple wedding planner (let alone a humble maid). Only Kate Hudson and Jennifer Aniston seem content to keep up the facade, and both would probably admit their sincerity lies elsewhere.

Male representation in rom-coms is in slightly better shape. Paul Bettany still has everything a leading man should, and his performance in Richard Loncraine’s Wimbledon was as good as any of the genre. Yet the comparisons to Hugh Grant are going to dog him every time he leans in for a kiss. John Cusack and Matthew McConaughey fit the bill when they choose to dally, and Topher Grace can combine charm and clumsiness with enough panache to suggest a valuable niche career. Pending the return of Tom Hanks, however, there isn’t enough ballast to counterweight the drought of audience-approved females.

Romance isn’t entirely absent from cinema, of course. It’s been superceded by the comedy component. The American Pie kids have grown up, and as a result, films now emphasize the male ego and are less willing to cushion casual female filmgoers. Adam McKay’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy and Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin are both ostensibly romantic comedies. However, a more apt title would include knowing emphasis: Rom-COMS, or Com-Roms. The irony is that just as Peter Chelsom’s Serendipity owes its existence to John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles and Woody Allen’s Manhattan, David Dobkins’ Wedding Crashers’ bloodline includes Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral and Gary Marshall’s Runaway Bride.

Perhaps when a genre has become as self-aware as to produce thinly disguised and contrived fairytales like James Mangold’s Kate and Leopold, it’s time to put it to bed. After all, ten years is a long time. At the very worst, the rom-com trend will be remembered as an ineffectual blip in lieu of events of greater consequence. At best, it will be seen as the second wind of the studio romance. It’s probably neither. It’s just fluff, and it’s only ever as good as you allow it to be.

The ’90s Rom-Coms aren’t to be analyzed independently in any intricate detail, and they almost certainly won’t compare to the work of Ernst Lubitsch or Frank Capra in 20 years’ time. But wouldn’t it be nice –— and, in the wider scheme of things, positively harmless – to see Tom and Meg back together again for one last onscreen dance?