The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
In many ways, the romantic comedy genre has always had a knack for reflecting the so-called mainstream. It’s a forever popular genre that has frequently been able to produce movies that make bank at the box office regardless of what reviewers might say. Films such as How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days or the Katherine Heigl/Gerard Butler vehicle The Ugly Truth were met with vitriolic reviews in some quarters, but it didn’t stop audiences from flocking to see them and the films themselves netting a nice little profit for their studios.
As Hollywood and the film and television industries moved ever more into the world of streaming, inevitably a lot of the most popular genres went with them, and especially with the influx of Netflix and the amount of ‘content’ that they are releasing on a near-daily basis, it sometimes feels as if we get numerous pieces of each genre every week. You can’t move through the new releases section of the famed streaming service without seeing ten new teen dramas, ten new fantasy television series based on YA material and, inevitably, ten new romantic comedies.
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Despite the streaming service’s popular reputation (or not so popular given that they wield the axe on television shows that appear to be audience favourites), these films can vary in tone, style and production values. Sure enough, some of these films are bought from Hollywood studios looking to pass them on in fears of not getting great box office, and others are produced by Netflix themselves and range from slick-looking products to something approaching a Hallmark television movie (hello there, the influx of Christmas movies that come round once a year).
Released in 2019, Always Be My Maybe was indicative of not only a sea change in how we were receiving new movies and television series but also in how mainstream audiences were finally demanding greater diversity in what we watched. To go through a list of romantic comedies is to see a lot of great looking people adorning their posters, but it’s also hard to shake the feeling that the majority of the casts of these films, especially the leads, are white: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Matthew McConaughey, amongst many, many others.
Sure, some films did manage to break through that weren’t strictly white: Boomerang was a major hit in 1992, but come to the latter stages of the 2010s and into the 2020s, and there was a change in the air that was long-awaited. Better yet, what a film like Always Be My Maybe (or the previous year’s box office smash Crazy Rich Asians) did was tell their stories through the prism of non-white characters and put them into stories that still revelled in established genre tropes.
Crazy Rich Asians was the oft-told tale of meeting your fiance’s parents and the problems that ensue. That it also has scenes featuring the making of dumplings, and a pivotal scene involving a game of mahjong made it feel unique and different, not to mention truly wonderful. It was pivotal in proving that a film with a majority of its cast being non-white could be a box office success, and two sequels are currently in production.
Strangely enough, Crazy Rich Asians starred Constance Wu from the wonderful sitcom Fresh off the Boat and a year later her co-star on that series Randall Park would be the male lead and co-writer of Always Be My Maybe opposite Ali Wong, the film’s other co-writer, while its director was Nahnatchka Khan, the creator of Fresh off the Boat. Where Crazy Rich Asians played in a story involving a wedding and impressing the potential in-laws and the myriad dramas that came with it, Always Be My Maybe owed something of a debt to When Harry Met Sally and all those ‘friends learning they love each other, really’ narratives.
That it would throw in a splendid cameo appearance from Keanu Reeves being a genuinely comedic genius was the icing on the cake, but the film’s core strength was in the central relationship at the heart of it. With a script co-written by its two stars, the film honestly offers nothing new in terms of its plot, but its emphasis on Asian characters and culture offers so much that is new and different in terms of what is actually being put on screen is the characters it’s telling the story through.
After decades of affluent white people struggling with their journalistic jobs or ‘oh no, I’m privileged but I’ve never found love’ stories, productions such as this were either offering these types of stories from a new perspective or doing something new in general. The push towards diversity was starting the give the genre a new outlook and a new way to tell its stories, but also in making the careers of actors and actress such as Wong, Park and Crazy Rich Asians’ Constance Wu and Henry Golding, a new generation of stars to centre these films around.
Golding would go on to star in the commercially popular Last Christmas, while Park’s comedic talents got a glorious work-out as one of the leads in the recent WandaVision. Admittedly there is still a touch of heteronormative storytelling going on here, but even there one can see change starting to come into the fray; the recent teen rom-com Love, Simon featured a gay male lead finding love in a genre that frequently panders to heterosexual audiences and characters, while also playing in a story with many rom-com tropes as well as those to be found in teen comedies, while Booksmart also pushed forward representation in terms of LGBTQ+ characters finding themselves amongst a sea of romantic comedic scenarios.
As for Always Be My Maybe, the film found a large audience on Netflix. Say what you want about the streaming service (and I certainly have, given the amount of favourite television series that have been cancelled by them recently), but there has been a push towards more diverse casting in films that have been the domain of white people for decades.
A film like the one Wong and Park have co-written here eloquently deals with the Asian-American experience, but it also gets to enjoy their considerable screen chemistry and the ins and outs of an entangled plot that keeps them apart until the final act and the always lovely inclusion of a feel-good ending. That it gets to have this amount of fun with a cameoing Keanu Reeves fully subverting his now-famous John Wick persona is a hoot (and who also got to appear in his own rom-com recently alongside Winona Ryder in Destination Wedding).
A film like this (and Crazy Rich Asians) has given new life to the genre, and one a world away from the middling efforts from the type of film that McConaughey made bank on in the middle of the 2000s. In many respects, there might not be anything new here in terms of the basic bones of the story, but there is a lot that is still fresh and original and when it’s not only putting on-screen races and cultures that have otherwise been underserved but giving clout and a higher profile to talents such as Ali Wong and Randall Park, that can only be a great thing.