BY ABIGAIL JOHNSON

 

A lot of people get hung up on the bizarre goal of making Auckland a global city. I think, by extension, they mean making New Zealand a global country. And I’ll be the first to admit I don’t really get it. In an increasingly unstable world, I find comfort in our modest homeland – with its unarmed police force, and its, I dunno, jandals…?

And in many cultural measures, think Catton, Waititi, Campion, and that member of Taylor Swift’s squad, we’re already killing it. Our babies have won Oscars, Man Bookers, and Grammys – all of which we’ll confidently claim as our own, even while we wanted nothing to do with the show-offs when they were splashing around in our very small pond.

But ‘it’ is very much alive when it comes to having made a great New Zealand romantic comedy. Think about it – every other truly global nation has a wildly successful, quotable, country-specific romcom. I’m talking Muriel’s Wedding in Australia. Notting Hill or Bridget Jones Diary in England. When Harry Met Sally, no wait, Pretty Woman, no wait, My Best Friend’s Wedding, no wait Some Like It Hot – you get it – in America. Not to mention Amélie, La Dolce Vita, or the innumerable ways Bollywood consistently kills it.

Instead we’ve turned in countless, admittedly brilliant, gritty, social-realist works, too many to name, but In My Father’s Den, Once Were Warriors, and Whale Rider counting among some of the best. And these films are, of course, superb. They’re a part of our cultural make-up. They’re Great Films, not just Great New Zealand Films.  But they’ve also contributed to the myth that ‘New Zealand Comedy’ is an oxymoron.

Of course, one of our favourite sons, Taika Waititi, has taken unparalleled strides to correct this. His commitment to putting a New Zealand sense of humour, and specifically a Maori sense of humour, on screen, has almost changed the entire trajectory of New Zealand film in one generation. He even has a romcom on his docket with Eagle vs Shark, but at 54% on the Tomatometer, and with a worldwide gross around $1.5 million, it’s certainly not his most triumphant. He’s found considerably more success with coming-of-age comedy, action-adventure comedy, and, my personal favourite, mockumentary/horror comedy.

And that’s fine. I don’t necessarily believe it’s up to Waititi to give us our Sleepless in Seattle. His contribution is thus: proving there’s an audience for New Zealand-specific comedy, both globally and here on our own quarter acre.

The other factor that’s stopped the NZ film industry from creating a canon of NZ specific romcoms is that these films have traditionally required capital-letter Movie Stars. Think Monroe and Hepburn. Think Roberts and Ryan. Think Diaz and Hudson.

But a change of tide has occurred.

Undoubtedly the biggest romcom of 2017, with 98% on the Tomatometer, and a worldwide gross of NZD$77 million, (against a NZD$6 million budget) was The Big Sick. It made its profit of over $71 mill on the back of its name-actors, Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan. Oh wait.

The other big romcom release last year was the more traditional Home Again, starring Reese Witherspoon, who really is too good for this crap. Directed by (not even lying) Nancy Meyers’ daughter, the film made enough profit to put it in the black, but scored an embarrassing 30% on Rotten Tomatoes. And it had literally no cultural impact. Honestly, it felt like the dying grasp for tradition in a truly changed art form.

Where stars like Julia Roberts and Anne Hathaway made their careers on romcoms, before pivoting toward Oscar-winnable fare, the most recent Best Actress winners under thirty: Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and Brie Larson, have only a couple of romcoms on their Wikipedia pages. Larson has almost none.

Where romcoms were once the direct route to a long-lasting acting career, big-name stars – I’m looking squarely at my girl Kristen Stewart here – are now shunning them in favour of more subtle, compelling roles. Or they’re taking up YA dystopian franchises. Or donning superhero costumes. All of this is because the romantic comedy is irreversibly shifting gear.

With a film like The Big Sick, and romcom-based TV shows like Master of None, The Mindy Project, or the brilliant Auckward Love, it’s clear what’s happening: the romantic comedy is going indie.

The 2018 romcom is being made with a much smaller budget. It’s starring people who aren’t necessarily white. It’s starring people who aren’t necessarily straight. It’s not necessarily making huge profits. And then, sometimes, it is.

And here’s where New Zealand comes in. We excel in indie movies. Small budgets are all we know. And, while there’s always room for improvement, we’ve been putting non-white people, and queer people, and non-white queer people (hello Jay Copeland) on our screens for yonks.

Full disclosure: I just wrote a lesbian-centric, South Island set, romantic comedy for my Master’s thesis. So I have a vested interest here. But – in typical Kiwi modesty- I don’t necessarily believe MY film should be THE film. It’s just very apparent to me that Hollywood, and by extension the global film industry, has caught up to where we’ve always been. Our brand of small, specific, low-budget filmmaking has global appeal.

Now’s the time to kill it.

 

This story was submitted for The Common Room, a place for all young people to share their views. Got something to say? Everyone’s welcome – click here to contribute!

 

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