At the grand old age of 57, Hugh Grant has announced that he is done with rom-coms. More interesting roles are coming his way, apparently. As they should: I would have cheerfully given him an Oscar for Paddington 2, in which he plays a far cleverer and more engrossing villain than Sam Rockwell’s turn in Three Billboards. But it seems a shame to abandon the whole genre of romantic comedies, in which Grant has been a staple since he first swore his way into our hearts in Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994.
Or maybe rom-coms have abandoned him, and all of us who have grown increasingly bored of them in recent years. Actors wanting the acclaim of awards often shy away from comedies, although that wasn’t always so. In 1950, Judy Holliday beat Bette Davis, Ann Baxter and Gloria Swanson to the Best Actress Oscar for her role as the helium-voiced gangster’s moll in Born Yesterday.
It has been a while since a rom-com performance earned anyone an Oscar: Jennifer Lawrence managed it in 2012 for Silver Linings Playbook. But that wasn’t a straight-up rom-com. Silver Linings Playbook is actually rather serious, examining mental health issues as two broken souls try to find their way to happiness. But that would also be a reasonable description of When Harry Met Sally (no-one who orders food the way Sally does is without problems. And I write as someone who won’t drink opaque drinks, or from opaque containers). And the gag rate in the latter is breath-taking, quite aside from the performances. Nora Ephron wasn’t aiming for realism, she was aiming for laughs.
Perhaps the problem is, as Peter O’Toole succinctly put in in My Favourite Year, that dying is easy; comedy is hard. Although last year’s rom-com hit, The Big Sick, managed to tick both boxes and get laughs out of a coma. Based on the true story of its screenwriters – a comedian and his girlfriend who becomes ill – the movie breaks and warms your heart in equal measure. Realistic rom-coms may sound like a contradiction (like realistic superhero films), but there is something to be said for allowing the darkness of life onto the screen. Quite aside from anything else, it buys you some leeway with your audience: funny characters are hard to write. It helps if you have can cite real-life inspiration and sadness can add texture and save you from schmaltz.
Hugh Grant might be getting out just in time, if rom-coms continue becoming more realistic and bittersweet. And maybe rom-coms will raise their game if they can’t rely on the box office draw of a star like him without worrying too much about the script. But comedies used to be faster-paced and have a 90-minute running time to match: that’s rare in a post-Judd Apatow world. No amount of realism would make me laugh more than a return to crisp editing and sharp one-liners.