Is the romantic comedy dying? In so many words, Mark Abraham recently asked this question, listing the 10 worst rom-coms of the last five years in order to demonstrate the sad state of the genre. While there’s no question that the more traditional of romantic comedies have noticeably suffered in quality since their early-2000s heyday, rom-coms aren’t comprehensively in decline.
All this means is that the typical, clichéd structure of romantic comedies may have reached its natural limits. So rom-coms have had to grow, to mutate and expand, finding new life by exploring new territory, daring to redefine what a romantic comedy can be. The genre isn’t dead; it’s just changed—because it had to.
Call this a rebuttal to Mark’s list—or maybe just an alternate timeline. Either way: here are the 10 best examples of the rom-com’s evolution since 2010.
10. Magic Mike
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Out of all the choices on this list, this movie actually does the least to play with the formula of the romantic comedy, except for having the main character work as a stripper instead of an architect or journalist or something like that. Most of the story, characters and themes have all been explored by other romantic comedies: Young, wild and free character believes nothing is missing from his or her life; later, this character meets a special someone, and suddenly begins to reconsider his or her priorities and/or lifestyle.
The movie really doesn’t have much to offer in terms of forging new ground for the rom-com genre, but Magic Mike is an absolute thrill from start to finish. The key is in exciting direction and strong performances from everyone involved, allowing a fairly generic love story—between Mike (Channing Tatum) and Brooke (Cody Horn)—to feel as though it’s giving us insight into largely uncovered ground. Matthew McConaughey deserves special attention for his fantastic work as Dallas, the sleazy but charming owner of the club where Mike works. Seriously one of his best roles, McConaughey is seductive even as you discover his true, sinister nature. Overall, Magic Mike is the product of a genre revitalized through a simple shifting of context.
9. Celeste and Jesse Forever
Director: Lee Toland Krieger
Played by Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg, respectively, Celeste and Jesse seem like a perfect rom-com couple. They’re best friends with endless inside jokes and a deep, genuine love for one another. Sounds familiar, right? It’s supposed to. Director Lee Toland Krieger knows what audiences have come to expect, and so the movie is deliberately set up to warp that typical perspective by having the couple decide to divorce. A relationship ending is obviously a rarity for romantic comedies, and watching this couple, who so comfortably fits into the archetype of rom-com duos, go through mundane, authentic struggles can be jarring, and, at times, even painful.
Celeste and Jesse do not fight and break up because of convoluted misunderstandings and heightened circumstances; they fall apart for the same reasons most relationships do: lack of honest communication and bad timing. Samberg and Jones deserve credit for bringing the right amount of humor and seriousness to their roles, convincing in both their affection for one another and their resistance to give into underlying tension. In all, the film and its ensemble masterfully deconstruct the rom-com by showing us two best friends who ostensibly find their Happily Ever After in each other, only to discover that Happily Ever After is never as easy as the movies make it seem.
8. Crazy, Stupid Love
Directors: John Requa, Glenn Ficarra
Romantic comedies tend to chronicle couples working their way towards marriage. Why? Because falling for someone is typically the most exciting part of any couple’s journey, while marriage is seen as the much more difficult denouement. Rom-coms, then, are easiest to watch as testaments to “grand gestures,” as dramatizing the moments that apparently prove true love. Crazy, Stupid Love, instead, offers an alternative, making the argument that true, lasting love is often found in the little, seemingly insignificant moments of care and trust between two people.
After middle-aged Cal (Steve Carell) is told by his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) of her unfaithfulness, Cal soon meets Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a freewheeling bachelor who teaches him how to get back in the game. What could have been a simple revenge tale decides to take a much more interesting, rewarding route by having Cal take a look inwards in order to understand what has become of his life. He learns that the failure of his marriage is as much his fault as his wife’s; he chose to stop putting in the work it takes to really love someone for the rest of your life.
One of the most powerful moments in Crazy, Stupid Love occurs when Cal acknowledges that he should have fought for his marriage every day, and then vows to continue to devote himself to loving Emily, though it will obviously never be easy. The film claims that the real challenges of any relationship begin long after finding the love one assumes will immediately fulfill every conceivable need. Crazy, Stupid Love stresses the importance of daily devotion in order to keep from taking love for granted, and demonstrates how much work marriage really can be.
7. Ruby Sparks
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
In the tradition of 500 Days of Summer (which came out just a bit too early for this list), Ruby Sparks subverts the fantasy of the manic pixie dream girl by dissecting what that fantasy actually requires. Calvin (Paul Dano) is a young, brilliant author who writes a short story about Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), a smart, charming, adventurous girl who he has clearly always dreamed of finding. Until one day Calvin wakes up to find that Ruby has come off the page and into his arms.
Ruby is everything Calvin has ever thought he wants in someone, and he’s thrilled as she meets his every desire for what a companion can and should be. Plus, since she is totally his creation, he can change anything he wants about her with just a quick addition to the page. Yet, as his relationship with Ruby begins to deepen, we begin to see the darker side of Calvin’s personality. Ruby of course begins to grow into her own person, which in turn causes Calvin to become jealous, entitled, and controlling. Calvin expects Ruby to be exactly who he wants her to be—even while he refuses to grow or change in any significant way—which is to function only as girlfriend, and not as individual.
Clearly aware of the Zooey Deschanel-esque hipster fantasy that has become ubiquitous in romantic comedies during the early- to mid-2000s, Ruby Sparks focuses on those supposedly sensitive guys who feel they automatically deserve the girl of their dreams. In other words, “Happily Ever After” is a privilege, and not a predictable plot point.
6. Warm Bodies
Director: Jonathan Levine
How do you make the Romeo and Juliet romantic template anything but archaic and unoriginal? Make it a love story about a zombie falling in love with a human.
A clever mixture of two clichéd genres, Warm Bodies succeeds in both categories because it works overtime to make clear the humanity that still exists in undead protagonist “R” (Nicholas Hault). The audience not only takes part in watching how a mindless, flesh eating monster grows into a creature capable of love, we begin to understand that true love is a matter of casting aside our basest urges to become as selfless as possible. Think Beauty and the Beast, but grosser—and also a lot funnier. It’s sort of what Twilight could have been if it weren’t populated with awful teenagers who take their sophomoric love, and themselves, far too seriously.