'Romantic Comedy': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Elizabeth Sankey
A visual feast that gives the rom-com its due.

This doc from Elizabeth Sankey takes a fresh look at the rom-com from 1930s to the present day.

Does anyone even watch rom-coms anymore? It seems like every few years this debate resurfaces. Coming off of a 2018 full of rom-rom successes like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Crazy Rich Asians, Set It Up and Love, Simon, the answer at this latest juncture seems to be a resounding yes.

In the new documentary Romantic Comedy, filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey presents a visual meditation on the past, present and future of the genre in her feature debut. The film expertly chips away at the dismissal of rom-coms as frivolous guilty pleasures for a mostly female audience. In doing so, it validates why the genre is still relevant and points out that much room remains for storytellers to offer fresh takes on the mainstream rom-com boiler plate.

At the start of the documentary, Sankey explains that the impetus for making it was her disappointment with the genre after she got married. Most romantic comedies end at marriage, but a newly wed Sankey began to wonder what happens after matrimony. Moreover, the questionable portrayals of women within the genre as a whole began to give her pause. Why are women who go after their careers belittled by endless pratfalls in so many rom-coms? Why does psychopathic behavior pass for a romantic gesture? Why are men so angry with and possessive of the women they claim to love?

The documentary is a personal essay set to a montage of clips from over 160 films spanning from 1934 to 2018. For the entire 72 minutes, we see nothing but clips from romantic comedies, paired with a steady stream of voiceover narration from Sankey and half a dozen commenters. Because all the commentary is via voiceover — we never see the face of Sankey or the other commenters — the film forces the audience to have a more intimate, engaged viewing experience.

By literally never allowing us to take our eyes off the genre, Sankey has created a simple yet effective structure that cleverly invites viewers to grapple with their own memories of these movies from the past and compare them with their reactions now. It’s this space between our memories of these pics and what we think of them now that Sankey wants us to sit with for a while. 

From the classic Cary Grant starrer His Girl Friday to Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle to lesser known indies like Kissing Jessica Stein — seeing all the ways this genre has expressed itself over the past century beautifully cut together makes it clear just how much of an imprint it has left on our individual and collective psyches when it comes to love and relationships.  

The doc wisely points out one of the biggest blind spots in the genre: It has largely catered to a white heterosexual audience. Rom-com fans are not exclusively composed of middle-class white women who identify strongly with Renee Zellweger’s Bridget Jones. This section of the film is where the depth of Sankey’s research shows. The doc digs into the archives, including clips from a number of movies that didn’t have box office success but broke new ground, like Alice Wu’s Saving Face, Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty and the gay athlete love story The Pass that’s currently getting an extended life on Netflix.

Romantic Comedy concludes with an exciting projection of what the genre’s future could hold. It’s a bright future — inclusive of all kinds of protagonists and filmmakers — and one that pushes our ideas of what a rom-com can be. For example, the doc points out that platonic rom-coms like I Love You, Man (Paul Rudd, Jason Segel) and The Heat (Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy) are a branch of the genre with plenty of room for new stories. Indirectly, the film seems to suggest that the genre needs to start questioning the notion that a romantic relationship is the only one that really matters. 

Any filmmaker who wants to make a rom-com that’s informed by the genre’s 100-year-old catalog would be wise to study Romantic Comedy; it will likely make your film better, not to mention save you time. This is a doc that delights as much as it informs, and in so doing serves as proof that a meaty subject addressed with a few thoughtful, personal touches is sufficient for a first-time filmmaker to emerge as an exciting new voice.

Director: Elizabeth Sankey
Producers: Chiara Ventura, Oskar Pimlott, Jeremy Warmsley
Original score: Jeremy Warmsley
Music: Summer Camp
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Visions) 

72 minutes