If you've seen one romantic comedy love montage, you've seen them all: two star-crossed sex Muppets whimsically play hopscotch or kayak down a heart-shaped estuary, all while laughing about nothing, set to Sara Bareilles. Trainwreck, a comedy that happens to be romantic, also contains such a montage. The difference is that here, amid so much goopy pair-bonding, the female lead declares via voiceover, "I hope this love montage ends like Jonestown."
Cue record scratch noise from every rom-com trailer. And then light that noise on fire.
Amy Schumer's character in Trainwreck can't stand the maudlin tropes of rom-coms, even as she lives through one. That self-referential montage, though, is the closest the film, which Schumer also wrote, comes to parody. It need not go any further. As proven by They Came Together, the 2014 spoof of New York-set lovefests, it's hard to make fun of something that's already parodied itself into obsolescence. Instead, Trainwreck exists in a world where the romantic comedy as we know it is dead—and rightfully assumes a throne in the regime that's replacing it.
By the time we arrived at The GreatCompeting Fuck-Buddy Films of 2011, the center could no longer hold. The standard issue rom-com recipe had curdled into a sour mixture of stock characters, forced meet-cutes, and groan-worthy zingers. Women felt insulted, while men watched in an attempt to win The Good Guy Awards—a campaign that includes patiently waiting in Anthropologies across America and providing constructive outfit feedback. To paraphrase Nancy Meyers, something had to give, and give it did: audiences stopped going and studios stopped supplying. The idea of seeing another workaholic learn to let love in suddenly seemed as antiquated as tucking into a “talkie.“
Of course, stories about budding relationships couldn't stay in movie jail forever. An ambitious new wave of films has begun to fill the void left by romantic comedies, while also flipping the script. Trainwreck, Obvious Child, and the forthcoming Sleeping With Other People are more like romant-ish comedies—with the emphasis on the second word. When the leads—all comedic powerhouses—end up together in presumable matrimony, it's just icing atop a cake made of fart jokes.
Personally, whenever I hear about the latest rom-com, my only question is “What’s in it for me, the target audience of everything?” Then I high-five the nearest lumberjack and sport-chug a Rheingold. What I admire about this new crop of female-fronted comedies is how much there is for guys to enjoy, without any pandering to us. Amy Schumer's character in Trainwreck is assertive, self-focused, and unapologetic about her sex drive. She has agency, historically not a trait allotted to women in male fantasies. But more importantly, she’s deeply funny, and the humor doesn’t come from falling down escalators or vibrating panties either. She talks about the inner workings of her body in a refreshingly vulgar way that recalls Jenny Slate's standup material in Obvious Child (or any of the real-life Schumer’s specials). Both characters joke about stuff most guys can’t relate to, but will still laugh their dicks off about.
This realism extends beyond frank talk about vaginas, though. In all too many rom-coms, the subplots and mise-en-scène are underdeveloped afterthoughts, crumbling under the weight of the romance itself. These new movies instead place romance amidst the surrounding shitstorm of real life. Trainwreck finds Schumer dealing with a father who has MS, a complicated sibling relationship, and alcohol issues. Obvious Child is an abortion comedy set in the New York standup scene. All of it is mined for humor and pathos, allowing the romance to sometimes take a backseat. Both movies create believable worlds, rather than souvenir snow globes whose every flake shoves the leads toward each other's Laura Ashley bed sets.
Populating these worlds is an Olympic dream team of diverse side characters, each a twist on the tropes that came before, and portrayed by comedic actors on the rise. (Judy Greer can only do so much in a calendar year.) Gabe Liedman, for instance, makes his film debut in Obvious Child as the least quippy sidekick ever. Meanwhile, Trainwreck and Sleeping With Other People cram hilarious people like Jason Mantzoukas, Nikki Glaser, and Vanessa Bayer into every last tiny role. It’s so impressive, it almost feels like cheating.
Traditionally, romantic comedies end with the couple getting together in some kind of permanent way—then sitcoms pick up the story and show the suburban hellscape where relationships go to die. Just as a bold breed of movies has brought realism, twisted laughs, and fresh faces to squat on the rom-com's grave, TV shows like Catastrophe, Married, and You’re the Worst are doing the same for relationship sitcoms.
It may be time to say goodbye, in every medium, to the old guard of opposites attracting auspiciously. And as the museum of sap seared into your brain flashes by in a memory someday, you'll quietly recall: this is what love montages looked like.
Photos by Mary Cybulski