Edel Coffey: Where have all the smart romcoms gone?

They’re dismissed as saccharine, but the really good ones can give you a sugar-free lift

I was talking to a young woman about love recently. She’s just 20 years old and is entering the world of dating for the first time. Unsure of what to expect, but hopeful of finding a great romance, her experience so far has been disappointing – more Glenroe than Normal People. “I’d just like to meet someone in a coffee shop,” she said wistfully, “in Dublin, maybe, while I’m reading my book and he’s reading his book.”

It sounded like the beginning of a romantic comedy and made me think of a line from the film Sleepless in Seattle where Rosie O’Donnell tells Meg Ryan’s hopeless romantic: “That’s your problem. You don’t want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.”

Romantic comedies had been on my mind recently as I had stumbled across another Nora Ephron classic on the TV and it made me wonder, where have all the smart romcoms gone?

Romantic comedies have long had a poor reputation for being saccharine and unrealistic, but that's just the bad ones. The good ones can completely alter your mood, which is why, when you find one, you can watch it again and again and again. They are a failsafe pick-me-up. If I'm having a bad day, I'll watch something like Tootsie or Annie Hall or Notting Hill and my mood will magically transform. To put this in context, when I was recovering from eye surgery and unable to watch TV, I decided to listen to my favourite romcoms instead. I knew the films so well that I could visualise every scene as I listened along to them and they cheered me up immensely during a miserable period.

Low point

At the time, I was also recovering from a break-up. In fact, the eye surgery was directly linked to the breakup. In that irrational low point that comes in the immediate aftermath of a break-up, the period where women normally get ill-advised haircuts, Dorothy Parker’s aphorism “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” ricocheted around my head. So I zapped my eyes in the hope of increasing my future chances of finding love.

Bandaged and sedated, I fell asleep to the comforting strains of You’ve Got Mail. Sixteen hours later I woke up. There had been a power cut and my cat, trapped in the house for the duration, had deposited an unmentionable gift. It was like a less adorable version of While You Were Sleeping.

If my life was a film, this would have been the point where the heroine’s fortunes would take a turn for the better. But because this was real life, I just let the cat out and fumbled around until the electricity came back on.

While movie studios gradually stopped making romantic comedies in the 2000s, viewers never stopped watching them

Romcoms just seem to buzz a different body part in the Operation game that is my cultural pleasure zone. I'm aware that romantic comedies are not necessarily the highest art form, but they can be if you consider – as I do – Pedro Almodóvar and Richard Linklater to be amongst the finest purveyors of the genre.

But why is it so hard to find a good one these days? Are romantic comedies (and by extension those who enjoy them) simply outdated dinosaurs representative of a bygone era? Or maybe, like in love, there are just dry spells, and the perfect romcom only comes along infrequently.

While movie studios gradually stopped making romantic comedies in the 2000s, viewers never stopped watching them. When Netflix was doing research into what sort of films they should develop for their in-house stable of movies, they discovered that viewers were watching things like The Holiday and My Best Friend's Wedding over and over again, which prompted them to reboot the genre.

Cult series

The closest thing I’ve found to a modern-day Nora Ephron experience is Amazon’s adaptation of Modern Love, the cult New York Times series that tells the real-life love stories of readers. It has just the right combination of sincerity, humour and reality. In the second episode of season one, one of the characters says: “Tomorrow is a brand new day that’s never been touched.” And I think that might actually sum up why I love romantic comedies so much. They instil a sense of renewed optimism, a belief in possibility, and the heady idea that your life is not all mapped out for you, that something unexpected might happen at any moment and change your life completely.

Is it silly, maybe a bit ditzy, to think this? I asked my husband what he thought of romcoms. “Well, they’re just make-believe,” he said, “fantasy.” Could this be the male take on romantic comedies (or perhaps, more worryingly, just my husband’s take on romance)? Is it really so crazy to believe that maybe one day, while reading a book, in a coffee shop in the big city, a 20-year-old woman might lift her eyes from the pages of her novel (ideally Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) to meet the eyes of another across the room, and so they find a far more interesting story in each other?

It might be the stuff of fairy tales, but as a great writer of fairy tales once wrote, those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.