Movies & TV

The Rom-Com Is Back. Why Did It Ever Leave?

George Clooney and Julia Roberts’ new movie, Ticket to Paradise, feels a lot like the rom-coms of the ’90s — but with a twist.

Paramount, Universal, Getty

A quick glance at this weekend’s box-office report might make you think everything in Hollywood is business as usual: Would you believe this weekend’s top movie was a big superhero blockbuster starring Dwayne Johnson? Would you believe it ends with a post-credits sequence promising more superhero crossovers to come?

But the second movie on the list tells a different story. Ticket to Paradise, a romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney, did not feature The Rock as a lightning-based superhero, but it did promise — and deliver — on the particularly electric charge between two of Hollywood’s biggest stars. It debuted in second with a better-than-expected $16 million — adding to a worldwide total that’s already within spitting distance of $100 million, with many weeks to go.

The success of Ticket to Paradise is yet another sign, if you needed one, that we’re in a very welcome renaissance for romantic comedies — a perennially underappreciated genre that was nearly written off altogether about a decade ago. At the risk of arguing with the headlines of 2013’s catchiest trend pieces: No, the romantic comedy is not dead. (And it never really was.)

Here we are in 2022, and three of the biggest rom-com stars of the 1990s and 2000s have already come back to the genre for more.

But it’s also fair to say the genre has taken a few body blows over the past decade or so. At a time when Hollywood seemed to want everything to be either a $300 million Avengers movie or a $10 million indie that might woo enough critics to win an Oscar, romantic comedies were uniquely disadvantaged: Never raking in the eye-popping billion-dollar grosses you might get from a four-quadrant blockbuster, and never greeted with the same critical rapture a more sober-minded drama might earn. (That a hungry audience still wanted to watch them seemed —in the usual fuzzy logic that determines what Hollywood studios do — to be an afterthought.)

Even then, the rom-com was never dead; it was just evolving, and often away from the types of glossy Hollywood rom-coms that had defined the genre so long. Indies like Obvious Child and The Big Sick played at the Sundance Film Festival long before they showed up at the multiplex. TV shows like The Mindy Project and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend both embraced and interrogated rom-com tropes by centering heroines that really, really wanted the kind of love story you’d seen in a rom-com. And the Hallmark Channel’s apparently endless supply of Christmas-themed rom-coms proved so popular that they added a second block in July.

Over the past five years, the biggest story in romantic comedies has been the rise of streaming, where savvy executives saw the value in producing crowd-pleasing, character-driven movies with minimal production costs upfront and relatively minimal post-production work required after filming had wrapped. Netflix’s 2018 “Summer of Love,” which spawned two huge franchises in The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, sparked a gold rush for good streaming romantic comedies that shows no sign of slowing down.

But for all that range and talent, maybe the most interesting development in the romantic comedy space since the publication of my book From Hollywood with Love came out earlier this year is what’s happening at the Hollywood studios. The modern golden age of romantic comedies was built on movies like When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, and While You Were Sleeping, and most fans assumed we’d never see the likes of those movies again. But here we are in 2022, and three — count ‘em, three — of the biggest rom-com stars of the 1990s and 2000s have already come back to the genre for more.

2022’s bumper crop of rom-coms kicked off with Marry Me, a Jennifer Lopez vehicle that dropped just in time for Valentine’s Day; she already has another one on the way. Just a couple months after Marry Me came The Lost City, an action rom-com starring Sandra Bullock, who declared more than a decade ago that she hates romantic comedies and hadn’t starred in one since. And now we have Ticket to Paradise, starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney — an on-screen and off-screen pairing so reliable that it’s hard to believe they haven’t already costarred in a romantic comedy.

Roberts and Clooney in Ticket to Paradise.VINCE VALITUTTI/UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

More than any studio romantic comedy released in recent years, Ticket to Paradise a rom-com that feels a lot like the rom-coms you remember from the ‘90s. Billie Lourd does a fun riff on the best friend archetype that was so memorably embodied by her mom, Carrie Fisher, in When Harry Met Sally. Julia Roberts has a vaguely defined rom-com kind of job. (Some kind of art buyer? It’s briefly introduced and then never mentioned again.) There are wacky set pieces — a dolphin attack! A frantic room swap! A venomous snake bite that is somehow silly instead of horrifying! — and, inevitably, a swoony sunrise kiss. There’s even a blooper reel that plays over the credits.

Classic rom-com, right? But the interesting choice — and the thing that connects Ticket to Paradise to much older genre forbears like 1937’s The Awful Truth, 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, and the same year’s His Girl Friday — is the perspective from which it’s told. It is not hard to imagine a version of Ticket to Paradise that centers Lily (Kaitlyn Dever), an aspiring lawyer whose carefully planned life explodes when she embarks on a whirlwind romance with a guy she meets in Bali. The meet would be cute, hijinks would be had, and in the end, as it’s been since at least Shakespeare’s time, the happy couple would get married. Maybe her parents would fly in right before the credits so we could squint at them, blurry in the background, during the big heartfelt wedding speech.

Ticket to Paradise’s big conceptual swing is to take the couple that would logically be at the heart of this rom-com and move them to the sidelines. It’s hard to imagine that choice being made if Ticket to Paradise didn’t land stars as glossy as Julia Roberts and George Clooney, so it’s no shock that the script was written with both in mind.

But as light and frothy as Ticket to Paradise may be, the decision to cast a 61-year-old actor and a 54-year-old actress as romantic leads — a territory staked out by the great Nancy Meyers, but few else at the studio level — gives the movie a chance to explore an emotion rarely grappled with in this genre: regret. Roberts and Clooney are playing characters jaded by the weight of their lost love, and of the decades of resentment that manifest as witty jabs. In a genre that has, in the modern era, rarely explored what happens after happily ever after, Ticket to Paradise is an entire movie about it. And the effect is only heightened by the presence of Roberts and Clooney, who we’ve literally seen playing characters falling in love in younger, happier times.

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At a time when there’s such a promising crop of fresh young rom-com talent, it’s enough to make you wonder what else the genre’s reliable veterans might be able to bring to the table. And happily, it’s looking likelier and likelier that that’s not just a hypothetical question. Earlier this year, it was announced that Meg Ryan will star opposite David Duchovny in a movie called What Happens Later. Like Ticket to Paradise, it’s an exes-to-lovers romantic comedy in which a long-separated couple gets thrown back together under unexpected circumstances. (This time around, it’s an airport in a snowstorm, because unfortunately for the stars involved, not every movie can be set in Bali.)

But as exciting as it is to see Meg Ryan returning to play another rom-com heroine, the most intriguing wrinkle is that she’ll also be behind the camera directing What Happens Later. And at a time when Hollywood is charting a new path for the romantic comedy by revisiting its past successes with new wisdom and perspective, who better to help determine what the rom-coms of the future might look like?

Scott Meslow is a senior editor at The Week magazine and a writer and critic for publications including GQ, New York magazine, and The Atlantic. From Hollywood with Love is his first book.