By the late 1990s, rom-coms were ubiquitous—they were cheap, popular, and easy to make—so a decade later, the well began to run dry. Hollywood’s long refusal, with few exceptions, to show anything other than monoracial meet-cutes between people who are overwhelmingly white has made these films increasingly hard to sell to foreign markets. With no reason to put them in 3D or to market them to kids, and with the increasing acceptance of the idea that “chick flicks” are still rooted in a cultural fantasy that isn’t relevant in a post-industrial age, rom-coms barely exist anymore.
Which is actually a little sad. Because in the 2000s, the presumed rigidity of the rom-com format was getting an overhaul. And not just with movies like Imagine Me & You, which featured same-sex sexuality, but with movies that began to make inroads into challenging the sexist assumptions that sat at the foundation of the rom-com formula.
That seachange, however small, was cut off at the knees as the industry rapidly turned away from rom-coms; consequently, rom-coms have disappeared with a whimper, not a bang. Over the past five years a series of book adaptations, high-concept ideas, and ill-thought-out pairings have undercut the few Western rom-coms that are still made, most of them tasting like questionable leftovers some movie exec found at the back of the office fridge.
Here, in detail so that you may avoid them, are the 10 worst.
Director: Robert Luketic
Jen (Katherine Heigl), a neurotic risk-adverse calculator, takes a trip to Nice (France) with her parents (Catherine O’Hara and Tom Selleck) and meets Spencer (Ashton Kutcher). Spencer is supposed to be handsome just like Kutcher is supposed to be handsome; he’s also an elite assassin. Fortunately for ‘shippers of calculator/assassin love, Spencer hands in his resignation to his boss-assin (Martin Mull). Mull tells him he will regret this betrayal. Jen is none the wiser.
The movie then asks us to accept several suspect assertions about elite assassins. First, that they are willing to wait three years to pull off a single revenge hit by elaborately inserting sleeper agents into every aspect of Jen and Spencer’s “normal,” suburban life. Second, elite assassins will try to pull off the hit using hand-to-hand combat, heavy artillery, and loud explosions…rather than, say, a clandestine sniper rifle, or poison. Third, elite assassins are numerous enough that Spencer has never once crossed paths with the 85 people who, in the intervening three years, have become his friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and also that all 85 of these people are highly-trained undercover operatives who have never once given Spencer a reason to suspect a thing despite the fact that the moment the hit is called each and every single one of them starts carting heavy-duty rocket launchers all over the neighborhood. Fourth, elite assassins are frivolous enough that they’ll do all of this simply because Jen’s ex-assassin dad thought Spencer was still in the business. Which only works if we accept that all of these sleeper agents were long-embedded just in case Spencer’s father-in-law offered a bounty on him, but also just insecure enough that none of them could have reported to anybody that mattered that in three years of surveillance it really did seem like Spencer had stopped killing people for a living.
None of which makes a lick of sense, so Killers’ resolution forces Selleck to a) kill the remaining assassins he sent after Spencer, and b) stroke his mustache and be all “once you started killing the assassins I hired to kill you, Spencer, my suspicions that you were still assassinating people were confirmed. Sorry ‘bout that. Your refusal to kill me has convinced me that you are not still assassinating people.” Look: if I were an ex-assassin who wanted to assassinate my assassin son-in-law to protect my daughter, I’d probably just take him fishing and kill him myself, is all I’m saying; I wouldn’t hire rocket launcher-toting morons with the aim of a meteor shower.
This movie is a vampire; it manages to suck the life not just out of Catherine O’Hara, but also supporting players and professional funny people like Casey Wilson, Rob Riggle, Alex Borstein, and Kevin Sussman. Heigl and Kutcher have zero chemistry; they seem Photoshopped together, like they’re acting in different rooms—just like they look actually Photoshopped together on the movie poster. And say what you will about Heigl’s career choices, she’s not usually this boring. Kutcher comes off slightly better, but that’s to be expected since Heigl is stuck playing the character that needs to learn to accept that some risk is worth the trouble: “Thanks, husband/secret assassin and dad/secret assassin! You’ve really taught me how to live! This unborn child I’m just about to reveal to you has also given my life purpose.” Sigh.
