10 rom-coms that aren’t as romantic as they used to be
When we think about the films that have warmed our hearts and made us believe in true love, it’s hard to ignore the powerful hold that romantic comedies have had on us over the years. These movies, most of them drawn from the past two decades, tend to feature beautiful people saying swoon-worthy things to each other that always get the right reaction and move the story forward so the lovebirds can kiss before the credits roll.
Why were we unable to see how unlikely these scenarios were? What are the odds that you’d actually meet your soulmate in a bookstore, department store, wedding, or mansion on Long Island? What are the odds that you’d meet one at all? These movies affirmed the idea that “there’s someone out there for everyone,” that you’ll “find them when you least expect it” or “when you stop looking for it.” But can these things really happen when Julia Roberts isn’t around?
Let’s have a look, but get ready for some mental gymnastics ⏤ you’ll need them to swallow these improbable narratives we used to gush over. Right on time for Valentine’s Day, here are 10 rom-coms that just don’t hold up as well as they used to.
In Shopgirl, Steve Martin plays Ray Porter, a wealthy businessman of a certain age who develops a crush on Mirabelle, the titular shopgirl. He finds out where she lives and leaves a note, asking her out. The problem is, it works. Stalking as a means to an end has never been acceptable behavior, and yet Mirabelle accepts it. Here’s a tip, ladies: when the rich guy starts buying you beautiful things to wear, he’s not buying them for you.
The plot thickens when Mirabelle meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) at a laundromat. She agrees to go out with him despite him being a total stranger. We find ourselves rooting against Ray and for Jeremy. Even though he’s an oaf, he’s a cute oaf, and he cleans up his act. But his big romantic gesture comes in the form of showing up at an art opening looking like he’s maybe figured some things out. Then he promptly sleeps with Mirabelle’s beautiful, blonde, alluring friend. Good plotting!
Now, let’s be realistic. Any one of the activities Mirabelle engages in with these men could get her killed. This is L.A., for heaven’s sake. Then again, maybe it’s possible to listen to too many murder podcasts. (And maybe hot emo band guys really do listen to audiobooks about how women want to be treated.) Jeremy and Mirabelle do end up together, so we’re just supposed to overlook the fact that he slept with her friend from the mall. Dudes: it is never okay to figure out where a girl lives and then leave a gift at her door. Women: do not go to the second location. Shopgirl contains some valuable life lessons, if not the ones we originally picked up on.
Notting Hill (1999)
Here is the rare rom-com that did actual harm to the people who graciously consented to the intrusion of a film crew: the residents of London’s charming Notting Hill district. Thanks in large part to the movie’s popularity, the gentrification of its set shifted into high gear during the 2000s, making Notting Hill too expensive for the quirky characters and shops that give the movie its backdrop. With produce stands, tattoo parlors, hairdressers, antiques, friends, restaurants, and gangly characters called Spike all within walking distance, who wouldn’t want to live there?
Well, forget about it. The movie itself is another money-can’t-buy-me-love scenario featuring a highly successful woman who feels incomplete without a relationship. On the run from rabid paparazzi, movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) encounters shy, handsome, unsuccessful bookstore owner William Thacker. Naturally, two people blessed with such great looks set to flirting, swooning, and bonking. Just as naturally, things go awry when Scott has to contend with the merging of her famous life with the lower-key one she desires, not to mention an eruption of revenge porn ⏤ old nudie photos that are “horrible! And so grainy!”
In the end, the girl gets the guy even though she forgot to tell said guy that she had a boyfriend. She even invited him up to her hotel room while her boyfriend was there, but let’s not be sticklers for details. A skillfully made movie, you could say Notting Hill is loosely tethered to life on this planet. Just remember to check your disbelief at the door.
The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996)
Way back when, The Truth About Cats and Dogs was an easy movie to love, and so were its two stars, Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman. Now, however, it feels like a full-on assault on intellectualism. Noelle (Thurman) is spectacularly goofy. Her odd face and lithe blondeness is made for male fantasies, and she gets all her ideas from magazines. When Abby, her shorter, less lissome neighbor, tells off Noelle’s abusive boyfriend, a friendship blooms.
