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Netflix knows we need an escape, so it built a rom-com factory

  • In “All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” the introverted Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and popular jock Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) pretend to date to make Lara Jean’s longtime crush jealous. The film is part of Netflix’s plan to revive the romantic comedy. Netflix via Washington Post

Washington Post
Published: 7/30/2018 4:16:04 PM

The day I watched three Netflix romantic comedies in a row, my cellphone offered its own film criticism. Whenever I typed “rom-com” in text messages, my phone auto-corrected it to rom-con. And sometimes rom-coma.

I see your point, Siri.

I know these films promote unrealistic ideas about love. I know that watching characters fall in love releases pleasure and bonding hormones, effectively tricking my brain into feeling as though I’m the one experiencing this meet-cute and falling-for-you montage.

But it’s safer and more predictable than swiping on Tinder, and healthier than texting an ex. No matter what happens over those 105 minutes (they’re always under two hours!), viewers know the tone will be light, the characters relatable and the ending upbeat.

It might be built on a con, but the rom-coma feels so good. And in the comfort of your own home and PJs, it’s much easier and cheaper to slip into one than it was in the pre-streaming days.

Critics have long declared the romantic comedy dead, as studios have veered toward the raunch-com, a la Bridesmaids and Trainwreck. But the genre hasn’t disappeared. It has lived on in television shows such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Mindy Project. And this summer, the genre is thriving on Netflix, which is pumping out rom-coms faster than viewers can say “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Netflix isn’t making new classics that rival When Harry Met Sally or Mean Girls, so much as rom-coms that hearken back to those that are second-tier but still re-watchable. (Think: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.) But they’re adding characters who are more diverse, ethnically and sexually, with plotlines that are more politically correct than in the John Hughes days of playing sexual harassment, homophobia and rape references for laughs.

Matt Brodlie, director of acquisitions at Netflix, said the streaming service could see that viewers were watching rom-coms multiple times on its platform. And because the main studios weren’t making many new ones, Netflix saw an opportunity.

“We wanted to dive into this space that had been abandoned but was still a desire for people to see,” Brodlie said.

Although Netflix won’t give specific viewership numbers for its summer rom-coms, it said one in three viewers of The Kissing Booth have re-watched the romantic comedy about two best friends whose bond is tested when one falls for the other’s older brother. That’s 30 percent higher than the average re-watch rate on Netflix. Last month, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told New York magazine the teen movie was “one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe in the world.”

Watching a romantic comedy is “a nice escape,” Brodlie said. So Netflix has looked specifically for scripts “that would scratch that same itch,” he said.

We need that escape now, said Susan Johnson, director of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (which premieres Aug. 17 on Netflix), who notes that the “angsty” romantic comedies of the 1980s came out of simpler, less divisive times. “Now we want to see something that makes us happy and hopeful,” she said.

Lauren Miller Rogen, writer and director of Like Father (out Friday), notes that as the studio rom-com has changed – relying more on the physical comedy than genuine emotion – she’s found them less relatable. “A lot of female characters haven’t felt real or grounded; their emotional journeys haven’t mirrored anything I could relate to,” Miller Rogen said.

The beauty of a rom-com is that the characters can be relatable even if you’re never been in their particular situation. I’ve been fortunate to have a father who’s always been present and attentive, and yet I still found myself in tears over a tender conversation between Kristen Bell’s character (a workaholic named Rachel) and her absentee father played by Kelsey Grammer.

The young adult rom-com is most remarkable for how much high school hasn’t changed in 20 years, despite the fact that humiliation and peer pressure now exist on social media and in person. No matter how much you’ve matured, it’s easy to access the memories of being an insecure teenager and the feeling that the flimsy alliances of high school matter so much when you’re in the thick of it.

Like the high school rom- and raunch-coms I grew up on – 10 Things I Hate About You, American Pie and others – this summer’s Netflix titles still revolve around parties, the fickleness of popularity and elaborate schemes to get your crush to like you. Every Netflix rom-com set in high school features a trio of popular girls who still have the power to make a protagonist feel small (and aren’t quite as brilliantly drawn as Tina Fey’s Mean Girls originals).

But the films no longer feature the same strand of straight, white, rich teenager over and over again. The boys are more sensitive and sexuality more fluid. Alex Strangelove opens with a high school-to-animal-kingdom analogy that’s ripped from Mean Girls, but unlike the usual virgin-trying-to-get-laid plot, the protagonist ends up coming out to his girlfriend.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser hinge on fake-dating schemes that resemble 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You. But the fact that To All the Boys follows an Asian-American family is a big step forward. “I’ve never seen an Asian-American girl be the lead of a teen movie,” said Jenny Han, author of the book that preceded the movie. The film’s director, Susan Johnson, finds today’s teen rom-com to be more inclusive than those of her youth. Her film “isn’t really about them being Asian-American, which makes it even more universal,” Johnson said. “Everyone can dive into a world they can recognize.”

Netflix rom-coms sometimes call out the aspects of classics that feel out of touch today. For example, in The Kissing Booth, the bad boy Noah (Jacob Elordi) gets into a fight with a guy who grabs Elle’s (Joey King) butt. When Noah said that maybe her skirt was asking for it, Elle snaps back: “Seriously? You wanna go down that road?” No, Noah doesn’t. And neither do we.

Similarly, in To All the Boys, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) wonders why Lara Jean loves Sixteen Candles. “Isn’t this character Long Dong Duk kind of racist?” he asks. First off: It’s Long Duk Dong, and “not kind of,” Lara Jean clarifies, but “extremely racist.” Her little sister chimes in that they like the movie because, hello, Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) is hot. “To me that scene is about things that we have enjoyed in the past and have a soft spot for, but can be deeply problematic,” Han said.

If Netflix’s high school rom-com is about finding love while figuring out who you are by escaping the tyranny of what others think, the adult versions center on finding love while reconnecting with that true self – by escaping the tyranny of work. Finding professional success has always figured heavily in the rom-com, yet it’s an especially relevant plot point for the Netflix binger who might not have time to get to a movie theater, but can squeeze in a rom-com on their commute home or on the couch late at night.

Set It Up and Ibiza both feature protagonists named Harper (Zoey Deutch and Gillian Jacobs, respectively) who have unfulfilling jobs, demanding bosses and nonexistent love lives. Until a love-focused caper sets them free. There’s often a caper in a rom-com, frequently one orchestrated by the protagonists’ best friends. But most rom-coms today aren’t just about finding the main character a man. Claire Scanlon, director of Set It Up, sees this as a key way to continue to modernize the genre.

“Never does (Harper) say: I need a boyfriend. She wants a kicka-- job,” Scanlon said. “And until she gets the confidence and believes in herself and does the work, she doesn’t deserve to get what she wants.”

Like Father also features a protagonist who toils under the stranglehold of work. In the opening scene, Bell’s character makes a work call right before stuffing her cellphone in her bouquet and walking down the aisle, where her boss is to officiate the wedding of his “star employee.” She ends up not getting married and going on her honeymoon with her absentee father who showed up to the wedding. The movie isn’t so much about her “finding a man” as it is about reconnecting with the first man in her life – and figuring out how to have a life outside of work.

Now there’s a relatable problem that never gets solved in 105 minutes. So let’s watch another rom-com while pondering how to find love, success and a life – and rejoice in the fact that the genre hasn’t died. It’s just moved to a more intimate setting, which is perhaps where it belonged all along.

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