2. Leap Year
Director: Anand Tucker
Leap Year is part of a rom-com subgenre where smart, independent, middle-class women travel from the city to some rural place only to be confounded by the working-class sensibilities of the men they are destined to fall in love with. It totally isn’t relevant that these men have perfect dentistry and successful businesses and aristocratic chins; it is their love of the simple things in life that is the antidote to the uptight, capitalist, superficial urges of the women in these films. Because Hollywood hates capitalism, y’all!
Anna (Amy Adams), upset that her boyfriend Jeremy (Adam Scott) has never put a ring on it, travels to Dublin to propose, planning to invoke an Irish tradition that says a man must accept a woman’s proposal on the 29th of February. Due to weather, her plane is rerouted to Cork and she ends up meeting Declan (Matthew Goode), with whom she is clearly going to fall in love. But first! We’re treated to an hour of the two of them arguing over a bunch of boring shit. Sometimes literally.
Leap Year glosses over the same contradiction most films in this subgenre gloss over: they want to portray cities as spaces where women can be modern and independent and the country as a space where women are all barefoot and pregnant, but they simultaneously want to invoke the charms of working-class life, a class status where by definition women traditionally have had to work. So you get this weird, uncomfortable mixture: the country becomes an outdated fantasy of the 1950s suburban middle-class where gender roles mean something—like, in terms of the sexual division of labor—but the people are authentic and real in a way that people from the city aren’t. Because…Jeffersonian Democracy is still meaningful, I guess?
When women star in these films, this elision is more severe. In the Doc Hollywoods of the world, the male leads are typically supposed to learn family values in addition to the male-coded traits (ambition, work ethic) they already possess. In the Leap Years of the world, the female leads are normally asked to fundamentally change their entire personalities. The sort-of exception to this, Sweet Home Alabama, largely works because Reese Witherspoon’s character isn’t being taught a lesson, and also because the selfish nature of both the Alabama and New York characters intervenes in the above contradiction. Leap Year steers into the skid of that contradiction, assuming that the funniest possible thing in the world is an uptight American woman stepping in cow shit.
Plus? 2010 wasn’t even a leap year. Poor marketing synergy!
3. Friends With Benefits
Director: Will Gluck
The most profound thing I have to say about this movie is that I have so little to say about it. It leaves very little impression. It’s the color tan. Mild cheddar. A unicorn without a horn. For all its effort at possessing pizazz, it reeks of ennui. Director Will Gluck isn’t quite a Baby Boomer, I don’t think, but Friends With Benefits feels like a Baby Boomer talking about the Internet. This is a movie about two incredibly attractive people who spend a lot of time being boring together while working high-powered jobs and living in palatial Manhattan apartments. Jamie (Kunis) recruits Dylan (Justin Timberlake) for a job at GQ; most of the movie is an unnecessary tourism ad for the same six places in Manhattan that you already know exist through Hollywood osmosis, plus flash mobs; they decide to have casual sex; feelings develop; Jamie overhears Dylan lying to his sister that he doesn’t have feelings; Dylan organizes a flash mob to apologize.
Here’s the real kicker: both Kunis and Timberlake normally have an edge to their ample charm. But somehow that edge is completely sanded off here, as if “fuck-buddy” was such a scandalous subject matter that somebody decided the two characters should be genial milquetoasts. It’s really strange, because “edge” was the thing most celebrated about Gluck’s Easy A, which was itself an epic improvement in terms of focusing the scattered edginess that defined his debut, Fired Up! Friends With Benefits, outside of the glossy shooting locations and cast, feels like the straight-to-video version of the other 2011 fuck-buddy film, No Strings Attached, which I suspect will be the only time ever I rate an Ashton Kutcher film higher than a Mila Kunis film.
4. Just Go With It
Director: Dennis Dugan
Making fun of Adam Sandler is obvious, sure. But while all of his most recent films are pretty awful in a variety of ways, for most of them their greatest sin is being boring. Just Go With It is unique in that it fails at the meta-level of its pitch: it only works because you’ve seen a romantic comedy movie before, and you know how they end.
Danny (Sandler) is a plastic surgeon with a wedding ring and a sad story about being jilted by his non-existent wife that he uses to have commitment-free sex with women. This works well until he meets Palmer (Brooklyn Decker), whom he actually likes, so he removes the ring. She finds it the next morning and gets upset because she is a child of divorce due to adultery, so Danny tells her he is in the process of getting a divorce.
