“Romantic Comedy recaps the flotsam and jetsam of gender and media studies you may have come across in your lifetime.”
Title: Romantic Comedy (2019)
Director: Elizabeth Sankey 👩🏼🇬🇧
Writer: Elizabeth Sankey 👩🏼🇬🇧
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Attention all analytical film nerds! Let’s say you enjoy videos that break down cinematic themes and have often whiled away an afternoon on YouTube, auto-playing Every Frame a Painting or Lessons from the Screenplay. Or maybe you like revisiting old movies to see if they stand the test of time. If so, then Romantic Comedy, a British documentary that just had its North American premiere at SXSW over the weekend, belongs on your radar.
In this feature-length dissection of romantic comedies, director Elizabeth Sankey takes us through her lifelong love affair with the problematic genre. She uses a massive library of source material to make her points about how sexist many of them really are, pulling from standard-bearers like When Harry Met Sally (1989) or Pretty Woman (1990). But she also digs into early clips from the ‘30s to show the genre’s beginnings and ends on a progressive note through more inclusive rom-coms like last summer’s Crazy Rich Asians (2018).
While Sankey details her thoughts clearly and with engaging, lyrical wistfulness, I did find the documentary’s insights short of groundbreaking. As I watched, I kept being reminded of the deeply articulate video essays from Pop Culture Detective. The channel’s creator, Jonathan McIntosh, has produced a superb playlist of YouTube shorts that already interrogates tropes in our most beloved movies. His videos like “Stalking for Love”, “Abduction as Romance”, or “Predatory Romance” are just the tip of the iceberg and while I get the sense that Sankey arrived at her own conclusions independently, much of the content overlaps.
That said, Sankey carves out an emotional entry point that McIntosh’s coolly detached essays keep shut. The latter feels akin to textbooks or research reports, while Romantic Comedy grounds its arguments with an emotional heartbeat. Sankey doesn’t just tell us that romantic comedies can be damaging to young viewers; she recounts the ways in which they specifically damaged her as she grew up on the genre’s toxic messages. That personal backstory proves crucial in making Romantic Comedy stand out against its shorter, more episodic YouTube peers.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Romantic Comedy sails through this category with ease. Beyond just being written and directed by a woman, the film’s deepest curiosity lies in examining the rigid gender roles entrenched in a film genre that’s long been associated with female viewership.
It’s satisfying to listen to Sankey’s older, current self as she takes us through her own revelations. She tackles internalized misogyny, unrealistic expectations for women and men alike, and thoughtfully explores a major category of films from a distinctly female perspective.
Sankey doesn’t spend too much time discussing race in her thematic studies, but she does call out the overwhelming whiteness in the genre and makes staunch calls for more racial diversity. She also uses a judicious amount of clips that feature protagonists of color, although they bunch towards the end as she bends a hopeful eye towards the future and remarks on box office successes like The Big Sick (2017) or Crazy Rich Asians (2018).
Voiceovers from critics of colors also inject the film with non-white perspectives. Out of the 8 speakers whose voices float over the full and unbroken series of movie clips, Simran Hans (who is British Asian) and Cameron Cook (Black, American, and based in Berlin) help offset an otherwise white-centric documentary.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.25
Sankey makes a point to add at least one queer perspective to the conversation, notably through the aforementioned writer Cameron Cook who calls himself “The Champagne of Queers” in his Twitter bio. 🥂
Similar to her calls for more racial diversity, Sankey also advocates for more LGBTQ representation in romantic comedies. She sprinkles clips of same-sex couples throughout the film and pauses to spend several minutes on God’s Own Country (2017). In this example, seeming opposites of a Yorkshire native and a Romanian migrant fall in love and Sankey highlights the way the critically acclaimed movie humanizes a same-sex romance that also features individuals from low-income backgrounds—yet another community that experiences a lack of representation in cinema.
Sankey advocates for disability representation in romantic comedies, but she doesn’t use any footage featuring disabled characters. Nor does she feature a publicly disabled writer among the 8 who speak during the film’s running time.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.25/5
For those already immersed in the conversations surrounding misogyny in film, Romantic Comedy will feel very familiar. It’s an enjoyable, even self-indulgent exercise that recaps the flotsam and jetsam of gender and media studies you may have come across in your lifetime.
But all fans of cinema should examine this lucrative and highly influential genre. Sankey’s Romantic Comedy is just your best bet in learning it all in one shot. Better yet, you get to groove to the catchy soundtrack and marvel at the sheer amount of labor spent crafting this love letter to the romantic comedy—past, present, and more inclusive future alike.