Palm Springs, which drops on Hulu July 10, is already being hailed as one of the best rom-coms to emerge in the last decade. The movie, directed by Max Barbakow, starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti and produced by the Lonely Island (Popstar, Hot Rod), offers a hilarious and philosophical take on the Groundhog Day premise by sticking two miserable but flirtatious strangers in a time loop together and asking what it means to wake up next to the same person every morning. As the story unfolds (involving some creative physics which may or may not hold water), the Sundance hit suggests that couples can find joy in one another even when life feels repetitive and monotonous—a particularly timely theme given life under quarantine.
Palm Springs also offers a clear reminder that the rom-com’s not dead, contrary to what hyperbolic headlines have suggested. It’s just shifting and evolving, arguably even experiencing a renaissance on Netflix and other streaming services, even if studios have largely dumped the genre. If this difficult moment has inspired you to take comfort in classics of the form (hot tip: When Harry Met Sally is on HBO Max, My Best Friend’s Wedding is on Fubo and 10 Things I Hate About You is on Disney+), it may be time to explore some more recent, in many cases underseen, entries into the canon.
Here are some of the best and most unique romantic comedies from the past several years that put a new spin on an old genre, often making it more inclusive and showing how much more there is to mine in dating, mating and love.
Set It Up (2018)
Chemistry makes a great rom-com, and this movie has it in spades. Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell play put-upon personal assistants who decide to set up their bosses (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs, respectively), Parent Trap-style, to ease their own workloads. Deutch and Powell make a cute couple, but just as compelling are the relationships between each assistant and their manager. Liu’s and Deutch’s characters, especially, overturn the outdated rom-com trope that a career woman needs to be punished for prioritizing work over love (see: The Devil Wears Prada, Knocked Up, Sweet Home Alabama).
The Half of It (2020)
Nerdy protagonist helps handsome protagonist win over attractive woman is a well-worn rom-com plot line that began with Cyrano de Bergerac and got recycled in Can’t Buy Me Love and Love Don’t Cost a Thing. But in The Half of It, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) helps a straight boy write love letters to their mutual female crush. More a drama than a comedy, Alice Wu’s The Half of It compellingly explores anxieties about growing up queer in a conservative town and, to its credit, is more interested in intellectual Ellie’s friendship with a jock and cerebral connection with a popular girl than in the drama of who ends up with whom.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Crazy Rich Asians is an escapist delight. The clothes, the mansions, and—yes—the engagement ring are all over the top. But while Henry Golding makes for an attractive and charming love interest, the real tension in this story—adapted from Kevin Kwan’s novel and directed by John M. Chu—is not whether Constance Wu’s Rachel will end up marrying her boyfriend, but whether she can negotiate a detente between herself and her boyfriend’s mother (Michelle Yeoh). As the two women try to reconcile their conflicting values, Crazy Rich Asians becomes a story of respect rather than love—and it’s better for it.
The Lovebirds (2020)
The Lovebirds unexpectedly skips over the part where Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani’s characters actually fall in love and dives right into the portion in the couple’s relationship where they’ll either stick together forever or utterly fall apart. Though this means audiences lose out on much of the fun of the traditional rom-com, they gain a murder mystery instead. Right as the couple is considering breaking up, they find themselves falsely accused of murder. The ensuing hijinks make for a diverting romp.
The Big Sick (2017)
It’s your typical rom-com set-up: Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Girl is hurt when she finds out boy is hiding her existence from his parents who expect him to have an arranged marriage. Girl gets mysteriously ill and is put into a medically induced coma and boy becomes even more devoted to her while she’s unconscious. Truth, of course, is stranger than fiction, so it’s hardly a surprise that this story comes from the lives of its co-writers, real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani (who stars) and Emily V. Gordon (a fictional version of whom is played by Zoe Kazan). The resulting film, produced by Judd Apatow, isn’t just funny and romantic—it’s also a sensitive window into the complexities of cross-cultural relationships. Or, at least, this specific one.