...instead of just saying that he is already divorced, or that he is a best man for somebody else, or that he is a ring salesman, or that he borrowed somebody else’s pants, or just about anything. He begs/extorts Katherine (Jennifer Aniston), his office manager, to play his soon-to-be ex-wife in order to convince Palmer his story is legit. This stupidity is compounded once Palmer overhears Katherine talking about her children, and justifiably assumes that Danny is the father of said children. So here’s the real plot of the movie: in order to maintain a relationship with Palmer, Danny introduces her to his fake ex-wife and their fake children and they all go on holiday to Hawaii where Danny plans to propose.
There’s a possible version of this movie where Danny simply ropes Katherine into playing his ex-wife. It’s still stupid, and it still relies on the idea that the audience will follow along with the deception because they know how romantic comedies are. But there’s no possible version of this movie where fake kids are involved, and the movie knows it, because at one point Danny jokes that his “kids” will die in a fake accident in the future and Palmer will never be the wiser. Either way, the only reason any of this is okay is that it’s clear from the outset that Danny and Katherine will end up together. And I don’t just mean “okay” in terms of plot; I mean “okay” in terms of watching the movie in the first place. Without that assumption going into the film, nothing makes sense, and it’s impossible as a viewer to just go with this.
5. New Year’s Eve
Director: Garry Marshall
Valentine’s Day is not a great film, but at the very least it works when we’re only talking dollars: it is the American Love Actually taking place on Valentine’s Day! New Year’s Eve, though, is purely the Hollywood machine in motion. It replaces a theoretical Valentine’s Day 2 with a marketing pitch for holiday big cast movies that can have posters that say, “this [insert holiday], go see a movie about this [insert holiday].” So be excited for Garry Marshall’s Easter Sunday, Veteran’s Day, Yom Kippur, and Arbor Day. All starring Ashton Kutcher, until he’s as old as Héctor Elizondo.
Before you even watch the movie, the diminishing returns from Valentine’s Day are apparent. First, the star power is downgraded: there’s no Julia Roberts, we trade T-Swift for Lea Michele, and I guess Robert DeNiro shows up, but he’ll apparently do anything if you send a car to Tribeca. Second, it quickly becomes clear that Marshall mistakenly thinks that the most attractive parts of Valentine’s Day were the “twist” reveals that Bradley Cooper and Eric Dane’s characters were boyfriends and Julia Roberts was a soldier and a single-mother. (Incidentally, the “gay” reveal was stupid and vaguely offensive, but not as offensive as New Year’s Eve not really having any LGBT characters at all.) This movie takes pains to hide the fact that DeNiro is Hillary Swank’s father and Sarah Jessica Parker and Josh Duhamel are in love, even though those revelations provide absolutely no stakes to either storyline, except that the person one person was waiting for chose to show up. Which sums up this movie in a nutshell: a bunch of people waiting for something to happen.
6. Something Borrowed
Director: Luke Greenfield
I haven’t read Emily Griffin’s book on which this film is based, but I suspect a book has more room to deal with the primary issue this adaptation has, which is characterization. It’s impossible to decide whom to root for. The plot is that Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) has an affair with the fiancé, Dex (Colin Egglesfield), of her best friend Darcy (Kate Hudson). That should put us on Darcy’s side, but Darcy is portrayed as selfish, manipulative, and aggressive, and at several points in the film before she learns of the affair we see her toying with Rachel’s self-esteem. Which should put us on Rachel’s side (her last name is “White,” after all), but Rachel…slept with her best friend’s fiancé, which is pretty shitty. On top of that, both Rachel and Darcy do mean things without being too mean, because I don’t think we’re supposed to hate either of them, at least until later on; the problem is that instead of understanding exactly what makes this post-expiry-date BFF relationship tick, the two of them just come off as awkward and it makes no sense why they were ever friends in the first place. On top of all of that, Dex has no personality and no charm. His chest is almost powerful enough to make the idea that two best friends are in love (or, in Darcy’s case, “in love”) with the same man work, but only almost.
