I saw Red, White & Royal Blue in a movie theater in downtown Culver City, California—a significant point on two fronts.
First, while the adaptation of Casey McQuiston’s queer romance is by most accounts a movie, it was nevertheless out of place in an actual movie theater. Intended for streaming by its parent studio Amazon, it was perhaps the least cinematic thing I have ever seen played through a projector. No shadows, no build and release of tension, no adjustment of rhythm or sense of surprise, no real structure— it was as if everything on screen was presented in an overly lit display case. It has the mise en scène of a Target cosmetics aisle.
Released by a company that makes its bones selling us everything from teeth whitener to teething toys, Red, White & Royal Blue felt less like a romantic comedy in the tradition of Lubitch or Ephron and more like just another widget tumbling down an inexhaustible warehouse chute.
Secondly, the theater I saw it in was owned by Amazon and Amazon Studios was located next door after having transformed the venerable Culver Studios in its own smiling box self-image, a makeover that set them back some $600 million.
Earlier that day, writers had been picketing, as they have there and at every other studio in town since May 2. (Actors joined them when SAG-AFTRA went on strike July 15.) Among other things, the strikers are fighting for more equitable pay from streamers like Netflix and Amazon, as well as contractual assurances that emerging AI will not one day replace them. If the screening had been scheduled an hour or so earlier, critics like me would have had to face the possibility of crossing the picket line to do their jobs.
Judging from Red, White & Royal Blue, the picketers have plenty of reasons to worry.
While credited as the freshman effort from director and co-screenwriter Matthew López, the Tony Award-winning playwright of The Inheritance and Some Like It Hot, this inevitable processing of McQuiston’s bestseller feels almost untouched by human hands.
Yet despite (or even more concerning, because of) this, the movie goes down smoothly and with fleeting moments of comic charm. These are due in part to a game cast—Black Adam’s Sarah Shahi as an exasperated Deputy Chief of Staff is a standout—and to the unembellished manner in which it tells a love story of a closeted gay prince and the bisexual son of the President of the United States.
Played with a measured nonchalance by Taylor Zakhar Perez, star of The Kissing Booth sequels on Netflix, Alex Claremont-Diaz is a policy wonk by day, party boy by night. Alex creates a national incident when he causes a Christmas tree sized cake at a royal wedding to fall on him and the standoffish brother of the groom Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine, who also took on princely duties in the 2021 remake of Cinderella.)
What was intended as an enemies to lovers set up in the book comes off in the movie as a meet cute, primarily because this iteration of Red, White & Royal Blue has neither the patience or acuity to create relationships with much actual feeling—at least until the two leads fall into bed together.
The sex scenes, an increasing rarity in modern rom-coms, are the project’s saving grace, both because of the eye candy involved and the refreshing candor and frankness of their presentation.
But even here the film’s instinct for commerce runs so deep that the sex feels less like genuine expression of the characters’ feelings or even an exciting new era of “no big deal” queer representation, and more like just another item destined for your cart. This is queerness defanged of challenge and context, no more subversive than the sweaters Henry wears around the castle or the books Alex reads on vacation. (In this case, unsurprisingly, it’s One Last Stop, a McQuiston bestseller.)
Produced by Greg Berlanti, the major domo of the DC television shows on the CW and the director behind 2018’s teen romance Love, Simon, Red White & Royal Blue is structured like a stack of sitcoms; one can easily imagine pausing it throughout to fold laundry and do some online shopping.
So, what are we to make of this bold new world, one where movies have been so highly processed and market tested (it was, after all, Amazon that sold the bulk of McQuiston’s books) that they feel like they should come with packing foam rather than popcorn?
If you are one of the people who spent the day fighting for a future that values idiosyncratic ideas and the creative vision of artists, you feel more than a little bit worried. But if you have grown comfortable with a new streaming-age reality where cinema is merely more swill for the content trough, well then, you are perfectly primed for Red, White & Royal Blue.