Just When You Thought Rom-Coms Were Dead, Along Came Harry Potter

07/31/2014 12:20 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2014

If a single year's romantic comedies were used to gauge the genre's welfare, 2014 would fail. There haven't been many to begin with, and the latest to hit theaters -- "And So It Goes" -- is downright disastrous. If this is what romance looks like in the 2010s, we're not interested. But wait! There may be hope. "What If" opens in limited release this weekend, and it's everything "And So It Goes" isn't: well-scripted, charming and fresh. Two of HuffPost's entertainment editors, Matthew Jacobs and Lauren Duca, debate why "And So It Goes" flounders while "What If" thrives, and what that means for the genre as a whole.

JACOBS: The rom-com is dead, says just about everyone receiving oxygen in 2014. Sadly, we now have proof in "And So It Goes," one of the few romantic comedies to hit theaters this year. Upon seeing it, all my fears were confirmed: It checks off so many of the genre's once-flourishing tropes, and yet it is unfunny, uncharming and ill-advised.

Maybe I was mostly bummed that its roster doesn't hold up. The movie stars Diane Keaton, who won an Oscar for the rom-com "Annie Hall" and was nominated just a decade ago for "Something's Gotta Give." It's directed by genre extraordinaire Rob Reiner, who made "The Sure Thing" and "When Harry Met Sally." And it plays like a cheap reboot of "As Good As It Gets," probably because it's written by Mark Andrus, who co-wrote "As Good As It Gets." Even with all those power players, not to mention Michael Douglas, the movie couldn't feel more tired.

And yet, Lauren, we found ourselves contrasting this movie to "What If," which leads me to ask: Does the genre have hope after all? What about "What If" made it sing while "And So It Goes" never actually goes anywhere?

and so it goes

DUCA: Going into "What If," I was convinced it had to do something radically different to even be a death rattle for the genre. Instead, it played into all the tropes. The whole thing functioned as a meditation on whether men and women (named things other than Harry or Sally) could be friends. There were activity dates. Heck, it started with a montage of aerial city shots. If there is a check list of traditional rom-com conceits, "What If" left few boxes empty, and yet there was something about it that made the format feel invigorated and new.

Part of that was the writing. Zoe Kazan's character (Chantry) is described as "banter-y" at one point, and that's how I would describe the majority of the dialogue. It's relentlessly witty, which alleviates the more situational humor that rom-coms often rely on. More so than that, though, I feel like it treated its characters as real people. Most rom-com leading ladies are defined by their prettiness, niceness and clumsiness. Chantry was more than a sum of her quirks.

In Kazan's hands, she played as vulnerable and confused, but also a bit selfish. Daniel Radcliffe (Wallace) also put forth an excellent performance as the earnest but self-pitying guy who'd "helplessly" fallen in love with someone who could only be his friend. There were no one-dimensional participants in this meet-cute. Sure, boy meets girl, but both boy and girl had major flaws that got sorted out across all those aforementioned activity dates.

JACOBS: You frame "What If" brilliantly, in part because your descriptions act as antithesis to everything "And So It Goes" offers. Keaton and Douglas' characters are too obviously written to oppose each other, rendering the meet-cute very un-cute. Keaton plays Lucy, the emotional widow with a huge heart, while Douglas is Oren, the crusty growler who lives next door and doesn't want anything to do with anyone who can't contribute to his professional gain. (Again, the "As Good As It Gets" sprinklings loom large.) Ultimately, I didn't want them to be together. Because they shouldn't be together.

The only reason Oren's Grinch-like heart softens is because Lucy steps up to help him care for his granddaughter after his estranged son, who used to be a heroin junkie, drops her off at his doorstep before serving a convoluted jail sentence unrelated to his former druggie ways. From the start, we're so forced to detest Oren that his slow build to regaining humanity and winning Leah's heart is everything you don't want to see. It works wonders for Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets" because his OCD and other neuroses made him interesting outside the confines of his romance with Helen Hunt. With Oren, the lack of charm is damning, and the granddaughter's presence feels like a flimsy ploy to convince Leah that this curmudgeon is worth a second glance.