There’s no big happy ending here: Darcy finds out about the affair, but it is also revealed that she’s been having an affair with another man and is pregnant to boot, which gives Dex the ammunition to finally call the engagement off. The movie pretends that Dex was hesitant about breaking off his wedding before this because his mom is sick or something, but the faux-obstacle only serves to make Dex look like a dick, and makes it even more annoying that Rachel and Darcy are fighting over him. Meanwhile, the movie makes the really odd choice of having Ethan (John Krasinski), Rachel’s other best friend, declare his undying love for her out of nowhere after a really awkward plot where he pretends to be gay to avoid the advances of Claire (Ashley Williams). Shoehorning it in here spoils one of the two good things about the film: the realistic friendship Rachel and Ethan have. It also sounds like if the sequel is ever made, that film will ruin the other good thing about this film: the realistic frenemy-ship between Ethan and Darcy.
That there’s not much “com” in this rom-com is obvious; that there’s not much “rom” either is less apparent until you accept that all of these people are just miserable, and the only really happy ending we get is that Rachel buys herself a new wardrobe at the end because she’s come out of her shell or something. It’s a white coat. Because her name is “White.” Because…zzzzzzz.
7. This Means War
FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are boring secret agents who both fall for Lauren (Reese Witherspoon). Lauren is an America’s Test Kitchen-type product tester who proudly proclaims early in the film that “the best product always wins” while holding two frying pans; the audience face-palms, which incidentally is probably good because it stops them from wondering why the two male leads are named “FDR” and “Tuck,” or just how awesome the location scout felt when he found FDR’s apartment that has a pool above the see-through ceiling because, wait for it, FDR’s a Don Juan who just hasn’t met the right woman yet. So this film wants you to believe in true love.
Rickety frying pan metaphors, professional stalking, and the ookiness of the premise aside, FDR and Tuck present two viable options for Lauren to choose. Except they don’t, because Lauren and FDR’s dates are all about talking and opening up to one another, while Tuck and Lauren’s dates are all about doing activities—like on The Bachelor. Plus, Tuck conveniently has an ex-wife (Abigail Spencer, sorely underused) and son, so it’s never a question with whom Lauren will end up, how everybody will end up happy, or how the movie will resolve. None of which erases the fact that This Means War is predicated on the idea that a woman will forgive a man for abusing the power, resources, and tech of the United States government to trick her into love. As with Just Go With It, none of this matters because we know how this will end: the best product always wins, and FDR is the best product, and knowing how this will end excuses the bad behavior along the way.
Also, I swear FDR and Tuck are just saying made up words most of the time, directing random operatives to set “parabolics, infrareds, and recep cams.” This film only exists because some executive was like, “love and action? This movie will make us money from men and women!”
8. The Big Wedding
Director: Justin Zackham
What dumpster was this screenplay dug out of? Did they just send a car to Tribeca for Robert DeNiro with a check made out to “cash”? See New Year’s Eve above.
Ellie (Diane Keaton) returns home for her youngest son Alejandro’s (Ben Barnes) wedding. Ellie is into all kinds of shit that we’re supposed to think is kind of lame—like tantric sex?—but it makes sense because she’s a single, wealthy woman of a certain age and so she’s into doing stuff. Her ex-husband Don (DeNiro) is a sculptor, a commitment-phobe, and an alcoholic, though he’s presently on the wagon. He’s also dating Bebe (Susan Sarandon), Ellie’s ex-BFF, who is consumed by the guilt of being a homewrecker, a guilt that has prevented her from admitting that the single thing she wants most is to get married to Don. The movie makes mountains out of the metaphorical molehill that is Bebe’s job as a chef; Ellie catches Don eating Bebe out, and the literal thing that is going on is that Bebe is the cook that belongs in the kitchen Don built for Ellie. Except, the movie keeps emphasizing that idea over and over, as if a house divided is strengthened when you strain the metaphor.
Don, Ellie, and Bebe aren’t the only stock characters. Alejandro’s older brother/blank piece of paper Jared (Topher Grace) is a successful OB/GYN who is also a virgin. He is basically introduced by his sister saying, “Hey, you’re an expert on sex and reproduction who has never had sex.” Thanks, Lyla (Katherine Heigl), who is secretly pregnant and has an estranged husband; she blames Don for her emotional issues but of course is very much like Don. Other characters include Alejandro’s wife-to-be Missy (Amanda Seyfried), her parents, Alejandro’s bio-mom, and Alejandro’s sister/Jared’s v-card taker. The obstacle is that Alejandro’s mother Madonna (Patricia Rae) is a strict Catholic and he believes she’ll freak out if she finds out the lovely couple she chose to raise him got a divorce. Bebe, who’s already nervous because Ellie is in town, is upset a she’s picked up much of the slack—maybe all of it; the movie whiffles this point a bit—raising Alejandro since Ellie and Don got divorced and Ellie went off to find herself in tantric sex seminars.
