Q&A: The Most Convincing Defense of the Rom-Com to Date
Scott Meslow’s “From Hollywood With Love” examines the last 30 years of a most under-appreciated genre, and where it can move forward
“These movies, it’s a genre that’s so underestimated in quality, and underesimtaed in how much money these films can make, and the talent that’ll get behind them.”
That’s author Scott Meslow discussing the modern age of romantic comedies, which he defines and greatly defends in his just-released debut book From Hollywood With Love. Therein, Meslow — a senior editor at The Week and writer/contributor to GQ, New York and The Atlantic — presents a detailed history of rom-coms within a three-decade period that starts with iconic titles like When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman and up through modern hits like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
Meslow lays out pretty straight-forward criteria for including a film — besides general quality — that includes arriving after 1989, commercial/critical success, influence and whether they revealed something unique, either about the genre, Hollywood or the respective cultural moment. Which means he doesn’t hit on every rom-com you’d love, but overall the book is an excellent compendium of a genre that is universally loved, yet often critically ignored.
Below, excerpts from our phone conversation with Meslow, including his thoughts on where the rom-com can evolve and move forward.
InsideHook: What got you into romantic comedies?
Scott Meslow: It’s a genre I always loved. And from a critical perspective, there was a lot of uncovered ground; there were all these great reevaluations of the films on the internet, but nothing book-length on this great age of movies. And a lot of the people behind these films had never really talked about their movies before.
It’s obviously a classic, but why start the book with When Harry Met Sally?
I wanted to cover three decades, so 1989-2019. But it wasn’t just arbitrary. The boring answer is that it’s the best of all time. It balances perspective so perfectly, in a way that even modern rom-coms struggle to do. It’s also amazing that it was basically born out of a freewheeling conversation between [writer] Norah Ephron and [director] Rob Reiner. It’s also sort of an unacknowledged remake of Annie Hall with a happy ending, right? Take a Best Picture winner, but one that’s a bit dark and sad, and make a real Hollywood version. I think it set the tone for all the rom-coms that followed.
You couldn’t get all the great rom-coms in your book, but I wanted to throw a few past you that didn’t get full entries. Like Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
That one was right on the line; I think his love story is more of a subplot, and the bigger story is about self actualization. I also figured since I had done The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, that I had kind of covered films in the Judd Apatow orbit.
[Laughs] Not a favorite of mine. It is a rom-com, though. For raunchy, I think I covered it with There’s Something About Mary.
I covered a bit in some of the book’s sidebars and essays, but that’s a really tricky one. It was almost too ahead of its time and didn’t get the attention it deserved when it came out. I’m glad it’s been reevaluated; great soundtrack, too.
Besides having a nice 30-year period to track, why bookend this period with Crazy Rich Asians?
That movie was exciting on multiple levels. You had a studio all in on a rom-com, with a real budget and marketing. Netflix made a huge bid for all the films, but the creative team really wanted a theatrical release. That’s a cool side story: studios had abandoned rom-coms for a while — like a lot of other genres — but this movie was doing something with what was working for Hollywood. It’s a franchise! There are two built-in sequels. Plus, rom-coms were admittedly way too white before this.
There was a recent trend of rom-coms getting overly self-aware. Did that hurt the genre?
It’s a damned-if you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. Rom-com parodies can be a little tired; the filmakers behind rom-coms knew what they were doing! They’re simply enjoying and indulging in the tropes. But audiences do get tired of the same things. I just don’t think the genre does well with a straight parody.
Netflix in particular has really brought the genre back, if not always perfectly. Do rom-coms still need a theatrical presence?
I really believe every movie is improved with the theater experience; it’s sad that it’s been reduced to event films. Obviously, COVID made everything more complicated, and I admittedly was delighted Netflix had like five rom-coms waiting for me when I was stuck inside this winter. But there are films like Crazy Rich Asians that you definitely should see in a theater; it’s so beautiful and there’s a luxury to it. I’m hoping that a new movie like [Jennifer Lopez’s] Marry Me provides the same thing — a bigger scale for the genre.
One big point you make in the book is that romantic comedies helped put women in better positions to be hired as writers, directors and producers, at least on these types of films. Do you see the conversation going further and more underrepresented groups being able to tell these stories?
It’s complicated. I guess my answer is, “Yes, but they’re not doing enough.” There are more opportunities, but not always good ones. Hollywood now is certainly better than where the book starts.
What are you looking forward to in the genre?
I’m excited that movie studios seem to be backing it again. I mean, Netflix can cut and print six of these a year, but you can also go to the theater and see Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum do basically a Romancing the Stone remake; I hope audiences are up for that. And Billy Eichner has a studio release that he says is a romantic comedy, and all the main characters are played by gay actors, and I think that’s amazing.
Did you have a favorite story from talking to all these people?
The Pretty Woman background was amazing. I spoke with the original screenwriter — it went through a lot of weird developments. [Editor’s note: The original script was a rather grim drama about a sex worker and it did not have a fairy tale ending.] Another one was My Big Fat Greek Wedding — that team had such faith in the film, and they couldn’t get anyone in Hollywood to pay attention, even though it had a built-in audience.
Where are rom-coms headed?
I see two things: There’s a trend to make sequels to everything, and that could have a warping effect on rom-coms. What happens after happily ever after? And also, the push toward diversity, which is welcome and long overdue. It’s also a way that self-awareness can be great; you can have Sixteen Candles mentioned in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, but also acknowledged as a classic film that did have a super-racist character. Both sides of that conversation can exist. It’s about the genre honoring its past but also moving forward.
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