Long has it been since romance on the silver screen captured the heart of its audience. Modern “romance” movies, if you can even call them that, in no way reflect the great films that provided the foundation of the genre. The magic of Casablanca, Annie Hall and Titanic are nowhere to be found in modern cinema. Instead, we are force fed generic, uninspired Hollywood junk such as How Do You Know, When in Rome and the billion other imitations formulated the exact same way.
What made the classics so unique are the intricate character developments and the carefully crafted plots, and the lack of these elements accounts for one of the major problems with modern day romance movies. The generic protagonists in modern romance movies are often passive and universal, as if the slightest deviation from “normal” characteristics will disconnect the character from the audience. Not many people exist in this world who can related to Rick Blain or Jack Dawson on a personal level, yet their timeless tales still earn their rightful places as the greatest love stories of all time.
In the classics, the dynamic protagonists often undergo struggles, whether due to internal or external circumstances, and battle their problems in order to obtain love. Whether there is a happy ending matters not, as indicated by all the aforementioned films, as long as the emotions are successfully communicated to the audience.
Sure, those heart-breaking moments are sometimes hard to take, but they will evoke significantly more reactions in the viewers than the pretentious happy get-togethers at the end of a poorly constructed and frivolously portrayed story.
Within the last five years, 500 Days of Summer was probably one of the best romance films to be released. At the same time, it was also one of the most heart-breaking stories in recent memory. Audience members could clearly feel the affection in the relationship, the affliction of the falling out and the maturing in the aftermath. The less-than-desirable ending left an impact on the audience, reminding them that while hurt exists in life, they must learn and mature from it.
Another challenge that faces modern romance films, though the distributors and producers will see it as more of a selling point, is the immense amount of focus on the sexual nature of relationships. I’m not saying that romantic film shouldn’t include this aspect. On the contrary, films such as When Harry Met Sally take full advantage of the topic and utilize it, with a touch of finesse, to create prominence. “I’ll have what she’s having” is an undisputable classic quote among the romance genre.
Again, the issue is not with the topic itself, but rather how it is portrayed. Nowadays, Hollywood is comfortable flooding the audience with sexually charged ideas, using them as a gimmick to differentiate their products by adding a “progressive” or “edgy” feel. As a result, Hollywood seems to misunderstand that sex is not equivalent to romance, no matter how much they try to push the idea across. Bluntly throwing irrelevant explicit material at the audience adds no romantic value to the work. There are entire industries, more profitable ones, which are better suited for that.
When a romantic film fails, often times it is not the fault of the actors. When the same actress that was in The Notebook appears in The Time Traveler’s Wife, you can’t help but blame it on the writing. However, casting on the other hand is a different matter altogether. Sometimes, such as in the case of Water for Elephants, the casting is simply awkward and out of place. No chemistry can come from 10 years of age difference, especially when one of the characters used to sparkle while jumping on trees.
Generally, it appears that Hollywood is running out of ideas. There’s a reason that films based on books or remakes are receiving the best reviews in modern filmography: they have better stories. The romantic genre is one where formulaic approaches will not work. Look at the many poor imitations of Love Actually such as Valentine’s Day or He’s Just Not That into You and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
It’s not that there are no good ideas left. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a great example as it is one of the most hauntingly beautiful yet un-traditional romance films to date. Writers and producers just need to dig deeper and focus less on pushing out a generic copy in time to make marginal profit.