By the late 1990s, rom-coms were ubiquitous—they were cheap, popular, and easy to make—so a decade later, the well began to run dry. Hollywood’s long refusal, with few exceptions, to show anything other than monoracial meet-cutes between people who are overwhelmingly white has made these films increasingly hard to sell to foreign markets. With no reason to put them in 3D or to market them to kids, and with the increasing acceptance of the idea that “chick flicks” are still rooted in a cultural fantasy that isn’t relevant in a post-industrial age, rom-coms barely exist anymore.
Which is actually a little sad. Because in the 2000s, the presumed rigidity of the rom-com format was getting an overhaul. And not just with movies like Imagine Me & You, which featured same-sex sexuality, but with movies that began to make inroads into challenging the sexist assumptions that sat at the foundation of the rom-com formula.
That seachange, however small, was cut off at the knees as the industry rapidly turned away from rom-coms; consequently, rom-coms have disappeared with a whimper, not a bang. Over the past five years a series of book adaptations, high-concept ideas, and ill-thought-out pairings have undercut the few Western rom-coms that are still made, most of them tasting like questionable leftovers some movie exec found at the back of the office fridge.
Here, in detail so that you may avoid them, are the 10 worst.
Director: Robert Luketic
Jen (Katherine Heigl), a neurotic risk-adverse calculator, takes a trip to Nice (France) with her parents (Catherine O’Hara and Tom Selleck) and meets Spencer (Ashton Kutcher). Spencer is supposed to be handsome just like Kutcher is supposed to be handsome; he’s also an elite assassin. Fortunately for ‘shippers of calculator/assassin love, Spencer hands in his resignation to his boss-assin (Martin Mull). Mull tells him he will regret this betrayal. Jen is none the wiser.
The movie then asks us to accept several suspect assertions about elite assassins. First, that they are willing to wait three years to pull off a single revenge hit by elaborately inserting sleeper agents into every aspect of Jen and Spencer’s “normal,” suburban life. Second, elite assassins will try to pull off the hit using hand-to-hand combat, heavy artillery, and loud explosions…rather than, say, a clandestine sniper rifle, or poison. Third, elite assassins are numerous enough that Spencer has never once crossed paths with the 85 people who, in the intervening three years, have become his friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and also that all 85 of these people are highly-trained undercover operatives who have never once given Spencer a reason to suspect a thing despite the fact that the moment the hit is called each and every single one of them starts carting heavy-duty rocket launchers all over the neighborhood. Fourth, elite assassins are frivolous enough that they’ll do all of this simply because Jen’s ex-assassin dad thought Spencer was still in the business. Which only works if we accept that all of these sleeper agents were long-embedded just in case Spencer’s father-in-law offered a bounty on him, but also just insecure enough that none of them could have reported to anybody that mattered that in three years of surveillance it really did seem like Spencer had stopped killing people for a living.
None of which makes a lick of sense, so Killers’ resolution forces Selleck to a) kill the remaining assassins he sent after Spencer, and b) stroke his mustache and be all “once you started killing the assassins I hired to kill you, Spencer, my suspicions that you were still assassinating people were confirmed. Sorry ‘bout that. Your refusal to kill me has convinced me that you are not still assassinating people.” Look: if I were an ex-assassin who wanted to assassinate my assassin son-in-law to protect my daughter, I’d probably just take him fishing and kill him myself, is all I’m saying; I wouldn’t hire rocket launcher-toting morons with the aim of a meteor shower.
This movie is a vampire; it manages to suck the life not just out of Catherine O’Hara, but also supporting players and professional funny people like Casey Wilson, Rob Riggle, Alex Borstein, and Kevin Sussman. Heigl and Kutcher have zero chemistry; they seem Photoshopped together, like they’re acting in different rooms—just like they look actually Photoshopped together on the movie poster. And say what you will about Heigl’s career choices, she’s not usually this boring. Kutcher comes off slightly better, but that’s to be expected since Heigl is stuck playing the character that needs to learn to accept that some risk is worth the trouble: “Thanks, husband/secret assassin and dad/secret assassin! You’ve really taught me how to live! This unborn child I’m just about to reveal to you has also given my life purpose.” Sigh.
