Chances are, at some point over the past few weeks-that-have-felt-like-months, you'll have considered sitting down to watch something fluffy and comforting - one of those films that remind us what it is to be close to another human being, or to meet a new person and feel your heart skip a beat. You'll find plentiful viewing suggestions of this kind in Elizabeth Sankey's new essay film Romantic Comedy: debuting on MUBI this week, here is a critical overview of recent developments in the titular form. Recent is the keyword. Though Sankey briefly casts an eye backwards over the established screwball canon, her chosen field of study is made up of those titles more commonly found on Netflix and the shelves of the Entertainment Exchange. So we revisit that late Eighties/early Nineties golden age, when Nora Ephron held sway, so bounteous for romcoms that even a classical example of the form like Ron Underwood's Speechless had to settle for a DTV release; and then bear witness to that mortifying dip in the Noughties, as established stars moved on, the studios retreated into sexless comic books, and the writers contracted to put any surviving romcoms together ran out of new and tenable ideas. Imagine getting your ideas about relationships from Failure to Launch, What's Your Number? or any of the Gerard Butler/Katherine Heigl vehicles that dragged their sorry behinds into the multiplex in the wake of 9/11. Sankey proceeds from the standpoint that we've all learnt a lot about love (more specifically, about attraction) from the movies, but equally - like Philip Larkin's mum and dad - that they can't half fuck us up. They may not mean to, but they do.
Romantic Comedy's strength is that capacity to see both sides of the equation: it's been compiled with obvious affection for this subgenre, but also a fan's frustration that real-life romantics haven't been better served by the creatives who spend a lot of time and get paid a whole lot of money to come up with these things. Sankey falls somewhere between aggrieved and sad at the fact romcoms aren't as critically respected as they once were, but she's perceptive enough to understand why, and the quarter-century that has elapsed since While You Were Sleeping gives her a considerable body of work to cherrypick while she and her interviewees set out their arguments. (Fully three-and-a-half minutes of the closing credits are devoted to listing the films excerpted.) Recurring tropes, both pleasurable and problematic, are identified: how these movies - oft overseen by men - have very strange ideas about women's bodies (consider the framing of Bridget Jones's fluctuating weight, or Sandra Bullock's ability to snack her way through the Miss Congeniality films without appearing to absorb any calories), how a certain screenwriting model turns these films' Prince Charmings into stalkers and predators, how the genre as a whole has routinely pushed minority groups to the margins, if not erased them altogether. (And don't get Sankey started on Film Twitter's eternal whipping boy Zach Braff, approached - via Garden State and The Last Kiss - as a phase pop culture had to pass through.)
The film makes a few omissions of its own. It views the romantic comedy as a predominantly English-language phenomenon (Kevin Kline's accent in French Kiss is as exotic as it gets), which means nothing of Christophe Honoré's Parisian bonbons or anything of Bollywood - and heaven alone knows Sankey could have found some questionable ideas to support her case there. And there are points where the film's sound and vision look themselves to be a little estranged - where the stock romcom visuals are no more than wallpaper, keeping the eye busy while we listen to the reading of a well-composed, well-spoken critical studies assignment. (Full disclosure: I count several of Sankey's interviewees as friends and colleagues, and their contributions are exactly why I count them as friends.) Still, either element would be enough in itself to engage the passing cinephile: the clips come to form the kind of scrapbook a fan might compose in their heads, while the commentary is an admirable attempt to take the romcom seriously again, the first step on the path to getting better films. In its final third, Romantic Comedy begins to address the positive changes Western filmmaking has been undergoing in recent years, allowing Sankey to throw out all manner of valuable home-viewing tips - you will likely emerge wanting to watch or rewatch 2008's I Love You, Man, which not enough people did at the time - while repopulating her images with those faces this genre hasn't spent anything like enough time adoring. Her own film loves widely and wholeheartedly, but not altogether blindly.
Romantic Comedy will be available to stream via MUBI UK from tomorrow.