Sex Is Funny. Love Is Funny. So Where Are All Our Great Romantic Comedies?

Photo: ©Orion Pictures Corp

I saw Bull Durham this weekend. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a comedy from 1988 about minor-league baseball and sex. I’m sure plenty of people have sung its praises as a baseball movie, but I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the sex. Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner end the movie with a long sex sequence that is hot, loving, funny, healing, and somehow — incredibly — moves the story forward. The magic in the sex scenes is not that the two characters are always perfectly equal (because where is the fun in that?); it’s that the power shifts equally between them. It’s a fluid, joyful battle where losing seems as much fun as winning. Neither character is a virgin. Neither character is a vampire. Neither character is even drunk. Both characters have been dying to have sex with each other the whole movie, and both characters are good at sex. They are not awkward or scared. They are just two adults who want each other. I realized, watching it, that it had been a long time since I’d seen a comedy with two characters having great sex. Why are almost no comedies made anymore where the driving life force of the story is the desire two adults have for each other?

Fine: I guess I am talking about “romantic comedy.” Although, for most people, that term brings to mind a wash of pastels, pretty faces, and soft, safe jokes that aren’t actually that funny. “Romantic comedy” has been pronounced dead, and right now, it’s almost impossible to get those kinds of movies made. It’s not just the studios — actors don’t want to be in them, and directors don’t want to direct them. And the fans have retreated to the shadows, left to piece together what they need on television or in dramas. I am one of these fans. My favorite movies have always been love stories. Even if a movie is about many things, it’s the love story that I remember. I saw Mad Max, and of course, I was stunned by the action sequences, the production design, the lean, effective storytelling, and that’s probably what I’d talk about at a dinner party. But honestly, my favorite part of that movie was the love story. For me, Mad Max is the story of two broken, incredible people falling in love, and if you get me drunk enough, I might even argue that Mad Max was one of the best love stories that came out last year.

The problem with talking about “romantic comedy” is the word “romance.” I’m not exactly sure what that word means — it’s been invaded and colonized and sanitized, until it has come to represent something a married couple might do on their anniversary to mix it up a little, and look, I understand that’s not what people want to see in a movie. I’m talking about desire. I wish we could rename the genre. “Desire comedies”? “Erotic comedies”? Although the word “erotic” sounds like something said by a sex therapist sitting on a floor mat drinking orange juice and holding an enormous dildo. So, let’s forget that, and just talk about desire.

A great romantic comedy is driven by two characters who want each other, in spite of themselves. Maybe they end up together at the end and maybe they don’t, the important thing is that they want to have sex with each other. Desire isn’t necessarily cute or sweet. Desire is sometimes a dragon that needs to be slayed, and it can push a character to the dizzy, insane places where the best comedy lives. A great romantic comedy is hot. (I refuse to say “sexy.” I refuse.) We don’t need to see the characters go as far as they do in Bull Durham, although I have nothing against it. The most important thing is chemistry between the stars, and that has nothing to do with the amount of actual sex the characters have.

Think about Henry Fonda fumbling with Barbara Stanwyck’s shoes in The Lady Eve, or the way Tony Curtis looks at Marilyn Monroe for the first time in Some Like It Hot. What about Grace Kelly and Cary Grant watching fireworks in To Catch a Thief, or that flimsy sheet dividing Clark Gable from Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night? Let’s throw in every time Cary Grant looks at Katharine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in the elevator in the beginning of Barefoot in the Park, and what about Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in, possibly my favorite romantic comedy of all time, Two for the Road? Think about Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd going over those depositions in Clueless, or the endless conversations between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the Before trilogy, or Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg in Two Days in Paris, or Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson in Top Five. Those are hot conversations! They are having sex with words! Am I embarrassing myself? Sex scenes or no sex scenes, good romantic comedy is hot romantic comedy. (I could write a whole other essay about the way male movie stars used to look at their female co-stars with this mixture of awe and longing, and how I much I miss those looks in films these days, but I will spare you.)

Right now, studios are making buddy comedies or ensemble comedies, where two or more people of the same gender become friends and solve some problem together. Maybe there’s a love story thrown in, but it’s always an afterthought. In the relatively recent buddy comedy The Heat, Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock unapologetically broke into that genre, which has been, for the most part, monopolized by men. The decision to not give either character a love-interest subplot was gutsy and in its own particular way, revolutionary. And audiences ate it up.

When I first started working in Hollywood about eight years ago, an executive in a meeting said to me, point blank, that “a female actress can’t open a movie by herself.” I want to go out on a limb and say that we’ve never had as many insanely gifted female comedy stars making movies than we do right now, and their movies make money. Bridesmaids changed the market — and now female comedians are given the opportunity to make movies that have nothing to do with love. Which is why I think actresses have started to perceive romantic comedies as a step back. After all, if we don’t think of romantic comedies as real comedies, why would a funny actress want to make one? Why wouldn’t she make a movie that’s actually funny? But then again, why should we assume the two are mutually exclusive in the first place?

I had a great time watching the remake of Ghostbusters, but I found it telling that it left out the love story. To me, that electric chemistry between Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver was one of the best parts, if not the best part, of the original film. (Bill Murray is such an amazing romantic-comedy actor, and I think that gets lost among his other remarkable achievements in comedy.) In the original Ghostbusters, Murray and Weaver were so well-matched — funny, smart, vulnerable, damaged, equally invested in the busting of ghosts — that it brought real-world stakes to what was ultimately a fantasy story. Like I said, I’m not faulting the remake for leaving that part out, I just think it’s interesting that they did. Again, it seems like the studio or the filmmakers or the actors or all of the above had no interest in a love subplot, and that’s just where we are right now.