Garofalo as Abby the radio veterinarian is not unattractive, so the filmmakers make her lumber around next to Thurman with overdrawn lips and baggy clothes. The absurd plot involves handsome photographer Brian (Ben Chaplin) falling for Abby while thinking she inhabits the body of Noelle ⏤ a clever idea to set in 17th century Paris, albeit completely implausible. Brian continues to pursue Noelle, even after a 7-hour phone call with Abby. How would that work? He does get to meet Noelle’s “roommate” Abby, who is introduced to him as “Donna,” but talking to her doesn’t seem to raise any alarms.
When Brian gets hip to the deception, he gives up on both of them. By the time Abby is able to summon the courage to explain to Brian and apologize, the gods behind the camera de-ugg her, hearts and flowers rule, and viewers search for lost neural pathways. Abby thought she had a face for radio, and she underestimated Brian. The movie underestimated its audience. How dare you, movie.
In Serendipity, John Cusack’s Jonathan Trager meets Kate Beckinsale’s Sara Thomas in a department store when they are both trying to buy the same pair of gloves, each for their significant other. They end up spending the afternoon together and Jonathan is clearly taken with Sara. They go their separate ways, however, and years of mutual pining ensue, as they never forget each other. The time of reckoning arrives when Jonathan and Sara are about to marry the same partners they’ve had all along, setting into motion the unlikeliest of unlikely events as they nearly cross paths several times. One might think of this as fate and perhaps move on. But these two persevere, and continue to seek out one another.
The premise of this film raises the question: if these two are already committed to someone, why do they stray so readily and easily? The entire plot revolves around fate, but if they were meant to be together, would it be so hard to find each other? And would you trust someone who relentlessly sought out someone else while simultaneously planning your engagement and wedding? They do find each other, meaning that while some hearts are happy, others are broken, people are hurt, but oh well! Anything worth having is worth lying about, sneaking around over, and wasting the talent of Eugene Levy for.
The Wedding Singer (1998)
Drew Barrymore plays Julia Sullivan, the affianced to Glenn Guglia, played by Matthew Glave. When Glenn is too busy to help her plan the wedding, Julia enlists the help of a wedding singer, Robbie Hart, played by Adam Sandler. The first problem that lurches into view is the cruelty this movie visits on its transgender characters. It takes place in the ’80s and movies could still slide by on these issues in the late ’90s, but today it is certainly not acceptable.
The movie’s second problem concerns the intergenerational butt-squeezing scene. If this one doesn’t make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, congratulate yourself on a strong stomach. We do get to enjoy the reboot of ’80s fashion and music, including a delightful scene in a nightclub called Spanky’s where Patrick Nagel prints don the walls. The ’80s vibe cranks to full throb near the end, when Billy Idol, of all people, comes to the rescue. Just ask yourself: if Billy Idol can’t save the day, is it really worth saving?
The Holiday (2006)
When The Holiday begins, Amanda Woods (Cameron Diaz) has just been through a breakup and Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet) has just found out that her love interest is engaged to someone else. The two find themselves on a website where members can switch habitats for an agreed-upon length of time. The women chat briefly and decide to trade homes for the holidays. Amanda moves in to Iris’ cottage in London and Iris is delighted to relocate to Amanda’s palatial house in L.A. Immediately, Iris’ handsome brother, Graham (Jude Law) shows up at Amanda’s door and Miles (Jack Black) arrives at the home Iris is occupying. Graham and Amanda have a meeting of the minds (and lips) and Iris and Miles bond over an elderly neighbor with a touching story of his own.
Things miraculously work out well for all involved, but in real life, remember, there’s no such thing as a geographical cure. You can’t simply trade homes for a few weeks and watch your life spectacularly change all around you (right?). Similarly, is someone of Jude Law’s visual caliber seriously going to drunkenly arrive on your doorstep moments after you arrive? (How did he even get there in one piece if he was that drunk? Don’t drink and drive, kids!) There’s also the whole do-Winslet-and-Black-really-go-together thing, which the jury is still out on. Moral of the story, while a holiday swap would certainly be fun, the odds of finding your soulmate on the other side of the world within days of touching foreign soil are slim and unrealistic. Midnight fettuccine, on the other hand, can be enjoyed in any corner of the globe.
