Can Netflix save us from the Great Romcom Shortage of 2018? I watched 11 films to find out

As Hollywood has retreated from the romcom genre, Netflix has flooded the market with its summer of love offerings. They seem to be attracting big audiences but are they any good?

The death knell of the Hollywood romcom has sounded repeatedly over the past few years, as contrived meet-cutes, airport-based declarations of love and Kate Hudson have become conspicuously absent from cinema screens. Its decline has been pinned on various culprits: the disappearance of the mid-budget movie, young actors reluctance to star in them (old actors, too: earlier this year Hugh Grant announced his retirement from the genre) and the glut of below-par abominations at the turn of this decade (Just Go With It, Couples Retreat, When in Rome, The Back-Up Plan, to name a few). But whatever the reasons, it is clear that the studio romcoms heyday is over.

It doesnt mean people stopped craving warm, fuzzy, slightly dotty depictions of romance. As Hollywood disassembled its romantic machinery, Netflix was keenly observing the viewing habits of its subscribers, and noticed that 80 million of its users had watched a romcom in the past year. Cue its self-proclaimed summer of love, a torrent of romcoms that continues the streaming platforms strategy of flooding the market with new content (it plans to release 80 original films in 2018 and has 700 shows in the works) with seemingly little care for what that content contains.

It may be a wise move: viewing figures certainly look swoonsome. But Netflixs scatter-gun approach whether you are in the mood for Christmas, crying or cruises, it has a romcom for you feels cynical and crude. Is it in danger of dragging an already-maligned genre deeper into the dirt? Wading through its offerings seems to be the only way to find out.

If one film has kickstarted the platforms reputation as romcoms saviour-in-chief, it is Set It Up. With an impressive 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it stars Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell as two put-upon personal assistants who decide to cheer up their horrible bosses (played by Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs) by making them fall for each other, until the film settles on a different but eye-rollingly predictable love story. Set It Up is amusing, but the film feels like 105 minutes of romcom deja-vu: mechanically effective, but devoid of any emotional clout.

It is, however, refreshing to have a blossoming relationship between an Asian-American woman and African-American man as the focus of a romcom, a genre hitherto populated almost exclusively by white people.

Irreplaceable You, so spectacularly odd that it feels as if it were made by a bot. Photograph: Linda Kallerus / Netflix

Judging by its current roster, Netflix movies dont need star power in the way big studio projects tend to, which means the platform is able to foster new talent. To All the Boys Ive Loved Before, an adaptation from a YA novel, starring Lana Condor as an Asian-American girl whose stash of secret love letters are mysteriously sent to her crushes, has received breathless acclaim. But this praise feels strangely out of step with the film: a bland story of a sweet adolescent girls search for love. It is a sign of how low the bar is set for Netflixs romcom rescue.

Once I have seen the next film on my list, however, I would happily front the To All the Boys Oscar campaign. The Kissing Booth is so banal that its repeated references to the oeuvre of John Hughes (including a Molly Ringwald cameo) feel alarmingly deluded. It has nevertheless been crowned movie hit of the summer by the New York Times, while Netflix head honcho Ted Sarandos depressingly revealed it as one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe in the world.

Following a teenage girl whose crush on her best friends older brother turns out to be reciprocated, it is dull the non-storyline drags on for what feels like centuries and offensively sexist in the way it casually objectifies its protagonist. In fact, The Kissing Booths existence only starts to make sense once you hear that it is based on a story by a 15-year-old girl from Wales: its a cringeworthy American high-school fantasy that reeks of adolescent wish-fulfilment.

But at least it was clearly written by a human which is more than can be said for A Christmas Prince, which seems to have been generated by a computer exposed to The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. Plot-wise, it follows Amber, a wannabe reporter sent to cover royal upheaval in the kingdom of Aldovia. Faced with little access, she disguises herself as the princesss tutor (a wise child who spends most of her time in a wheelchair and seems to have been beamed in from the 1940s) and soon grows close to the future king. In December, Netflix caused controversy with a tweet that read: To the 53 people whove watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you? If the film is so bad that Netflix can troll its own users for watching it (and it is), objective quality is clearly not something the streaming giant is concerned about; a sequel subtitled The Royal Wedding is set to be released this Christmas.

While the Hollywood romcom has declined, the genre itself is thriving elsewhere in indie films (The Big Sick, Obvious Child) and in TV series, thanks to shows such as Love, Catastrophe, The Mindy Project and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. While the latter are able to mine emotional depths and explode the happily-ever-after formula with their extended run-times and slowly unravelling characters, Netflixs by-the-book romcoms tend to adhere to a strict structural rhythm, and often seem engineered to pretend those kind of developments never happened. But they are influenced by the small screen in a different way.

