‘The sad fact [is]’, says writer-director Elizabeth Sankey, two thirds of the way through Romantic Comedy, ‘that marketing a film as a romantic comedy is a quick route to critical disdain’. She isn’t wrong in this statement, and yet it seems somewhat hypocritical, considering that she has just spent the bulk of her documentary up to that point listing the ways in which the films that belong to that much lambasted genre, are in fact… terrible.
Everyone is too white, too straight, too rich and too thin. Career women are made to looks like fools, LGBT people are pigeonholed into the sassy ‘gay best friend’ trope, it is implied that once you walk down the aisle everything will be hunky-dory. There are many valid complaints against romantic comedies, complaints that have been made many times before. In Romantic Comedy, Sankey makes them again. Without adding any extra insight, or nuance.
A contributor – we just hear voices over the movie clips, we don’t know who is speaking – says at one point, ‘People don’t really talk about the men [and their stalkerish behaviour] in romantic comedies’. They do. All the freaking time. The documentary does that all the freaking time – make these big assertions without backing them up.
And it uses clips out of context: Sankey shows Mr Darcy’s (Matthew MacFadyen) rainy declaration of love to Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightly) in Pride and Prejudice as a prime example of the ‘grand declaration’ trope, without mentioning the fact that she angrily declines him. Taking the scene in Bringing Up Baby where Katharine Hepburn drives off while Cary Grant is still standing goofily on her running board as an example, Sankey tries to make the point that in the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, men came off looking sillier than women. If you actually watch that movie – and you should, it’s a masterpiece – you’ll see that Hepburn and Grant each spend their fair share of time in the silliness spotlight. Considering that the films Sankey excerpts aren’t exactly obscure, you’d have thought she’d have been more careful with her choices.
Romantic Comedy picks up a little as it draws to a close, and we see recent films that have changed things up a bit. Sankey posits that The Heat and I Love You Man are romantic comedies dressed up as buddy movies, and that The Big Sick overcomes almost all of the problems that usually pervade the genre. Some of these theses are still pretty weak (God’s Own Country as a rom-com? Sure it’s romantic, but where’s the comedy?), but at least it feels as though Sankey is trying to broach new ground, even if she doesn’t succeed.
If you have read one or two articles about romantic comedies, then you are not going to find anything new in Elizabeth Sankey’s documentary. Still, there are worse ways to spend 79 minutes than watching endless clips of beautiful people falling in love with one another.
Romantic Comedy is available to watch exclusively on curated streaming service MUBI from 7 May 2020