2. Leap Year
Director: Anand Tucker
Leap Year is part of a rom-com subgenre where smart, independent, middle-class women travel from the city to some rural place only to be confounded by the working-class sensibilities of the men they are destined to fall in love with. It totally isn’t relevant that these men have perfect dentistry and successful businesses and aristocratic chins; it is their love of the simple things in life that is the antidote to the uptight, capitalist, superficial urges of the women in these films. Because Hollywood hates capitalism, y’all!
Anna (Amy Adams), upset that her boyfriend Jeremy (Adam Scott) has never put a ring on it, travels to Dublin to propose, planning to invoke an Irish tradition that says a man must accept a woman’s proposal on the 29th of February. Due to weather, her plane is rerouted to Cork and she ends up meeting Declan (Matthew Goode), with whom she is clearly going to fall in love. But first! We’re treated to an hour of the two of them arguing over a bunch of boring shit. Sometimes literally.
Leap Year glosses over the same contradiction most films in this subgenre gloss over: they want to portray cities as spaces where women can be modern and independent and the country as a space where women are all barefoot and pregnant, but they simultaneously want to invoke the charms of working-class life, a class status where by definition women traditionally have had to work. So you get this weird, uncomfortable mixture: the country becomes an outdated fantasy of the 1950s suburban middle-class where gender roles mean something—like, in terms of the sexual division of labor—but the people are authentic and real in a way that people from the city aren’t. Because…Jeffersonian Democracy is still meaningful, I guess?
When women star in these films, this elision is more severe. In the Doc Hollywoods of the world, the male leads are typically supposed to learn family values in addition to the male-coded traits (ambition, work ethic) they already possess. In the Leap Years of the world, the female leads are normally asked to fundamentally change their entire personalities. The sort-of exception to this, Sweet Home Alabama, largely works because Reese Witherspoon’s character isn’t being taught a lesson, and also because the selfish nature of both the Alabama and New York characters intervenes in the above contradiction. Leap Year steers into the skid of that contradiction, assuming that the funniest possible thing in the world is an uptight American woman stepping in cow shit.
Plus? 2010 wasn’t even a leap year. Poor marketing synergy!
3. Friends With Benefits
Director: Will Gluck
The most profound thing I have to say about this movie is that I have so little to say about it. It leaves very little impression. It’s the color tan. Mild cheddar. A unicorn without a horn. For all its effort at possessing pizazz, it reeks of ennui. Director Will Gluck isn’t quite a Baby Boomer, I don’t think, but Friends With Benefits feels like a Baby Boomer talking about the Internet. This is a movie about two incredibly attractive people who spend a lot of time being boring together while working high-powered jobs and living in palatial Manhattan apartments. Jamie (Kunis) recruits Dylan (Justin Timberlake) for a job at GQ; most of the movie is an unnecessary tourism ad for the same six places in Manhattan that you already know exist through Hollywood osmosis, plus flash mobs; they decide to have casual sex; feelings develop; Jamie overhears Dylan lying to his sister that he doesn’t have feelings; Dylan organizes a flash mob to apologize.
Here’s the real kicker: both Kunis and Timberlake normally have an edge to their ample charm. But somehow that edge is completely sanded off here, as if “fuck-buddy” was such a scandalous subject matter that somebody decided the two characters should be genial milquetoasts. It’s really strange, because “edge” was the thing most celebrated about Gluck’s Easy A, which was itself an epic improvement in terms of focusing the scattered edginess that defined his debut, Fired Up! Friends With Benefits, outside of the glossy shooting locations and cast, feels like the straight-to-video version of the other 2011 fuck-buddy film, No Strings Attached, which I suspect will be the only time ever I rate an Ashton Kutcher film higher than a Mila Kunis film.