Sabrina doesn’t shy away from hauling out the classic ugly duckling trope, and if it’s not as egregious as, say, Grease, it’s problematic anyway. Shy, insecure Sabrina (Julia Ormond) is the daughter of the chauffeur for a wealthy family, the Larrabees. She’s reached college age, so her father gets her a job with a friend of the Larrabees and ships her off to Paris, where her broken-bird quality makes everyone want to help her. She meets new people, discovers a yen for photography, and returns from Paris freshly coiffed and cosmopolitan, as people do.
The Larrabee men look up and take notice, adjusting their clothing. Sabrina naively steals the heart of David (Greg Kinnear), unfortunately scheduled to marry the daughter of another business clan, a merger of fleshly and financial convenience. David’s brother Linus (Harrison Ford) must intervene to save the day, so he deploys his low-key charm to romance Sabrina. He’s twice her age but he’s Harrison Ford, so what the hell?
The problem with this scenario, of course, is why, when all of the facts are staring Sabrina in the face, she is still nonplussed. She resorts to stalking ⏤ a recurring no-no on this list ⏤ as David romances a coterie of women through the years, often using dubious methods. Nonetheless, Sabrina still lusts after David despite his lack of nobility. We must sit patiently and see if the guy gets the girl. The right guy. And even that is questionable right up until the end.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Okay, look. It’s not easy adding this film to the list. When Harry Met Sally is precious and the characters enjoyable, but there are problems with some of the dialogue. You must admit that Sally, played by Meg Ryan, makes some valid points in the film. Men can become fathers at any age. For women of the ’80s, or maybe any era, turning 40 does feel like a huge dead end, particularly if you’ve not yet coupled, wed, and procreated. But do you have to marry your best friend because you accidentally slept with him in a moment of weakness while you were PMS-ing?
Let’s also take into account Carrie Fischer’s character, Marie. Doomed to perpetual side-chickism, she wanders through the film aimless, the recipient of constant unsolicited advice from the other characters. But when introduced to a suitable partner, Marie wastes no time, seizing the moment and riding off into the sunset with her new love interest, setting an example for our titular characters. Watch this film with a grain of salt. On the side.
My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
Probably the best representation of narcissism on this list, My Best Friend’s Wedding is still classified as a rom-com even if it’s thoroughly one-sided. Julia Roberts stars as the Julianne to Dermot Mulroney’s Michael. The two are best friends, and when Julianne gets word that Michael is getting married to Kimmy (Cameron Diaz), she does the sensible thing and puts all of her efforts into splitting them up. In her mind, Michael has always wanted her, and now she wants him more than ever. Her plans are foiled when Michael shows that he really does love Kimmy and that Julianne’s (crazy) efforts will not change that.
Even though Julianne and Michael don’t end up together, we walk away from the film thinking that maybe, hopefully, Julianne learned something about herself. Is she really in love with Michael, or just frustrated by her own inability to land the perfect man? She’s been content with not sharing her true feelings with him for years and, like a toddler, doesn’t want the toy until she sees someone else playing with it. My Best Friend’s Wedding ends up teaching us a powerful lesson about jealousy, which, in case you were wondering, doesn’t look great on anyone who is no longer a teenager.
Pillow Talk (1959)
Pillow Talk is a fun one, and Doris Day as Jan and Rock Hudson as Brad/Rex are absolutely luminous. But why is Jan so easily wooed and deceived? Why would an intelligent, successful woman fall for the charms of a man she despises and who despises her back? We suppose it’s because they’re both great-looking. Even after learning of his deception, our heroine is still able to reach a détente with Brad. She is dragged, kicking and screaming ⏤ literally ⏤ into romance. But it’s fun to watch, and she got to sing the theme song.
So what did we learn? English accents are appealing. It’s better to be short and smart than tall and not smart. Sometimes nice guys finish first, although you should probably wait ’til she finishes. If you’re thinking about her, she’s likely thinking about you. Declaring your feelings works every time. If you love something, stalk it, obsess over it, and manipulate it if necessary. Love is fickle, and if you realize you’re with the wrong person, just tell them. They will understand. Even if it’s your wedding day. The first edition of a book is the perfect gift. It makes you look intelligent. Intelligent is hot. You know, important life stuff.
We see you, rom-coms. Then again, we also see that fewer and fewer of you are getting made as the years go by. Maybe we’ve just become a bit jaded about the whole “true love” thing. Any idea why?