You can, if you look at it the right way, tell a lot from what the most watched movie on Netflix was in recent weeks; Love at First Sight is, as the title suggests, a romance. Specifically, it’s a romantic comedy based on a 2011 novel by Jennifer E Smith called The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight — I can see why you changed the title, filmmakers — about two people who have a chance meeting on a transatlantic flight that, after a series of mishaps and unlikely occurrences, turns to love.
It’s a cute idea, and a cute enough movie: both Ben Hardy and Haley Lu Richardson are charming enough as the lead couple, the supporting cast is exactly as full of familiar faces as you’d expect from this type of movie — look, it’s Rob Delaney! Hey, there’s Jameela Jamil! — and everything goes pretty much as you’d expect from reading the brief plot description above. But… that’s kind of the problem: It’s cute enough; the leads are charming enough. The movie doesn’t surprise. It’s not a bad movie, genuinely… but it’s also not a really great one, either. So why is it so popular?
The answer, depressingly, might be that audiences want romance movies so badly that they’re willing to put up with bad romance movies.
Here’s the thing: it’s difficult to get romance movies right, and romantic comedies even more so. Both what we as an audience find romantic (or sexy, or sweet, or whatever you might want from a rom-com or a romance in general) and what we find funny are pretty subjective, so it’s entirely understandable why so many romantic movies in general, and rom-coms in particular, hew to formula and play it safe. There’s no small amount of security in trying a slight variation on what’s worked before, because, really, how bad can you screw up if you don’t take any risk?
The problem with that is that the genre as a whole suffers, as more and more stories run into each other and create a generic, boring feel that so many of the current crop of romance movies share. (I say “current,” but it can be traced back decades by this point, sadly.) It’s an imperfect analogy, but I liken the state of romance movies today to superhero movies prior to, say, the release of Iron Man — a time when there wasn’t much, and what there was wasn’t perfect, but the common wisdom was that audiences should be grateful for what they got, and therefore necessary to be supported in the hopes of continuing to get something. (There was a time when even something like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was considered “better than nothing,” which is honestly a tough argument to make.)
That feels like where romance movies are nowadays, outside of niche opportunities like the Hallmark channel’s output, or whatever: the idea that Love at First Sight, or Red, White & Royal Blue — another romance that’s good enough — or whatever, gets all this attention and support just because it exists in the first place. It’s a shame, because there are better romances out there that don’t get the same time and attention, either because they’re on different platforms, or for whatever reason.
Indeed, two of my favorite movies in recent years are romances, or at least romance-adjacent, with both perhaps overlooked because they’re British movies instead of American — Rey Lane (available in the US on Hulu) and Lovers Rock, which is part of the Small Axe series of movies (on Prime Video in the US); both are smart, funny, and do the unexpected even as they also give the viewer exactly what they want by the time it’s all over. Both are highly recommended, not least because they raise the bar about what we can ask for in our romance stories — and what we should expect from them in the future.
Or, to put it in the language any fan of romance movies can understand: Let’s make sure we’re not throwing our love away on something that’s not worth our time.
Just to confirm that I also like trashy romance movies, here’s my guide to the Netflix Christmas Cinematic Universe. I contain multitudes.