Always Be My Maybe (2019)
Every rom-com needs to cook up some excuse to keep two obviously smitten people from getting together until the very end. Nahnatchka Khan’s Always Be My Maybe comes up with a thoroughly modern solution: Ali Wong’s character is a globetrotting chef and entrepreneur, while her love interest, a childhood friend played by Randall Park, never left home. The two have to overcome their own problematic ideas around gender and ambition (as well as a romantic threat in the form of a devastatingly funny Keanu Reeves playing himself) in order to fulfill their cinematic destiny.
The Long Shot (2019)
Seth Rogen has played a schlubby screw-up who winds up with an unattainable, powerful and smart beauty too many times to count. The lack of realism is part of the joke, but also part of a tiresome pattern of bromance movies where men have to be with women, even if they’d rather hang with their male buddies, and the women have to fix those men before the end of the film. The Long Shot takes that notion to its most radical conclusion: Charlize Theron plays a presidential candidate who dates…well, Seth Rogen with a weed pen. But unlike his characters in past movies, this version of Rogen isn’t afraid of women or women’s power or commitment. It’s a welcome change, and the movie makes the most of its innovative plot.
Jane Austen’s Emma was already the source material for several great movies and TV shows, including the masterpiece Clueless, before Autumn de Wilde’s version starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn came along. But in the vein of The Favourite and other irreverent period pieces, this Emma. approaches the formalities of Austen’s time with a knowing wink (and even a few adjustments to highlight classism in 19th-Century England). The result is a stylized delight sure to please any costume drama fan.
Obvious Child (2014)
Obvious Child ought to be known as more than the “abortion rom-com.” Jenny Slate plays a stand-up comedian who gets pregnant after a romantic encounter with Jake Lacy (who has gone on to play many more nice guy roles in rom-coms since). The movie was received as groundbreaking largely because it doesn’t make much of Slate’s character’s decision to have an abortion—it’s one of many choices she makes, including what she’ll say in her stand-up set, and whether or not she’s into her latest romantic interest. It’s a funny and moving portrait of those early moments of dating when two people find a rapport but don’t quite know what steps to take next.
Plus One (2019)
A lot of rom-com plots (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Wedding Crashers, Bridesmaids, Palm Springs) unfold at weddings. Bold declarations of love tend to make commitment-phobic characters uncomfortable and lovelorn characters willing to take risks. The endearing Plus One takes a less obvious route. Maya Erskine (Pen15) and Jack Quaid (notably the son of rom-com queen Meg Ryan) play friends who are skeptical of love but promise to be each other’s platonic plus-ones at a summer full of weddings. Instead of seeing one inspiring speech about love, the couple witnesses dozens of them, and that unrelenting hopefulness eventually begins to shape their own outlooks on the subject.
Enough Said (2013)
In one of his final roles, James Gandolfini plays the polar opposite of Tony Soprano. He’s a lovable bear, a movie buff, untidy yet charming. This movie has that sort of comforting feel on the whole. As with any rom-com, mistakes are made: Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the woman who begins to date Gandolfini’s character and befriend his ex-wife at the same time to find out all his flaws. But the film feels like a rebuke to the loud, wild, humor of the comedies of this era which usually feature immature men learning to grow up. Instead, writer-director Nicole Holofcener presents a middle-aged woman who really knows better and has to do the hard work for companionship, rather than stumble into it. There’s something hopeful and comforting about that.
Sleeping With Other People (2015)
Few comedies are willing to invest in two lovebirds who (at least on the surface) are total a-holes. (My Best Friend’s Wedding is the obvious exception, though Julia Roberts’ charm distracts from that fact for the first three-quarters of the movie.) Leslye Hedlund’s Sleeping With Other People goes boldly where other romances won’t and casts Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis as two terrible people who meet (for a second time) in sex addiction rehab. The raunchy comedy not only pokes fun at other rom-coms—it trashes them.
Man Up (2015)
Man mistakes woman for his blind date, woman goes along with it, they end up getting along famously despite the deceit underpinning the whole affair. It may not be an earth-shattering premise, but the execution, in the hands of Lake Bell and Simon Pegg, is delightful. When they meet, Bell’s Nancy and Pegg’s Jack are each a mess in their own ways, reminding us that you don’t have to have it all together to make it work—and, under the right set of circumstances and with a healthy dose of chemistry, sometimes two messes are greater than the sum of their parts.
