You may not believe it when you see my youthful glow, but I’m old enough to remember when the only choices for gay movies were indie lesbian rom-coms, violent tragedies, or softcore porn. What a tough decision: the horrific brutality of Boys Don’t Cry or conversation therapy melodrama and sculpted muscles in Latter Days. Who’s bringing the popcorn? Over the last couple of decades, the problem with gay films has been remedied…slightly; there are certainly more of them, and many that don’t hinge their entire stories on lowbrow, tear-jerking trauma. But none of these movies can let themselves just be, well, movies.
Queer films always have to make some sort of grand statement about their existence. Love, Simon was the first gay studio rom-com for teens; Weekend was all about the singularity of the queer dating and hookup culture; Bros was eager to be the first straightforward rom-com where characters just happened to be gay (despite the movie’s promotional cycle reiterating that importance endlessly). Even gay holiday movies are desperate to be lauded for their willingness to let two people of the same gender kiss in front of a fake tree from Lowe’s. Don’t get me wrong, those things are significant and I devour them with glee. But sometimes, I wish I could watch a gay movie that is unconcerned with its own manufactured notability, a movie satisfied with its central queer characters having no substance at all.
I’m ecstatic to report that the day has finally come: Red, White & Royal Blue is a movie content with being absolutely nothing. With this film—which premieres on Prime Video Aug. 11 and was adapted from Casey McQuiston’s bestselling 2019 novel—queer cinema may finally be level with its heteronormative counterparts. At last, we gay people are allowed to be boring, have absolutely no chemistry with our romantic co-leads, and exist as walking archetypes. Red, White & Royal Blue throws the desire to be special or come first out the window. Now, gays can just be cockamamie and utterly vacuous. Equality is here!
Sarcasm aside, Red, White & Royal Blue really is something special, in that it is fine with being nothing special at all. It often goes so far as to careen away from anything unique as soon as its outlandish plot comes within 100 feet of feeling remotely distinctive. The film bucks conventions from the start, refusing to open with any character or worldbuilding, and instead thrusting us into its own folly without trying to revolutionize any rom-com cliches.
Right away, we meet the potential heir to the English throne, Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine), and his apparent archrival, the son of the American president, Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez). The two men have a feud as vague as both their respective ages and the trade agreement being finalized between the United States and Britain, the diplomatic reason that Alex must attend the royal wedding of Prince Henry’s older brother, Philip (Thomas Flynn).
If the film spent more time developing Alex’s character alone before throwing him into a royal hornet’s nest, Red, White & Royal Blue might have a chance at getting audiences who haven’t already read McQuiston’s novel to care about the fate of the president’s son. Instead, the film haphazardly fills in character backstories with sloppy exposition and poorly executed fake news reels. By the time Alex and Prince Henry get into a wedding cake feud that becomes an international incident, viewers are expected to be invested in Alex and Henry’s budding enemies-to-lovers romance. But without establishing their individual motivations and personalities, Alex and Henry feel like nothing more than the two tentpoles of a rom-com trope, about to be moved through the film like board game pieces for the next two hours.
That hurried start manages to create quite a bit of humor, though it’s often unintentional or set up with no payoff. At the start of the film, Alex is dressed in ill-fitting tri-blend tees and oversized button-ups. I assumed this to be because his character is in the closet and trying to conform to some outdated idea of how a straight man dresses, a joke that never reached its punchline when Alex eventually comes out and starts dressing better. But first, Alex’s mother, President Ellen Claremont (Uma Thurman, jumping on the hot trend of revered actresses doing gay rom-coms), demands a peace accord between the two boys, leading Alex and Henry to realize that their antagonistic relationship is actually their way of flirting.
Despite their fundamental differences (Henry is apparently the only person on Earth who has never heard Lil Jon’s “Get Low”), the romance between the Prince and the President’s son moves fast. Too fast, evidently, for Alex to wrap his head around the fact that Prince Henry is not allowed to be an out gay man under the laws of the monarchy, even though Henry reiterates that fact to his secret boyfriend constantly. It only takes one same-sex kiss for Alex to accept being bisexual—or “buh-sexual,” as Perez delivers it in his line reading—but Henry’s queerness must remain hidden. Why Henry would want to date someone who can’t accept the nature of their relationship is a mystery that Red, White & Royal Blue never addresses.
These lovers aren’t so much star-crossed as they are radically different from one another. Perhaps that might explain why Perez and Galitzine have all the chemistry of two gay men who just met for the first time at auditions for Fire Island’s all-male production of Evita.
Galitzine acts circles around Perez throughout the film’s distended runtime, bringing one-half of the pair some vital understatedness. But that’s about the only subtlety that Red, White & Royal Blue provides. Matthew López and Ted Malawer’s screenplay is so absurdly overwritten that it’s a shock as many poorly rendered green screen scenes and bits of outrageous dialogue made it into the film’s final product as they did. During a long-distance texting montage in which Alex is extolling the virtues of Texan cuisine, he tells Henry, “I want to see your mouth covered…in barbecue sauce.” It would be a decent fakeout for a silly punchline if Alex didn’t double down by following up with, “And then I want to lick it off!”
Red, White & Royal Blue has a strange approach to addressing sex in general. There are love scenes that are more explicit than most gay rom-coms are willing to be, but everything around those moments is confoundingly neutered. References to intimacy are plopped into the script recklessly, always a shock to the system as both characters are written with bizarrely sexless personalities. I began to wonder aloud what phrases Thurman might utter in her Tenessee Williams-adjacent Southern accent, that would fit right in with the film’s random approach to sexuality. It wasn’t two minutes after I said, “Honey, we can get you on Truvada,” that those words had left Thurman’s mouth.
In a way, Red, White & Royal Blue’s terribly predictable nature feels defiant. It’s not that it veers on parody. Rather, the movie transcends ironic mimicry for some proprietary mixture of spoof and straightforward, unapologetic silliness, not unlike the peculiar universe seen in And Just Like That. The movie even surpasses the kinds of rote gay sendups that Cary Dubek made in The Other Two to create something truly uncanny. It’s impossible to classify Red, White & Royal Blue as any one thing. It frequently defies categorization—almost as much as Henry and Alex are determined to defy the laws of their lands to create some sort of totally unrealistic, idyllic paradise for themselves by the film’s hilarious conclusion, one that feels more like American propaganda than a love story.
Watching this film, I was reminded of when my colleague described Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret as a “miracle movie.” Whereas Margaret was a beautifully told and enduring coming-of-age story, Red, White & Royal Blue blissfully sits on the other end of the miracle movie spectrum. While it’s no surprise this movie was made given its source novel’s massive popularity, it’s a marvel that it doesn’t overexert itself by trying to reinvent the limp-wristed wheel. Striving to only meet the expectations of everyone who enjoyed a mind-bogglingly implausible story instead of trying to reach new unattainable heights is an admirable feat, and I don’t say that in jest.
It’s astonishing that Red, White & Royal Blue sets out with seemingly no intentions. This movie doesn’t appear to want to be convincingly romantic, nor a more straightforward gay comedy. It’s not particularly sexy, it’s not a new idea or a fresh execution of a tired genre, and—maybe the best of all—it does not want to be the first anything. Red, White & Royal Blue is nothing more than to be an overlong laugh riot, cobbled together on hundreds of thousands of dollars and a fever dream. I spent my life watching straight people enjoy more of those movies than I can count. Now, it’s gay people’s turn to be moronic. In its own way, that’s beautiful.
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The Daily Beast