Martha Shearer, a film professor of Kings College London, thinks Netflix is attempting to draw on the continued success of made-for-TV movies, particularly in the case of A Christmas Prince and the similarly trite Christmas Inheritance. Which prompts the question is a Netflix romcom even a proper film? It has been cattily observed that the sites original movies all have one thing in common: they arent good enough for release in cinemas. Or, as Vulture put it in a review of romcom Ibiza, these are films one cant imagine possibly being written to be exhibited on any other platform.

Thats not strictly true one Netflix summer of love offering, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, is now in cinemas across the UK (with Netflix presumably banking on the fact that the British find posh people of the past so overwhelmingly appealing that they will pay to see them stutter when no one else will). But, in general, these films do make more sense if one thinks of the Netflix romcom as a separate entity from conventional cinema a free product churned out to fill a gap in the market and an hour in the day, rather than something to lure people into expensive cinema seats.

That the Netflix romcom has no need to mark itself out from the crowd may explain why many of Netflixs originals feel almost deliberately derivative.

Like Father, which features Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer bonding on a cruise ship, does subvert the genre by subbing in a love story between career-obsessed protagonist Rachel and her estranged dad for the traditional romance, but so many parts of it are familiar (Bell playing a heartless protagonist, the luxury holiday setting, Team Apatow supporting cast members) that it feels like a knockoff of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bells bona fide 2008 romcom hit. In Ibiza, about one girls quest to bag an attractive Scottish DJ, Gillian Jacobs dysfunctional, drug-addled character seems to be lifted wholesale from her TV series, Love. And with its scrambled timeline and Zooey Deschanel-alike lead, Happy Anniversary is eerily reminiscent of 500 Days of Summer.

These similarities suggest that Netflix is happy to focus on the outward signifiers of the genres success at the expense of the harder-to-nail emotional core. Because what is common to almost all Netflixs offerings is a conspicuous lack of emotional intelligence which is strange for a genre driven almost exclusively by feeling.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Irreplaceable You a light-hearted romp through a couples lives as one of them is slowly killed by cancer. It will still make you cry a 30-second Tesco advert could do that but its tone is so spectacularly odd that it feels as if it were made by a confused bot. Too many films have too much in common for it to be totally coincidental, with repetitive ingredients including: a character dramatically quitting their job, a sad interlude about a dead mother and a brief appearance from a past-their-prime Hollywood star.

Soon, however, the Netflix romcom doesnt simply seem ersatz it also feels strangely infantile, whether or not the film is explicitly aimed at teens. When We First Met follows a group of twentysomethings who behave with the wide-eyed mischief of children half their age. Ibiza casts its lead trio of friends as immature, hot mess-style party animals, while in Christmas Inheritance, about a woman primed to inherit her fathers company, the protagonist shames her family by doing a cartwheel for a dare at a glitzy function.

Perhaps Netflix is deliberately catering to younger audiences who have tended to swap traditional TV for streaming but it may also be playing into a wider trend that has seen the age of romcom protagonists fall across the board, according to Shearer. The financial crisis, too, stymied what was once a key part of the genre: aspirational lifestyle. All the films before then were really preoccupied with people in very glamorous, grownup jobs, and living in lovely apartments in New York or wherever, says Shearer. Part of what the genre is about is experiencing that kind of luxury. As that luxury has evaporated, so, it seems, has any attempt at sophistication.

In many ways, romcoms are perfect for the streaming age. Cheap, easy to produce and mentally undemanding, they require minimal investment from all parties. They also fit neatly with the changing way films are watched unlike broad comedies or horror, they dont benefit from the outsized reactions prompted by communal viewing. The phrase Netflix and chill may have morphed into a euphemism, but the meme began as a straightforward sentiment people tend to use the platform while horizontal in the comfort of their home. Romcoms are uniquely suited to people watching from their beds and films such as the hypnotically gentle To All the Boys Ive Loved Before seem custom made for the purpose.

The romcom is also a genre that has thrived in spite of bad reviews and bad quality. Films widely panned at the tail end of the romcom boom, such as 2009s The Ugly Truth, went on to earn hundreds of millions at the box office, and Netflix can console itself with the fact that classics such as Bringing Up Baby and When Harry Met Sally attracted a fair amount of derision when they were first released (although if A Christmas Prince ever ends up in the Criterion Collection, it will be a very sad day indeed for cinema). Yet, ultimately, Netflix seems less concerned with winning over users with smart scripts and quality than simply wearing them down the number of impending releases are already in double figures, with doubtless many more to come. When it comes to romcoms, Netflix is staging a war of attrition: if youre one of the 80 million who havent yet fallen, its surely only a matter of time.

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