You mention the "What If" characters being more than a sum of their quirks, which is the opposite of what exists here -- and, I think, the opposite of what the Kate Hudson/Jennifer Aniston/Sarah Jessica Parker/Katherine Heigl movies of the past decade have accomplished. Instead, the characters are their quirks. Except "quirky" isn't even a word I'd use to describe Reiner's take on the plot, so it doesn't even have that going for it. Instead, its characters are just made of building blocks.

whatif

DUCA: That idea of characters as "building blocks" fits perfectly with the way the genre has become tired. I think part of the rom-com's gradual extinction lies in its repetition of this same basic formula. Let's face it, the way two human beings fall in love despite an obstacle (deliberately conflicting personalities, etc.) is not enough to build a compelling story, seeing as that basic arc has already been executed by Kate Hudson/Jennifer Aniston/Sarah Jessica Parker/Katherine Heigl/etc.

"What If" tackles a question that's been asked before -- can men and women be friends? -- except it does so in a way that hones in on the potential immorality of non-platonic friendship. Wallace is doomed to the friend zone because Chantry is in a relationship. That arrangement also delves into the complications of emotional cheating and the pain of wondering about possibilities from the position of an otherwise satisfying relationship. I will say that it wrapped up a bit too neatly (and the conundrum could have been made more accessible if it treated Chantry's boyfriend as less of a caricature), but overall it had something to say.

The implicit campiness of rom-coms is part of what makes them wonderful. They take place in this para-reality where people fall in love after one is hired as expert to fix the other's life, they accidentally sleep with multiple members of the same family or form competing bets that lead them to realize they don't want to lose each other after a pre-determined period of 10 days. We know that 99.7 percent of the time they're going to end up together, except some bizarro, larger-than-life thing has to prevent them from doing so first. They are always, at least in spirit, going to be defined by the tropes that align with that slightly absurd realm where goofy sidekicks and mix tapes are available in droves. "What If" is a great example of how a rom-com can serve up many of those conventions and still manage to be about something beyond meeting and falling in love.

JACOBS: Exactly. After "Annie Hall" and "When Harry Met Sally" ushered the rom-com into the 1990s, everyone from Garry Marshall to the Farrelly brothers capitalized on those tropes while still crafting something fresh. The genre was also a star-maker (Molly Ringwald, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan). It's not that the '80s' and '90s' rom-coms weren't conventional -- it's just that their schemes and sidekicks hadn't dried up because, ultimately, the genre was still about characters. Then, in the 2000s, thinking we'd grown comfortable with the "boy" and "girl" in so many boy-meets-girl stories, the genre skimped on characterization in favor of schemes and sidekicks more so than ever before (see: "Maid in Manhattan," "Rumor Has It," "Failure to Launch," "Fool's Gold," "27 Dresses," "The Accidental Husband," "Killers," etc.).

Now that we're so accustomed to the 2000s' rom-com prototype, "And So It Goes" is especially telling because it doesn't really have a scheme, per se, yet it doesn't make up for it with the characterization we desperately need. And what little characterization it does have is off-putting. If it exemplifies what rom-coms have become in the 2010s, it means we're fighting a lose-lose battle. But with "What If," maybe there's hope! Please let there be hope.

DUCA: There is hope, Matt! Of course, what we haven't addressed is the waning interest in mid-budget films, or comedies in general, given they're tougher to sequelize or translate into hits that can metastasize overseas. Part of this "death of the rom-com" discussion is talk of the broader trend in Hollywood's reorientation to mega-hits, which leaves the quieter, CGI-lacking films in the dust. Although, there's something exciting about this depressing reality which doesn't rely on all future rom-coms starring Optimus Prime. The big-budget re-focusing leaves room for an indie renaissance of the genre, something that has the potential to be fully geared up precisely when American audiences start longing for films that are simpler (and marketed to them, rather than so obviously gaming foreign markets). With no major studios looming over the process, I suspect there'll be room for that something new that the genre needs right now. At the very least, seeing the chemistry between Radcliffe and Kazan gives us room to ask: "What If" the rom-com isn't dead just yet?

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