The Lovers (2017)
The rom-com has long been the province of the young—would-be lovers who lack both wrinkles and wisdom as they chase The One. Writer-director Azazel Jacobs’ flirty yet mature The Lovers starts decades after that settling down, as married couple Mary and Michael (veterans Debra Winger and Tracy Letts), both entangled in extramarital affairs, find their way back to one another. The performers balance the weariness of disappointment and experience with the excitement of butterflies that feel as thrilling at 56 as they do at 16.
Meet the Patels (2015)
Who says a rom-com can’t be a documentary? In what’s certainly a rarity for the form, if not the first of its kind, Meet the Patels features sister Geeta behind the camera and brother Ravi in front of it as Ravi questions his assumptions about the arranged marriage his Indian immigrant parents always wanted for him but which he never envisioned for himself. More than just a tale of romantic love, it’s a story about family, and one that benefits from both generations of Patels, who are witty, warm and charming. Back in 2015, Searchlight acquired the rights to remake the doc as a narrative film with the sibling duo attached to write and direct, but even if that never materializes, the documentary itself is as worthy of a watch as a starry popcorn rom-com.
Princess Cyd (2017)
Princess Cyd might just be the quietest movie on this list, but it simmers with explosive emotions just beneath its lazy-summer surface. Teenager Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) goes to stay with her novelist aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence) in Chicago. While there, she falls for Katie (Malic White), a barista, and a tender courtship ensues. In Princess Cyd, typical tropes about teens and middle-aged single women are nowhere in sight, and expectations—both the characters’ and the audiences’—about themes like age and sexuality are gently upended.
Plenty of rom-coms have revolved around music and the hopeless romantics who play it: Music and Lyrics, Begin Again, Yesterday. But perhaps only Band-Aid has featured songs that address such sizzling pursuits as eating Papa Johns pizza and doing the dishes. Written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones, who stars opposite Adam Pally, the movie follows a couple that fights constantly about petty issues (which, naturally, stand-in for much more serious ones) and decides to form a band to work out their marital woes through song. The bops are legitimately catchy, the struggles relatable. Bonus: Fred Armisen, as the weirdo next door who uncomfortably witnesses all the couple’s fights when he becomes their drummer.
Love, Simon (2018)
When this story of a popular but closeted gay high school kid looking for love and acceptance hit theaters two years ago, it was novel for a big-screen studio movie. It was an important first for kids who had rarely if ever seen themselves represented onscreen, albeit, in the view of some, a very safe first, with a protagonist who was “very carefully built to seem as straight as possible,” as TIME put it then. But setting the boldness of its vision aside, Nick Robinson’s charming, sympathetic lead performance in the movie based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 novel struck a nerve with many. (It also inspired a TV spin-off, Hulu’s Love, Victor). It’s sweet and empowering, with a worldview that affirms that maybe the kids really are all right.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)
Of the many Netflix teen romantic comedies that have sprung up over the last several years, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is arguably the peak of that particular subgenre. The sweet movie adapted from Jenny Han’s novel centers on Lara Jean (Lana Condor), a girl who writes a letter to every crush she has and stores them in a box. Her sister secretly mails the letters, and soon Lara discovers that there is real-life romantic potential in her daydreams. Unlike many of the other movies on this list, All the Boys doesn’t feel the need to deconstruct rom-com tropes, instead choosing to just play them out earnestly and thoughtfully.
The Incredible Jessica James (2017)
Jessica Williams’ departure from her gig as a correspondent on The Daily Show may have been Comedy Central’s loss, but it was romantic comedies’ gain. As a playwright grappling with professional and artistic rejection and a recent breakup (from an ex played by the great Lakeith Stanfield, who haunts her dreams), she is charming, witty and charismatic enough for us to wonder why her IMDb page isn’t full of forthcoming rom-com projects (though it does include an upcoming project that reunites her with Jessica James writer-director Jim Strouse). Add in a scruffy, recently divorced new love interest in the form of Chris O’Dowd, and the flimsiness of the plot is beside the point. It’s a joy just to hang with these people in Brooklyn for an evening.
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