Wednesday, February 14, 2018

More than just your Valentine's Day Plan B

So Valentine's Day was likely to go by the boards in our house without much celebration whatsoever. It's already been a busy week for me (I was out both Monday night and Tuesday nights), and for my wife, it's been a busy past six months, perhaps none more so than now, when she's preparing for the first of three three-day workshops for screenwriters that she's organized, which is starting tomorrow. We'd already waved our hand at the idea of celebrating it in any major way, in part because her birthday is on the 19th, so we always kind of give February 14th the short shrift.

We do usually watch a romance-themed movie on Valentine's Day, though in scanning the history of our February 14th viewings together, I saw that we've also watched The Band's Visit, Happy Feet and The Woman in Black, none of which is particularly romantic in nature. Well, we almost always watch a movie, anyway.

This year figured to be an exception, as my wife needed to plan for the aforementioned workshop on the eve of its commencement. But we needed to watch something during dinner, which was a homemade pizza that featured red peppers cut into the shape of hearts, along with chicken an onions. We bandied about ideas like romance-themed short films, but ultimately rejected that idea as too risky of committing ourselves to a dud. I even specifically googled streaming TV shows with a romantic comedy theme, but the ones offered to us on Netflix were ones we'd already watched.

So we decided to commit ourselves to a longer dud, the new Netflix movie When We First Met. Just the beginning of it, after which she would peel off to do the rest of her work, and I would decide if the rest was worth watching. (Of course, the answer would be yes -- I can't intentionally leave a film unfinished.)

Except it wasn't a dud. And she didn't peel off to do the rest of her work -- the rest of her urgent, can't-put-it-off-another-day work -- until after the credits had rolled. (Well, the start of the credits, anyway -- we never seem to be able to click the right buttons to prevent the next trailer from starting.)

It was easy to assume that this movie would not be good. I've started 2018 with two real stinkers among Netflix original films, The Open House and The Cloverfield Paradox, and it isn't much of a leap to think that most of the things that Netflix buys up and dumps on the platform are just more spaghetti thrown against the wall. "Here, this is a movie -- whadaya think? Answer: I don't care what you think! Next!"

Besides, although I really like Adam Devine from his days on Modern Family (are those days still in progress? we don't watch the show anymore), the stink of his movie Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates was still fresh with me. The failure of that movie was undoubtedly in the writing and not in Devine's performance, but it was all too easy for me to imagine a narrative for his career where he's perennially unable to translate his small screen charm to the big screen. (Er, in this case, translate his small screen charm to ... the small screen.)

Then there's Alexandra Daddario, an appealing presence who I worried might just be a pretty face and a gargantuan chest. (Seriously; I don't like to get into describing women's bodies too much on this blog, but there's a scene in this movie where she's jogging, and I wondered what type of heavy duty support was necessary to keep her ... contained.)

Well, we laughed twice in the first five minutes, and then at least that much in every five-minute interval that followed. John Whittingham wrote this script, and checking IMDB now, I see he was a writer on both of last year's Lego movies. Sure, he might lose some points for the Ninjago movie, but the Batman movie is a first-rate example of comedy writing. A good deal of that was present here.

I also really loved an actress who was new to me in this film, Shelly Hennig, as "the friend." I guess she isn't totally new to me, as she was one of the faces on the computer in Unfriended, which I liked quite a bit. But I didn't remember her from that. I don't think I'll have trouble remembering her going forward, though. She's got personality and can deliver a line.

Perhaps the most surprising thing that appeared to be going against this movie, but didn't, was its Groundhog Day narrative structure. I don't know if I've railed against it to you here, but last year I saw two very similar movies involving young people in repeated day structures, Before I Fall and Happy Death Day. I hated both of those movies, and decided that Groundhog Day -- still a fresh idea for a movie as recently as Edge of Tomorrow in 2014 -- had completely wore out its welcome as a template for cheap imitators.

That's not this though. Yes, Devine's character does discover a magical photo booth -- you know, the kind that spits out a sheet of four wacky photos of you -- that allows him to go back in time three years to repeatedly try to seduce his soul mate so she ends up with him instead of meeting her future husband the very next day. When I read the premise, my eyes rolled. But when I watched the movie, I marveled at the way the film deviated from what I expected. Sure, some of the elements are repeated in each timeline, but it doesn't have to wear us out by heaving 12 to 17 elements repeat themselves on each iteration, simultaneously calling our attention to the gimmick and revealing exactly how annoying it is. Whittingham's script takes a few detours as a result of the character making major, rather than minor, changes each time. It was different enough to feel fresh.

And Devine and Daddario both maximize what they do well. In the case of Daddario, I'm glad to report that isn't just accentuating her body, as a very blatant and otherwise unnecessary bikini scene in San Andreas did. She's got the comic chops and she shows them. And this movie made me believe that Devine is headed for really good things in the comedy world, not just serving as Zac Efron's sidekick in woefully inferior gross-out comedies. He's got all the charisma and heart to be a leading man, and Jim Carrey's commitment to the more physical side of his shtick.

So if you're in North America and looking for a late Valentine's Day recommendation -- and I'm posting this before I go to sleep on Valentine's Day in the hopes that you are -- you could do a lot worse than When We First Met. And hey, it's already in your collection, assuming you have a Netflix subscription. No muss no fuss.

Forget about whatever your Plan A was. This is good enough to be your Plan A-, at the very least.

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