The movie is really about Don finally proposing to Bebe, but all of the “farce” that leads up to that point—the revelation that Ellie cheated on Don with Missy’s father Barry (David Rasche) before Don cheated on Ellie with Bebe; the further revelation that Missy’s mother Muffin (Christine Ebersole) would very much like to have an affair with Ellie or Bebe right at this very moment—is expressed with all the enthusiasm of a long sigh. The much shorter way to say all of that is that The Big Wedding is unrepentantly boring. There are characters with problems, and plot twists that sort of work, and obstacles to true love, but everything else is just a bland mess of nothing.
9. The Right Kind of Wrong
Director: Jeremiah Chechik
Even cheapo rom-coms are in decline. The Right Kind of Wrong stars Sara Canning and Ryan Kwanten, each former stars of two different television shows about vampires. The premise is that Leo (Kwanten) is a divorcee whose ex has built a career writing a blog called “Why You Suck” that chronicles Leo’s failings. Leo has never read the blog. One day, he sees Colette (Canning) and falls in love; the problem is that this is the day she gets married. Despite this, Leo stalks Colette to her wedding reception and continually tells her they’re going to end up together, so of course they do—once he reads his ex’s blog and learns some valuable things about himself, of course!
It’s difficult to understand the film’s intentions. One reading is that this film, for most of its run, is actually a send-up of your typical romantic comedy. Here’s a film where the male lead—a dishwasher with little to recommend in his personality and less ambition, but who happens to be good looking—acts like a bully, pushily declaring his love for a married woman he barely knows despite her repeated protestations. In other words, it’s a weird attempt to capture what the courtships of most romantic comedies would look like if they happened in real life, where men and women bossily and arrogantly proclaim their love for people they’ve known for a week in public. People always clap in those scenes; in this movie they don’t clap. Except…all of the sudden, the movie shifts, and suddenly Leo and Colette are going to get together, as if the meaning of true love is a studio note to make the ending more conventional. At this point, The Right Kind of Wrong has no point.
10. The Fault in Our Stars
Director: Josh Boone
The Fault in Our Stars is wholly unenjoyable to watch, but what’s more important about including it on this list is that this movie may unfortunately represent what many “rom-coms” will look like in the future. See, somewhere in the 2000s—probably 2006, after She’s the Man—the sheer glut of teen-contemporary Shakespeare adaptations hit its natural social limit. It’s also true that Shakespeare adaptations don’t function like most adaptations of pre-existing assets, because they don’t call the films Twelfth Night or A Mid-Summer’s Night’s Dream or whatever, so there’s nothing for audiences to recognize. Suddenly the rom-com genre had to look elsewhere for adaptations in a world that was moving exclusively towards adaptations. One route was reference books like He’s Just Not That Into You and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. And those movies were okay in some ways and poor in others, but outside of the lack of a need to appeal to the whole family, they aren’t much better than New Year’s Eve. Another option: popular romance novels.
I haven’t read the book. I don’t think I could. My brain would explode, because the diction in this film is exasperating. The whole cigarette metaphor makes me want to gouge my eyes out: “It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.” Putting that metaphor between my teeth kills me. And while the idea of the film is fine, the smug verbosity of the writing is something to behold. “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.” I could list them forever, but the movie just goes with it. And for that reason I kind of want to like it. I like Joss Whedon, and I like Shonda Rhimes, and I even like Aaron Sorkin occasionally, so I like distinctive dialogue…but not this kind of distinctive.
I don’t mind The Fault in Our Stars being a popular thing, but I want another How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, except one that knows how not to be sexist to exist, more than I care how bad the adaptation of the already bad 50 Shades of Grey is. So this decline makes me sad. If I said my infinity is bigger than other infinities, would somebody throw a Kate Hudson vehicle into the McConaissance?
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.