Why don’t they make great romantic comedies like they used to?
This age-old question has become a tiresome one these days, though Hollywood—especially streamers—is continuing to give us reasons to keep asking it. For every “The Big Sick,” “Rye Lane” or “Bros”—brilliant films that manage to use genre tropes in fresh, lean and inventive ways—there seem to be multiples of “Happiest Season,” “To All The Boys” and “Red, White & Royal Blue.”
That last title is playwright Matthew López’s feature debut and a frustrating entry into the rom-com genre. It’s not because it’s particularly bad—thanks to some occasionally inspired moments and delightful leads, it’s watchable—but because it’s bloated and undisciplined through meandering excesses that stubbornly hold it back from becoming the sizzling charmer it could have been.
Adapted by López and Ted Malawer from Casey McQuiston’s best seller with the same name, the contemporary fairy tale “Red, White & Royal Blue” opens with a meet-cute. But this one is neither all that cute nor especially funny, unfolding over a clumsy sequence at Buckingham Palace where two internationally famed eligible bachelors find themselves fodder for a pathetically silly scandal.
They are Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) and the son of the American president Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez of “The Kissing Booth 2 & 3”), adversaries who detest each other so much that they can’t help but get into an ordeal during a Royal Wedding, toppling over a big fancy wedding cake and becoming a global embarrassment.
That’s not good for either of them—Henry is a real-life Prince for crying out loud. As for Alex, his Democratic Madame President mom Ellen Claremont (Uma Thurman, sporting a shaky Texan accent) is on the verge of launching her second-term campaign and can really afford to steer clear of foolish scandals.
So with the help of the spunky White House Chief of Staff, Zahra Bankston (Sarah Shahi, doing her best with some truly cringe-y zingers provided to her), the two houses go into damage control mode, trying to repair the broken image of their respective countries.
Even without reading McQuiston’s book, you can guess how the tale evolves from here on out: Prince Henry and Alex gradually set their differences aside, get to know one another and fall in love. Until recently, this has been a formula predominantly reserved for straight love stories that left LGBTQ+ communities behind, relegating gay characters to the “feisty best friend” trope at best.
So there is undeniable significance and worth to tell these stories. But don’t they also deserve to be timelessly great, too, like the pillars of the genre that made us fall in love with rom-coms in the first place?
“Red, White & Royal Blue” genuinely tries, and in rare segments—such as the stretch where Alex and Henry open up to each other via a series of intimate emails, phone calls and text messages—truly comes close to something that feels special as the duo embark on a secret affair. A frank approach to physical attraction and sexuality supports this feeling, making one thankful for a director who isn’t coy about showing sex to score a kid-friendly movie rating.
Unfortunately, López can’t sustain the momentum. Every time a new turn emerges within “Red, White & Royal Blue” it feels like a new film has sprouted out of the story with embellishments that land as superfluous scenes begging to be deleted, instead of grace notes that elevate the movie.
You might grow impatient following Alex’s journey in the ranks of American politics (where Rachel Maddow makes a cameo or two) or the backstabbing schemes of a member of the political press. There’s also Prince Henry’s palace troubles that try to control his life and identity, a getaway to Alex’s family’s lake-house and the whole elongated final chapter once the two inevitably get found out. (In fairness, Stephen Fry as the King lends this phase a sweet disposition, however implausible.) A postcard-style run-of-the-mill cinematography, repetitive “uncultured American vs. snooty Brit” jokes and some middling puns such as “Your Royal Hardness” don’t help matters either.
Given the writers’ credits across TV shows, it’s worth asking whether López and Malawer initially had something episodic in mind while crafting their adaptation. That overly tidy serial attitude and eagerness to be many things to everyone all at once hobbles “Red, White & Royal Blue.” If only it could have just let it own flag fly.
“Red, White & Royal Blue” premieres on Amazon Prime Video August 11.