As The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani’s autobiographical rom-com, satisfies summer moviegoers like Trainwreck did several summers before it, are we entering the age of a new kind of romantic comedy, or hearkening back to an older one?
n the eve of the release of his highly anticipated Twin Peaks reboot on Showtime, Academy Award-winning director David Lynch called cable TV “the new art house.” Living (and watching) in the age of “peak TV,” it’s hard to disagree with him, but cable TV isn’t the only area of the entertainment industry to have seen significant tonal shake-ups within the past few years. One trend that shows no sign of slowing? The auteur romantic comedy, a subgenre that, depending on how you look at it, could either be considered the rise of a new kind of film or the revival of an older kind.
I’ll explain what I mean in a moment by “auteur rom-com,” but first, a brief history lesson: auteur filmmaking is a school of film theory that emerged in France in the 1940s, in which the film was considered the singular vision of the director, named for the French word for “author.” Over the years, auteur in the filmic sense has been used more broadly to refer to films of an autobiographical nature for the director, writer, or star. Hence, an auteur rom-com is a film (or in these days, to Lynch’s point, a TV series) with romantic and comedic elements, that is based, at least loosely, on the experiences of its star (who is often also its writer).
The most recent example of this trend—and its critical and commercial success—is The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani’s semi-autobiographical rom com that follows him, as a young stand-up comedian, falling for his future therapist girlfriend (Zoe Kazan), only after she falls deathly ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, leading Kumail to experience the culture clash of meeting her white, Southern parents (a fabulous Ray Romano and Helen Hunt) for the first time. The movie was co-written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, based on their own love story. It has earned rave reviews from critics since its premiere at Sundance, not to mention a 97% score on Rotten Tomatoes. The film has also seen modest commercial success for an indie film that started in limited release, having grossed nearly $20 million to date.
A similar scenario occurred in the summer of 2015, when Universal released Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, a film based in part on her experience growing up with divorced parents and a father with multiple sclerosis. The R-rated rom com, which saw a Schumer’s journalist, also named Amy, falling for a sports doctor played by former SNL funnyman Bill Hader, grossed over $140 million worldwide.
But The Big Sick and Trainwreck have something else important in common: their producer, Judd Apatow. In this sense, Apatow is arguably the trendsetter here, having written and directed This Is 40, a relationship comedy that starred both his wife, actress Leslie Mann, and their two young daughters (although, like his other rom-com hit Bridesmaids, it was not necessarily based on his own life, or anyone else’s). Still, whether it be the director or the writer-star, centering a romantic comedy around some real-life aspects of a major player in the creation the film is no small thing for a genre that not too long ago had devolved into cookie-cutter cliches, holiday-themed release gimmicks, and increasingly absurd attempts to pack as many stars as possible into one film to attract an audience. Even the late, great, Gary Marshall—director of the rom-com classics Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries—saw his career end with a tragic trilogy that might be dubbed “The Hallmark Card Ring Cycle”: Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and Mother’s Day. Rather than venture to modify the formula in any way, recent rom-coms have rendered themselves the butt of the jokes rather than an effective vehicle for them.
And while the “romantic comedy” may mean something different to today’s moviegoers than it did to those 20, 30, or 40 years ago—with the debates waged in Vogue’s attempt to list the top 51 romantic comedies providing ample evidence that what counts as a rom-com for one film fan might qualify as a Shakespearean tragedy for another—there are important predecessors to this trend, the most obvious of which are the comedies of Woody Allen, which often saw the writer-director starring as a version of his real-life neurotic standup comedy persona, as in Annie Hall, where he played a comedian attempting to decipher why he and the title character (Diane Keaton, debuting some of the most iconic ensembles in what would become her signature menswear look) broke up.
The best thing that could be said for the auteur rom-com trend, however, is the fact that its emphasis on true stories, told by their own author appearing in the work, lends itself to an inclusion of more diverse voices in the genre. This is true not only on the big screen, as with The Big Sick’s focus on Nanjiani’s Pakistani-American upbringing, but on the silver screen as well. Though HBO’s Insecure—based on star and writer Issa Rae’s often awkward experiences navigating modern life and love as a woman of color—was snubbed in this year’s Emmy race, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None on Netflix has received Emmy love for two seasons in a row, and in its quest for authenticity, even cast Aziz’s parents, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, to play his character’s parents in a particularly heartwarming episode.