The Toxic Past — And Better Present — Of Rom-Coms, Featuring “Love And Monsters” and “No Hard Feelings”

TL;DR: I highly recommend 2020’s Love And Monsters and 2023’s No Hard Feelings as fun romantic comedies with far less of the toxic behaviors.

Just like Jay and Silent Bob at the beginning of Dogma, I used to think that Shermer, Illinois (from all the John Hughes movies) was real.

Or at least, the shape of the stories there was real.

That the ways the stories went in Hughes’ movies — and in so very, very many other rom-coms — were the ways that life was supposed to go.

There’s plenty of think pieces out there talking about the toxic effect these stories have on what we think of as normal, expected, and even required behavior in relationships. And it wasn’t just a few films over a short period of time: The first two lists of movies with romanticized toxic behaviors that came up in search results (from Bustle and Buzzfeed) have 13 and 14 entries each. And only one film is included on both lists.

The trope I whole-heartedly bought into was the "but the nerd wins in the end." The one where the cool, desired character realizes that the nerd was worth caring about and falling for after all. Sometimes it involved a makeover — the quintessential "nerdy girl with glasses" gets contacts and a new hairstyle kind of thing. Sometimes it involved adults, like The 40 Year Old Virgin or Zack and Miri Make A Porno. It’s the opposite kind of end than Pretty In Pink … except that even Pretty In Pink originally started out with the "nerdy" character being chosen by the girl.

All of them have the same refrain. Eventually, the romantic gestures work. Eventually, that special person realizes that yes, you are the right one after all.

/me squirms nervously.

Look, out of all the toxic things from rom-coms, the idea that you’ll eventually be recognized as being worthwhile is a lot less creepy than some of the others. Doesn’t make it great, though.

So I’ve spent some time thinking about the why of that belief, and I realized that was pretty much the only choice ever showed. The protagonist got the romantic partner, or it was a tragedy. There was no other option.

It wasn’t — isn’t — just rom-coms. Damn near every story with a romantic plot element presented only those options. Romantic success, or utter failure.

Yes, even When Harry Met Sally. Because while it shows them being friends… that’s not how it ends.

And if that’s the only options you’ve ever seen, if that’s the constant mythology surrounding you since your eyes opened…

Well, that explains a lot in my life. Let’s just say that.

So it’s not just the snark and whimsy that made 2020’s Love And Monsters and 2023’s No Hard Feelings so enjoyable for me.

Both of these films share the same DNA with past rom-coms… but both deftly smooth down (if not eliminate altogether) the toxic implications of yesteryear. They aren’t perfect, and they have their (occasionally) problematic elements of their own {1}.

But if you are looking for something that feels like rom-coms used to, but without nearly so much toxicity, I’d firmly point you toward these two.

Yes, I know. If you watch the trailers or read the blurb, they look like they’re going to be just like all the others.

But these films show other ways. They take different paths, and manage to do it without losing the feel of a rom-com.

When I saw the trailers for each of these movies, I thought, "Man, that looks fun. But it probably ends up in the same stupid tropes as all the old ones. But I wish it didn’t."

So I’m just telling past me — and you — that neither of them does.

I hope you enjoy them.

You can find ways to stream, rent, and buy Love And Monsters at Justwatch and buy (at present) No Hard Feelings at Justwatch.

{1} Most notably, Andrew Barth Feldman’s character in No Hard Feelings — who sure came across coded neurospicy to me — adapts pretty suspiciously quickly to being out of his comfort zone in the final third. But I’ll forgive the film that due to the fact that it also does not demand that his character change and conform to "normal" society either.