Credit: Jonathan Prime/Amazon
by Luke Gorham Featured Film Streaming Scene

Red, White & Royal Blue — Matthew Lopez

August 10, 2023

Before the age of BookTok commenced, which both invigorated the eternally dying publishing industry and perhaps brought about the death of literature by pushing sub-AI writing and storytelling to the fore of public consciousness and the printed word zeitgeist, novels like Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue were unicorns. A queer rom-com from a 28-year-old first-time author, it nonetheless immediately hit the bestseller list, with film rights snatched up by behemoth Amazon before the book even hit shelves. In retrospect, it’s easy see McQuiston’s novel as something of a poster child for the still developing but already dominant “New Adult” novel — which, for the unaware, is a genre born in the wake of the great Young Adult heyday of the mid-aughts, only targeting a slightly older reading demo by peppering those emotionally histrionic and psychologically rudderless fantasy and romance narratives with more explicitly adult (in BookTok terms, “spicy”) material. But now, what a few years ago would have likely been an event release, especially given the renewed royal family interest of 2023, is almost an afterthought in the landscape of weekly must-read shifts. Do the wildly influential BookTokers of the world — whose enthusiasm belies the fact that they all seem to have started reading around 2021 and have roughly 20 books under their belt — even know what Red, White & Royal Blue is?

At the very least, Matthew Lopez’s film version offers an interesting case study in what adapting these properties, which are sure to come fast and furious over the next few years, looks like. Arguably, the dominant thread of the New Adult market is the translation of rom-com film sensibilities to the written word. Long ago were the days of Jane Austen, and instead we’re now delivered novels that, at their best (from the likes of Emily Henry, for instance), seem somehow both reverse-engineered from cinema and also designed specifically to make the jump straight back to it. That’s not a knock on their quality — it’s a difficult ask to capture the particular pop confection of romantic comedy on the page. But in weaving together the high drama of American politics, the high drama of the Royal Family, and the high drama of secret love affairs, Red, White & Royal Blue would seem to have a leg up.

The film opens by establishing the contentious relationship between Alex (Taylor Zakhar Perez), first son of the United States, and Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine), fourth in line to the British crown (the mental gymnastics required to understand the line of succession are thankfully skirted here). They resent each other for such petty shit as believing the other is lying about being 6’2”, and immediately find themselves in the kind of giant cake-smashing mishap that precipitates many a Hallmark film plot. Required to make public amends by both governments — including Uma Thurman as POTUS and later Stephen Fry as the King — the duo commence a course from enemies to frenemies to friends to lovers. Henry is “gay as a maypole” gay, while Alex is bisexual; or as he puts it, “low-level” into guys. But as these things go, love blooms, secrets refuse to stay hidden, hearts are broken and mended.

In other words, there’s nothing much surprising here. Which in itself isn’t surprising; the strength of these works, on both page and screen, in the absence of any subversion, satire, or quirk of formula, relies on the amiability of characters and quality of writing. To that end, Red, White & Royal struggles. The screenplay in particular blunders, with lines both semicomic (“He grabbed my hair in a way that made me understand the difference between rugby and football”) and climactic (“I will no longer be the prince of shame”) entirely slathered in cringe. There’s a certain mileage variance, and built-in audiences won’t much mind such assaults on good taste, but therein lies the problem: there’s little here that will convert those not already devout. McQuiston’s novel is an all-vibes, sans-substance kind of work, perfectly serviceable within that context; but the rom-com novel, in its current BookTok-approved iteration, is a fetus, with few contextual touchstones against which to measure itself. Moving into the sphere of film rom-com brings a whole different set of rules, and within this context, Red, White & Royal Blue is purely minor league, playing the de facto beats and sketching thin characters; it’s the kind of film where viewers only know how much its leads love each other because they keep endlessly announcing how much they love each other.

But an even more essential problem with Lopez’s Red, White & Royal Blue is its utterly tone-deaf insistence on political blather. In an American climate as politically and morally divided as our post-Trump present, wherein the disenfranchisement of voters is a core principle of one party, the film’s endless bullshit propaganda communicating some fictional nobility of American “democracy” is consistently abrasive. It’s indicative of the film’s general failings: namely, its inability to believe that frivolity is sufficient, which results in foregoing character development in favor of faux profundity — Thurman’s president popping off about the need to be realistic so that voters can be idealistic is especially embarrassing, an attempt at weary cynicism that’s fundamentally rooted in a particularly American fiction. In the film’s favor, Perez is a likable lead, charming enough to often distract from the film’s refusal to visit any territory or narrative nook that isn’t already gracing screens countless times every year. But his presence is a small grace in a film as frustrating as Red, White & Royal Blue, which, in true New Adult fashion, blurs the lines between romance and fantasy — after all, Texas turning blue is a key plot point here. The film spends more time trying to convince viewers to believe in an American political system that doesn’t fuck its constituents than it does developing captivating characters who just want to fuck each other. In believing that the secret sauce to zhuzh up the rom-com template is boneheaded political commentary, Red, White & Royal Blue proves to be entirely fake news.

DIRECTOR: Matthew Lopez;  CAST: Taylor Zakhar Perez, Nicholas Galitzine, Uma Thurman, Sarah Shahi;  DISTRIBUTOR: Amazon Studios;  STREAMING: August 11;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 52 min.