A question for Valentine’s Day: when was Four Weddings and a Funeral released? To those of us who remember all the front page photos of Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley at the premiere, it seems like no time at all, but in fact Four Weddings has been around for a terrifying 20 years: it premiered at the Sundance Festival in January 1994, before being released in the United States that March.
Another question for Valentine’s Day: has any subsequent romantic comedy been funnier, more charming or more influential? A year earlier, there was Sleepless in Seattle, and a few years before that there was When Harry Met Sally. But in the two decades since then, the pool of contenders appears to have evaporated. Has any recent rom-com turned its leading man into a superstar and its screenwriter into a brand, as Four Weddings did for Grant and Richard Curtis? Has any theme song rivalled Wet Wet Wet’s Love Is All Around, which topped the British singles chart for 15 weeks? For that matter, will any modern rom-com be fondly remembered 20 years after it was made?
“The good romantic comedy seems to be an endangered genre,” sighs Angie Errigo, co-author of Chick Flicks: A Girl’s Guide to the Movies Women Love. “I was looking through a list of the top 100 films at the box office in 2013 and there was not one I would unhesitatingly call a romantic comedy. [2012’s] Silver Linings Playbook was marketed as one, but, given the mental illness aspect, it was decidedly something else besides. Is Her a romantic comedy? Is Don Jon? The Perks of Being a Wallflower? I’m struggling to think of the last proper hit rom-com.”
Dr Stacey Abbott, the co-editor of Falling in Love Again: Romantic Comedy in Contemporary Cinema, agrees that the genre isn’t what it used to be. “If I had to choose my favourite romantic comedies of the past 20 years, I suppose I would list Something’s Gotta Give, As Good as It Gets, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” she says, “but they were all made over a decade ago. That could be for a number of reasons. The actors who starred in comedies then, such as Sandra Bullock, Ben Stiller, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Hanks, are turning to more dramatic roles now. I would also say that genres always go in cycles. Clearly the 1990s and early 2000s were a very good period for romantic comedies, but Hollywood is having great success with different forms of comedy now.”
What seems to have happened is that rather than attempting to appeal to both genders and all ages, Hollywood is squeezing its romantic comedies into ever-smaller niches. One the one hand, we have the likes of Failure to Launch (2006), Licence to Wed (2007) and 27 Dresses (2008): contrived, high-concept comedies, usually starring Katherine Heigl, Kate Hudson or Sarah Jessica Parker, and usually more concerned with designer clothes than with true love. These are aimed squarely at women: a film called 27 Dresses was never going to get men queuing ‘round the block. On the other hand, we have Judd Apatow’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007), which set off a wave of looser, more masculine, and much, much ruder comedies. In terms of game-changing impact, Knocked Up may be the most significant rom-com since Four Weddings. But its main legacy is the establishment of the ‘bromance’, a storyline about an intense platonic male friendship. Bromance movies now have their female equivalents, such as Bridesmaids (2011), but the same rule applies: the romantic intrigue is consigned to a subplot, while the central relationship is between two best buddies.
Unsatisfying as these films may be to those of us who yearn for a romantic comedy in the vein of Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch, they may serve a purpose. “Instead of thinking of the genre as being on the wane,” says Dr Deborah Jermyn, co-editor of Falling in Love Again, “perhaps we might think of it as going through another period of transformation, as it has to do. The emergence of the ‘bromance’ is key here, of course, but one of the other shifts in the genre is the growth of rom-coms which have older protagonists, like Something’s Gotta Give, Mamma Mia!, Last Chance Harvey, It’s Complicated and Enough Said. There seems to be a steady trickle of films which are putting a new spin on the genre by looking at love the second time around.”
Romantic comedies about senior citizens (rheumatic comedies, perhaps?) aren’t the only innovations of the past decade. “The traditional rom-com, with the poster of the boy and girl standing back to back, and the rush to the airport at the end ... that has become quite limited,” says Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald, author of Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. “But I think Hollywood has been trying lots of new things. For instance, there’s something I call the ‘homme-com’, which is like a conventional rom-com, but male-centric. Along Came Polly, The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Wedding Crashers are all examples. Then you’ve got What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which is a romantic comedy with babies, Warm Bodies, which is a romantic comedy with zombies, and We’re The Millers, which is a romantic comedy that’s also a road movie, a drug movie and a movie about finding a new family.
“I also think that when the mass media says that the genre is dead, they’re forgetting that a lot of American romantic comedies are doing extremely well at the box office. But they’re the ones with black casts: The Best Man Holiday, Excess Baggage and Think Like a Man, for instance. It’s really quite an exciting time because everything is in flux. And we’re possibly just on the cusp of having the next great romantic comedy.”
Maybe so. But there is another explanation for the recent dearth of classic rom-coms. It could simply be that 21st Century audiences are too cynical for them. In January, That Awkward Moment revolved around a typically commitment-phobic hero (Zac Efron) being tempted towards monogamy by a typically luminous heroine (Imogen Poots). But in this instance, the hero’s grand, sentimental gesture isn’t asking the heroine to marry him, or to move in with him or even to embark on a steady relationship. No, in That Awkward Moment, the best the hero can do is to acknowledge that he and the heroine are ‘dating’. Sometimes, Four Weddings and a Funeral doesn’t seem as if it came out 20 years ago, but 200.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.