Victor Levin (5 to 7) Talks the Death of the Romantic Comedy: Was It Murder or Suicide?

The veteran writer/producer turned director asks why one of our most beloved movie genres is currently in such a perilous state.

For decades and decades there were funny movies about love, but in recent years the flow has slowed to a trickle. On one level, this is surprising. If you believe that love is one of the best things humans have going, and laughter also, then putting them together seems like a reliably good idea. So why have we stopped?

I’d be remiss not to spend a moment on certain business realities. Today’s films have to go global, and romantic comedies tend to be more culturally specific and dialogue-dependent than other genres. Today’s moviegoing audience is younger than in the past; when I was 11, I’m pretty sure a romantic comedy was the last thing I wanted to see. The plain fact is that romantic comedies are not currently rewarding their investors as robustly as movies in which things explode, and you can’t expect people to go on forever betting against the tide. Romantic comedies also have an added element of risk: they rely completely on screen chemistry. When I was a staff writer and producer at Mad About You, we worked very hard on the scripts, but the show succeeded because of the way Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser blended together. Chemistry is an ineffable thing, and you can’t be certain it’s there until you see it with an audience. By which time, of course, if it’s not there, it’s rather too late.

So the romantic comedy is a pretty steep hill to climb even under the best of circumstances. And today’s circumstances are emphatically not the best.

We are now living in a cold, snarky, pathologically cynical and ironic era. The internet misses no opportunity to show us what awful creatures we are. Whereas in the past we were insulated from some of this, today we see it all. It has become difficult to believe in anything — nations, ethics, athletes, even the value and goodness of our own longings. We live inside machines, meet people through our avatars, and to a large degree even conduct our relationships digitally. We have become a little bit allergic to the actuality of one another; things that sound sincere feel like bullshit waiting to reveal itself. Big love, the kind that drives movie characters to do romantic and funny things, seems like an anachronism, dismissible as fantasy or sentimentality, a contrivance, a fairy tale, not nearly sophisticated enough for the room. It’s much easier — and much safer — not to believe. We have been turned into a bunch of smartypants, and romance, to some degree, is out of style.

The net effect is the destruction of the very sort of optimism upon which romantic comedies depend. And so any romantic comedy must negotiate a minefield of ready-made contempt. To avoid the mines, you don’t just have to make a good film, which is hard enough, you have to get at least a portion of the audience to believe again, if ever they did, in the power of human possibility. I think that’s one of the jobs of movies. But right now it’s a big ask.

At the moment, those romantic comedies that do manage to get themselves made are frequently “tweeners” — insufficiently commercial to earn a seat at the mass-market table, and (usually, but not always) insufficiently cool or raw to feel completely comfortable among indies. The latter neighborhood is the genre’s only current home; it’s unnerving to be the least edgy-seeming movie at your favorite film festival, but there is a certain self-mutilating, iconoclastic pleasure to it. Especially when you find programmers, distributors and exhibitors whose tastes you respect and who think the way you do, and even more so when you connect with an audience, which is really what it’s all about. Often at screenings, you can feel the audience’s hunger for these stories.

Sometimes you watch an audience member and you can see what’s going on inside: hope is duking it out with experience, and id with superego, right there in the middle of the movie. I always root for hope and id. For professional reasons, sure, but also just on general principle.

What then is the romantic comedy’s prognosis? Can it look forward to reincarnation? In the long term, it’s likely that the pendulum of collective consciousness will swing back to a brighter place and there will be a popular appetite for funny love stories again. When that day comes, the question will be this: can the romantic comedy adapt to the modern world? It’s no secret that the genre did itself no favors in recent years by becoming formulaic and entreating us, even though the outcome was never in doubt, to enjoy the journey. Audiences are smart. People know that real life is messy and that “happily ever after,” far from being an inevitability, is a banal refrain. For the romantic comedy to thrive again, it will have to eschew templates and take on complex questions that have no easy answers. It will have to embrace love’s chaos, its irrationality. It will have to make friends with moral and ethical ambiguity. It will have to cause arguments on the way home. It will have to make itself more than just a diversion, more than just a “date movie.” It will, in essence, have to relearn one of the great lessons of the past: keep your drama funny and your comedy serious.

I hope it happens. Love is on a very short list of things worth repeatedly making movies about. Laughter is good, so long as you come by it honestly. And any journey is better when you’re not quite sure where you’re going.

Golden Globe winner Victor Levin has written for numerous TV shows, including Mad Men, The Larry Sanders Show, Dream On, and Mad About You, where he penned some of the show’s most memorable episodes and ran the show in its final two seasons. His screenwriting work includes Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, Then She Found Me (co-written with Helen Hunt and Alice Arlen) and the U.S. remake of My Sassy Girl. His feature directorial, 5 to 7, a romance with comedy for grown-ups, opens on April 3 in New York and Los Angeles and then expands to other cities and countries.