‘Romantic Comedy’ review: Summer Camp’s Elizabeth Sankey puts an entire genre under the microscope

Indie pop's finest deconstructs her favourite romcoms

In 2020, it’s easier than ever for us to look back and take note of our cultural blind spots thanks to streaming services and our constantly developing collective consciousness. Homophobic jokes in beloved sitcoms? Misogynistic lyrics in hit songs? A lack of diversity on the big screen? Our digital world has us regularly reassessing the TV shows, movies and music we grew up on.

That idea forms the basis of Romantic Comedy, a documentary/critical analysis of the genre by Summer Camp’s Elizabeth Sankey. Over the course of the film (which is made up entirely of clips from romcoms released between the 1930s and the present day), she and a host of commentators dissect the flaws of this predominantly white, heterosexual, middle-class group of stories, while weaving her own personal narrative in between.

The problem with romantic comedies is not just that the faces in them are all the same, although that is a major issue. As Sankey explains, it’s also in the way these films show relationships. Women are either used as muses and saviours for men or shown as career women consistently making fools of themselves with clumsy accidents that veer close to slapstick. Men are rewarded for borderline psychopathic behaviour, subtly told that if they just stick at it they’ll be able to grind a woman down until she falls madly in love with them or takes them back and forgives all of their sins. Romcoms might be written off as frivolous chick flicks, but the attitudes portrayed within them can be incredibly harmful.

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What Romantic Comedy does well, though, is address one of our time’s biggest dilemmas – finding enjoyment in something problematic. The film opens with Sankey recounting her own experiences as a teenager obsessed with romcoms, noting that her perspective on them only changed after she got married. Offering up part of her own story makes the doc feel more like a conversation between friends than a moral judgement being passed over anyone who’s swooned at When Harry Met Sally’s New Year’s Eve declaration of love or Heath Ledger’s 10 Things I Hate About You serenade.

Less smooth is the presentation. A group of critics and actors help Sankey take apart the genre bit-by-bit, film-by-film. But we never see their faces, and the cycle of disembodied voices can, at times, feel a little disorientating. Being faced with an endless montage of film clips has its limits and the collage feel begins to lose its shine before long. The narration’s delivery also feels heavy-handed, at times over-emphasised and laboured – as if scared the argument might flash past unnoticed.

Romantic Comedy isn’t just focused on highlighting problems. In fact, its most interesting parts are when it diverts from that lane and explores romcoms that subvert expected tropes. By Sankey’s assessment, current romcoms are expanding the boundaries of who is featured within their scenes – be that in terms of the diversity seen on screen or in the type of relationship shown (she makes a compelling case for buddy movies like I Love You, Man or The Heat to be considered part of the genre). Instead of leaving you feeling guilty for indulging in a lighter format, this hopeful end note points to a future for the genre that’s both intriguing and exciting.

Details

  • Director: Elizabeth Sankey
  • Starring: Jessica Barden, Cameron Cook, Anne T. Donahue
  • Released: May 7 (MUBI)
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