In her directorial debut Romantic Comedy, British musician and actor Elizabeth Sankey examines the history of one of cinema’s greatest and most enduring genres. Sadly, a love of romantic comedies and a sharp approach to editing are not enough to buoy up this hopelessly shallow documentary.
Opening on a scene from the 2008 film Made of Honor, Sankey tells us, “When I was younger, this is how I pictured my wedding,” before taking us on a whistle-stop tour of clips from beloved rom-coms like Lover Come Back, The Wedding Planner and Love Actually. It’s a pithy summation of the appeal of the romantic comedy – their escapism their romance, and their power to inform our worldviews and our expectations – that promises a personal journey of identity and realisation defined by film history.
So it’s deeply regrettable to report that Romantic Comedy fails to deliver on that promise, allowing self-indulgence, an undisciplined structure, and one questionable claim after another to dominate its subject. The problems begin with Sankey’s failure to define her terms: the romantic comedy is a sprawling genre, but the film never settles on what does and doesn’t qualify, leaving out teen films like 10 Things I Hate About You but giving space to the buddy comedy.
In presenting the film’s linear and selective catalogue as historical fact, Sankey disregards the richness of the genre she professes to love. The casual conflation of fact and opinion is worsened by the anonymous cast of voiceovers that Sankey brings in as the film tries to grapple with the problematic aspects of romantic comedies. The difference between a critic’s, an actor’s and a general audience’s voice matters. But shorn of this basic context, a spectrum of opinions from disembodied voices can offer little insight.
It doesn’t help, either, that many of the views espoused by these voices are often sweeping and reductive. Almost uniformly, they decry the white, heteronormative perspectives of many Hollywood rom-coms while ignoring the multiplicity of readings that cinema invites, all the while suggesting that films have a moral obligation to model good behaviour or presents ideal subjects. Worse, such an ahistorical construction conveniently erases the films that might disrupt this smugly reductive reading of an enormous body of films.
Most egregious, however, and what really justifies this review’s single star, are Sankey’s outrageous claims that rom-coms exclusively star white, heternormative leads. Not only are these claims objectively false, they are offered in bad faith – the final third of the documentary sees Sankey admitting that she only used to believe that because she hadn’t seen Kissing Jessica Stein and The Broken Hearts Club when she was younger.
Presented like a revelation, the effect is more closely akin to exasperation as we witness the film tie itself in contradictions in order to contrive some naively-conceived aha! moment. It’s a sequence that betrays far more about the filmmaker’s own assumptions about representation and identification – and its audience’s own cine-literacy – than it does about the history of the romantic comedy. One can hide behind subjectivity for only so long: this lack of self-awareness and humility is not simply breathtaking: it’s offensive to the diverse audiences who have been enjoying these films for decades.
Elizabeth Sankey’s Romantic Comedy is available to watch now on MUBI.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm