Elizabeth Sankey's warts-and-all deep dive into her favourite film genre offers fair analysis and accessible insight
One thing’s for sure: romantic comedies ain’t what they used to be. But is that such a bad thing? Elizabeth Sankey‘s fun and fair documentary, Romantic Comedy, casts an adoring eye over this ailing genre from the perspective of somebody who grew up fantasising about kisses in the rain and white weddings, but now stands unafraid to question the tired tropes and conventions.
This is another film in the “video essay” style, similar to Charlie Lyne’s Beyond Clueless, which took a like-minded – but perhaps less compelling – look at teen movies and perhaps even inspired this one. It takes a certain type of viewer to sit through an essay film, and that type will likely have considered many of the points raised here of their own accord, though Sankey’s film – comprised of well-placed clips from dozens of movies, both iconic and lesser known – strikes a nice balance between breezy and analytical.
In passionate voiceover, Sankey, aided by numerous contributors, takes us through the life and times of the genre, from its screwball beginnings (His Girl Friday) to its heyday in the 80s and 90s (When Harry Met Sally) to its eventual failure to get with modern times. At the core of Romantic Comedy, an internal battle rages between Sankey’s affection and attraction to these films, in spite of their many flaws. She recognises their less than flattering depictions of women and a lack of diversity, but can’t help finding comfort in them anyway.
What you take away most, perhaps, is how far this once irresistible genre has fallen. Having “peaked” in the 90s (depending on your view), the rom-com has struggled to adapt to the changing times. Is it simply that the genre is unable to survive in a new world because it is less acceptable to resort to stereotypes and archetypes? Has PC culture crippled a genre that once relied on broad and sanitised depictions of romantic love? Do we need to take rom-coms seriously at all? Sankey approaches these questions with intelligence, even if the answers don’t come so easily.
Where the big studios are failing to sell the rom-com to audiences en masse, Netflix is picking up the slack with their own forays in the genre. Though these films vary in quality, their success proves there is still an audience for these films – with or without big stars attached. Maybe there is a way back. Sankey’s most astute observation suggests that by adjusting our definition of what constitutes a romantic comedy there might be a brighter, more progressive future ahead.
Romantic Comedy is now streaming on MUBI.Where to watch online