Romantic Comedy: Review
In her new documentary, filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey breaks down the many complications and tropes in cinema’s most formulaic genre: the romantic comedy. The film is purely visual; a feature-length montage of clips from around 160 films, tracking the long history of the rom-com, from the classics of the ‘30s and ‘40s such as His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night, to later standouts like When Harry Met Sally, and modern pictures such as (500) Days of Summer and Crazy, Stupid, Love that take a more self-aware stance to the genre.
Romantic Comedy is essentially one big video essay, that will likely appeal to viewers of YouTube channels such as Every Frame A Painting, Now You See It and Lessons From The Screenplay, all of which tackle film form in one way or another, but what makes Sankey’s essay stand out is her personal slant. Sankey is simply detailing how the genre has affected her over the years, as is every other contributor who narrates along with her, in a structure that does away with the idea of talking heads in favour of putting the subject out there for its audience to see.
It’s clear that Sankey has specifically picked a variety of contributors from various backgrounds, with different races, genders and sexualities, so as to fully determine the impact these films have on every type of viewer, but not being able to physically see them sadly defeats the object. The various narrators all blend into one in an admittedly natural way, but the clear aim of offering the audience a wide array of differing perspectives gets lost.
This is not to say the structure Sankey has opted for doesn’t have its upsides. It’s certainly effective in grabbing the viewer’s attention and forcing them to re-evaluate their own memories of these films, be it in a positive or negative way (Sankey invites you to do both).
However, the slightly misjudged narration is sadly not the only issue with this puzzling documentary. Sankey offers many examples in Romantic Comedy that, for anybody who has seen the films she is discussing, have clearly been taken out of context to assert her point. It’s all very well cherry-picking a scene to demonstrate that a character presents as possessive or psychopathic, for example, but that loses meaning when the film that scene is taken from is actually a satirical look at exactly that. It’s unfair and inaccurate to criticize a film for being problematic, when the whole point of that film was to demonstrate precisely how problematic rom-coms really are. Case studies such as this give the film a very manipulative feel.
The film’s primary failing is that it just feels completely irrelevant and outdated. The great many issues present in romantic comedies have been talked about in great detail, to the point where the only films that find success these days are the ones that satirize them, such as Ruby Sparks and Isn’t It Romantic?, or ones that are a little more diverse and/or progressive, such as Crazy Rich Asians, The Big Sick and Love, Simon. The old-fashioned idea of a ‘rom-com’ isn’t really a thing anymore.
Perhaps Romantic Comedy would have made more of an impact twenty years ago, but in 2019 it just seems to be stating the obvious for much of its run-time. It’s hard to think of a single point Sankey makes that one could call ‘groundbreaking’.
In spite of these fundamental flaws, it should be noted that there is still plenty to like about the film. Sankey’s script is very well-articulated, researched, witty and often humorous. It’s her personal stance that gives the documentary its edge, precisely because it is clearly coming from someone with a clear love for the genre, despite its failings.
This is perhaps the most pleasant surprise about Romantic Comedy. This is anything but an attack on the popular genre, but rather a celebration of it, addressing why they still appeal to all of us, what they actually do right and what they can improve on in the future. Above all else, the film is productive. Sankey proudly states how much she adores the films, in spite of her now matured mind telling her otherwise. She’s happy with the history being the way it is, but she wants them to do better in the future; to become less problematic and more inclusive.
This isn’t a film that could’ve possibly been made by anyone who didn’t have a clear passion for the subject, and that’s undoubtedly the charm of it. Sankey’s love of the rom-com is ever-present, and it’s precisely that that makes her worth listening to.
If anything, Sankey is optimistic about the future, describing I Love You, Man as a film that uses the rom-com formula to tell the story of a platonic relationship, and citing films such as How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Saving Face as films that aim to be more inclusive, but simply need to find their audience.
Romantic Comedy is a problematic documentary that feels in many ways irrelevant, perhaps best viewed simply by film students for educational purposes, but it’s still an entertaining and nostalgic look back into a genre that we all engage with, brought to us by a filmmaker who clearly cares very deeply about her subject matter.
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