Rom-coms for nice people

There’s a scene about halfway into the Netflix film Set It Up that signifies an interesting change for the rom-com genre. Charlie (Glen Powell), an overworked assistant to a cartoonishly demanding corporate executive, is forced to stay late at the office to make a new science fair project for his boss’s son after his boss destroys the original. Harper (Zoey Deutch), an assistant who also works for a tyrant of a boss in the same building, decides to skip out on a date to help Charlie make the project. As they lounge around the empty office building, Charlie and Harper trade thoughts about work and their ambitions, and they put together a pretty damn good science project overnight.

On the surface, this is not an abnormal scene; there are moments of characters bonding in just about every rom-com. But it does feel out of step with the other dominant rom-coms of late in just how nice it is. Charlie is a bit smarmy, yes, these are not high-strung, crude, or neurotic characters. Charlie and Harper are pretty well-adjusted.

That’s a departure for the genre. In years past, Set It Up would have been more likely to focus on Harper’s stressed out boss, a noted editor at a sports journalism outlet. The 2000s rom-com was largely devoted to this sort of ambitious, career-driven Manhattanite: Kate Hudson’s columnist for a women’s magazine in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; Jennifer Garner’s editor for a women’s magazine in 13 Going on 30; Sandra Bullock’s editor at a publishing house in The Proposal; Katherine Heigl’s assistant at a sporting magazine in 27 Dresses; Sarah Jessica Parker’s writer in Sex and the City.

These characters didn’t just all, for some reason, work in publishing. They were all neurotic complements to the schmoozy, sarcastic men that they inevitable fell in love with. These characters weren’t captivating because they were good people; in fact, they were often bad people. But they had some good tendencies buried deep down, tendencies that only falling in love could reveal.

When 2000s rom-coms weren’t focused on these neurotic socialites, they were gleefully indulging in crude humor. Judd Apatow led the charge in the other leading strain of the genre during this time, the raunch-rom-com. This subgenre included films like Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in addition to Adam Sandler vehicles like 50 First Dates and Mr. Deeds. These films also featured despicable people, but unlike the neurotic Manhattanites, they were free from inhibition. These characters delighted in their nastiness, launching crude barbs back and forth for a couple hours before falling in love and changing minimally.

In 2015 Apatow directed Trainwreck, a film that contains elements of both of these strains and also serves as an interesting departure from both. Amy Schumer, like many of her rom-com predecessors, plays a dissatisfied writer at a New York City publication with ambitions to write something of greater substance. But like many of the Apatow leads that came before her, she’s also exuberantly crude.

Trainwreck, however, doesn’t end up going in the direction either of those previous subgenres would have. She doesn’t find professional gratification in her work, and she doesn’t stay the same raunchy character either. Instead, she becomes a much nicer person as she falls in love with fellow nice person Bill Hader.

The success of recent rom-coms have solidified this trend that Trainwreck started. Set it Up eschews a focus on wealthy, high strung executives for a story about their very pleasant assistants. Charlie and Harper aren’t messed up people who learn to become better people by falling in love; they’re just good people who happen to fall in love.

The same goes for Netflix’s other breakout hit, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The teen rom-com follows a quiet high schooler named Lara Jean (Lana Condor) who pretends to date a jock named Peter (Noah Centineo), a ruse that helps both of them get something else they want. There are many ways this premise could have been mean-spirited, but To All the Boys is an entirely wholesome movie. Lara Jean is sweet, her family is loving, and Peter is overwhelmingly caring and earnest. The film could have been about the jock becoming a better person by noticing the quiet girl he’d never seen before, but this isn’t the case: it’s about two very nice people who simply discover that they’re right for each other.

This ‘Nice People’ trend doesn’t just exist on Netflix. It’s also the defining feeling of one of the year’s breakout hits (and currently the seventh highest-grossing rom-com of all time), Crazy Rich Asians. The film is about an economics professor named Rachel (Constance Wu) who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding), only to discover that Nick’s family is, well, crazy rich.

The film has its share of curmudgeonly characters, with much of this tension rooted in a clash of cultures. But the problems Rachel and Nick face are entirely external: they stem from the opposition of Nick’s family. Nick is an absolute saint, a jawline of a man with impeccable manners and style and an unwavering love for his family and for Rachel. There are times when Rachel struggles in this unfamiliar environment, but for the most part she is confident, calm, and in control. Rachel and Nick are a new kind of rom-com couple, one that doesn't need to change so much as navigate their place in the world around them.

Last year’s perennial ‘rom-com that will save rom-coms,’ The Big Sick, shares this same central drama. Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan), the couple at the center of that film, fight with each other more than Nick and Rachel do, but that's not where the bulk of their troubles lie. Emily goes into a coma, and Kumail has to deal with the trauma of that event while managing the cultural differences between his and Emily’s families.

In some ways, this trend feels like a callback to the golden era of modern rom-coms: the Meg Ryan-Nora Ephron era. When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail were all massively popular, and innovative for many reasons. But they all shared this same sensibility: whether it was friendship, distance, or anonymity, each of these films presented people who already deserved love, and whose barriers to getting together were external.

Meanwhile, 2000s rom-coms were based on more complicated conceits, like a fake green card marriage or a bet that makes both love interests lie to each other about who they are. Now we’ve moved back to a focus on external obstacles: family opposition, cultural differences, wingman duties. Even in To All the Boys, which does rest on a ruse, the lead characters aren’t duping each other. It’s why the other recent Noah Centineo-starring Netflix rom-com, Sierra Burgess is a Loser, didn’t work for me: it is centered on a Catfishing scheme that is hurtful and duplicitous.

It might be early to call this slew of movies from the past couple of years a trend, but I hope it continues. I love most of those 2000s rom-coms, but they also reflected a smarmy artifice that makes them a little distancing. This recent group of rom-coms have made being nice cool again. Here’s to hoping we don’t have to wait until the Crazy Rich Asians sequel to see more of it.