Rise of the rheumcom: how romantic comedies set out to attract the most mature lover | Movies

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Much like a platonic friend who realizes that their soulmate was by their side all along, Hollywood has finally noticed how desperate we are for new romantic comedies.

Over the past decade, we were lucky if we got one high-profile romcom a year. But on 27 January, there are three to choose from. On Netflix, there is You People, co-written by Jonah Hill, in which Hill’s Jewish character gets together with Lauren London’s black Muslim character (culture-clash hilarity ensues). Prime Video has Shotgun Wedding, a bet-they-thought-of-the-title-first caper in which Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel’s tropical-island nuptials are interrupted by masked gunmen. And US cinemagoers can see Maybe I Doin which Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey consult their respective parents about whether to tie the knot.

Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel in Shotgun Wedding.
Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel in Shotgun Wedding. Photograph: Ana Carballosa/Lionsgate

That’s not all. In February, Your Place or Mine features Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher as friends who may just become more than friends, and Working Title brings us What’s Love Got to Do With It?, written by Jemima Khan, directed by Shekhar Kapur (who made 1998’s Elizabeth), and starring Lily James and Shazad Latif. Bear in mind that Ticket to Paradise, Marry Me, and The Lost City all came out last year, and it’s beginning to feel a lot like the late 90s, when you were never far from a poster of Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson leaning against each other.

The current wave of big-name romcoms isn’t quite the same as the last one, though. Or, to put it another way, the current wave is almost exactly the same as the last one, in that the actors who were in the old films are in the new ones, too. One major element of their appeal is that we don’t have to get to know any promising newcomers. Instead, we can reacquaint ourselves with some familiar faces – even if those faces are getting wrinkled. Today’s typical romcom heroine is a middle-aged woman, standing in front of a middle-aged man, asking him to love her.

Ticket to Paradise was a vehicle for George Clooney and Julia Roberts, who are 61 and 55. Shotgun Wedding’s stars, J-Lo and J-Du, are 53 and 50. In Marry Me, Lopez starred opposite Owen Wilson, who is 54. The Lost City paired up Sandra Bullock, 58, and Channing Tatum, a mother 42. And Your Place or Mine’s Witherspoon and Kutcher are 46 and 44. It wasn’t long ago that the average romantic lead was eligible for Club 18-30. Now, most of them could book a Saga cruise.

There have been plenty of previous romcoms about older people, of course, but Richard Curtis’s and Judd Apatow’s films tended to be populated by young metropolitan professionals, or would-be professionals, who shared flats, hung out in bars, and wondered when they would be mature enough to settle down. The very prospect of turning 40 was enough to have Sally sobbing in When Harry Met Sally … and, as Harry pointed out, that wasn’t due to happen for another eight years. Meanwhile, the age of Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin was such a big deal that it was in the title of the film.

Lily James and Shazad Latif in What's Love Got to Do with It?
Lily James and Shazad Latif in What’s Love Got to Do with It? Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Times have changed. The latest romcoms offer a similar feeling to the one we got a decade ago, when such “geriaction movies” as The Expendables, Taken, Red and A Good Day to Die Hard demonstrated that stars in their 60s could still have the bulging biceps and quick -trigger fingers that they had in their days. Those films reminded us of our younger selves, and assured us that we weren’t over the hill yet, so maybe it was only a matter of time before we got the same nostalgic buzz from romantic comedies – or rheumatic comedies, perhaps? As the world lurches from one apocalyptic crisis to another, and streaming services exhaust us with a bewildering array of content, it’s comforting to see Hollywood’s well-preserved genre icons doing what they do best, despite the danger that, when the hero gets down on one knee to propose, he might need help to get back up again.

But wait! That doesn’t cover all of today’s romcom crop. The stars of What’s Love Got to Do With It? and Maybe I Do (including Julia Roberts’ niece, Emma) are in their early 30s, and Hill and London from You People are (just) under 40. Doesn’t that prove that cinema’s star-crossed lovers are as youthful as they ever were? Well, no, not if those films’ trailers are anything to go by. Even when it’s the thirtysomething characters who are bumbling towards the altar, it’s the generation above that gets all the attention.

You People is heated by the friction between Hill’s character’s Jewish parents, played by David Duchovny (62) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (62), and his fiancee’s Muslim parents, played by Eddie Murphy (61) and Nia Long (52). The premise of Maybe I Do is that the hero’s and heroine’s parents have been having secret affairs, so the key actors are Diane Keaton (77), Susan Sarandon (76), Richard Gere (73) and William H Macy (72).

(From left) David Duchovny, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jonah Hill, Lauren London, Eddie Murphy and Nia Long in You People.
(From left) David Duchovny, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jonah Hill, Lauren London, Eddie Murphy and Nia Long in You People. Photograph: Parrish Lewis/Netflix © 2023

The trailer for Shotgun Wedding, meanwhile, gives all the best lines to Jennifer Coolidge (61), who plays the mother of Duhamel’s character, even though she is only 11 years older than he is. Latif’s character is surrounded by his family in almost every shot of the What’s Love Got to Do With It? trailer. And last autumn’s Ticket to Paradise wasn’t about the youngsters who were getting hitched in Bali, but about the long-divorced father and mother of the bride.

Think of Curtis’s and Apatow’s romcoms again, and you’ll recall that they revolved around groups of friends, and the odd sibling. The protagonists’ other relatives made only fleeting appearances. Bridget Jones’s annoying mum and dad may have shown up, but her closest relationships were her “urban family” of chardonnay-swigging pals. Looking further back, nobody cared about the parents of Vivian in Pretty Woman or Sugar in Some Like It Hot. And from 2000 to 2010, having to Meet the Parents was unusual enough to merit an entire trilogy. These days, it’s more or less essential.

Like the geriaction movies, these rheumatic comedies suggest that younger actors simply don’t have the star power of their predecessors, and that audiences aren’t interested in them unless they’re squeezed into superhero costumes. But the shift in the genre’s focus could also be a result of the straitened economy. It’s harder than it was to move to a big city, get a job, and mooch around as aimlessly as Curtis’s and Apatow’s characters did. Millennials are more likely to be stuck at home with their actual families than to be out and about with their urban ones.

Depressing as that may be, at least young viewers can look forward to the wacky amorous adventures that supposedly await them in their 50s. The rest of us can dream of the day when Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas’s characters find each other in a sequel to Four Weddings and a Funeral. The only question is what their parents will have to say about it.

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