A lot of this might have to do with the film industry’s increasing reliance on the global market to make a profit. Comedies don’t make as much money in foreign countries, because they don’t translate well. And add on top of that the difficulty of navigating the wide spectrum of cultural norms when it comes to sex and gender in different parts of the word — a car can be fast and furious everywhere, but if a woman is fast and furious, we may have a problem. (It would be fun to hear what Trainwreck was called in different countries.) Financially, the one thing that comedies have going for them is that they are populated by human beings, and human beings are generally cheaper to put in front of a camera than comic-book characters who can fly or cartoon rabbits who can talk. And because of the Sony hack, we know that actresses make less money than their male counterparts, so if you think about it, women are actually the cheapest option of what you can put in front of a camera these days. This is one of the reasons studios seem willing to take the occasional chance on a comedy, but there are few slots available.

This was spelled out to me very clearly in a meeting last year where an executive told me, in a very kind way, that the studio she worked for would consider making one “female R-rated comedy” a year, and if I wanted to, I could compete for that slot. She told me that she had no interest in romantic comedies, and if I wanted to write one of these female R-rated comedies, it should definitely be a buddy comedy or an ensemble comedy. I was grateful to her for being honest with me, because I’d been on her couch mumbling for ten minutes about wanting to write something involving a wedding. I asked her why she thought people weren’t going to see romantic comedies anymore, and she blamed the internet for changing the way young people are hooking up and removing all the obstacles to people getting together. I pointed out that anyone who has used the internet to try and have sex will tell you that it has probably created more obstacles than it has eliminated, but she said she also felt that there was a general fatigue with the genre. Based on ticket sales of recent romantic comedies, she’s right. (The notable exception being the wonderful Trainwreck. Why don’t we make a plan to talk about why that worked while we are drunkenly discussing the love story in Mad Max?) But ultimately, studio executives have not arbitrarily decided to stop making comedies about love — these are decisions that you are making by choosing not to go to these kinds of films in the theater.

And yet, chicken and the egg: If studios have stopped giving audiences any romantic comedies to go see, how do they know that audiences won’t go see them? And I’m not saying we shouldn’t continue to make buddy comedies and ensemble comedies with women that have nothing to do with love. I don’t think — gasp — all female comedy is a zero-sum game. The truth is I don’t even see romantic comedies as necessarily “female.” I’m just sad that romantic comedies seem to have completely gone off the radar, and now even romantic subplots are disappearing. Rom-heads are left with nothing but our Netflix accounts, our memories, and stolen pictures of Drake and Rihanna. (Please make the Drake and Rihanna movie. Please.) How do we get people’s attention? Should we organize a Rom-Con and dress up in costumes and freak out when Carey Mulligan signs our copy of Far From the Madding Crowd? Fine. I’m not psyched, but I’ll do it. Usually in the summer, we get at least one romantic comedy — GIVE US ONE! — but this summer, we were denied even the small comfort of a subplot. (Although I hear the sexual chemistry in Finding Dory was amazing, and I’m looking forward to checking it out.)

The idea that people are “tired” of funny stories about love is just not true. You might as well say that people are tired of stories. People might be tired of classically beautiful, straight white people talking about how stressed they are not to be married at 30. Fine. But we are human beings, and no amount of computer doodads are going to take away our primal need for sex and love, and no amount of computer doodads are going to make us not hilariously inept at finding it.

Here are some pitches to try and defibrillate: (1) More diversity, not just racial diversity, but sexual diversity, age diversity, body diversity, class diversity. How many different kinds of love stories have yet to be told by the major studios? Just as an example, it’s time for a studio to make a great gay romantic comedy. We need When Sally Met Sally. It will take guts, and everyone will assume it will fail, but with the right cast and the right script, it will prove everyone wrong and make money and oh, it will be beautiful. Tell love stories about the broken, the weird, the ugly, and the outsiders, and be honest. (2) Sex. Chemistry. Just because two actors are physically perfect and without body hair and in their 20s or 30s does not mean that they are hot together. I’m not trying to take jobs away from gorgeous people, but gorgeous plus gorgeous does not necessarily equal chemistry. And if the chemistry is there in a real way, the people will come. Build it. Build it. (3) Comedy. Just because a movie is about two people falling in love doesn’t mean it can’t be genuinely funny. Falling in love is one of the most hilarious things that can happen to a person. Don’t pull punches. (4) Go nuts. If romantic comedies are dead, what have you got to lose? If all audiences want are superhero movies, then what about a superhero romantic comedy? When Jessica Jones Met Deadpool? Tell a romantic comedy story backwards, tell it with music, tell it in a nonsense language, tell it with two actors who have animated, talking butts — sort of Look Who’s Talking, but instead of babies, it’s butts. I don’t know. Love will always be a great story no matter how you wrap it up and ship it. (5) British people. That’s just a personal request. Take it or leave it.

Thank you for your time. I will go back to writing television and trying to think of funny ideas for R-rated female ensemble comedies now. I just hope I can inspire someone more talented than me to write something beautiful and rush it into production, because I don’t think I can make it another summer without a love story that makes me laugh.

Where Are All the Great New Romantic Comedies?