The rom-com genre is full of movies with cynical leading men who wind up meeting that special girl that turns around their preconceived notions about love and relationships. But upon watching “Playing It Cool,” you’d be forgiven for thinking the film’s nameless romantic hero might be more in need of therapy than a female companion, to open up his eyes to the world of meaningful partnerships. When he says, “I actually think the whole idea of love is unrealistic and outdated,” it must be remembered this is all because his mother left him as as child to be raised by his grandfather. This leads our sad sack dynamo to forever sabotage his own relationships whenever a woman confesses her love by saying, “I just don’t see myself ever feeling myself the same way about you.” But hey, he’s willing to investigate the possibility of love being a real thing when there’s a paycheck on the line.
Chris Evans takes the lead role as a screenwriter who reluctantly takes on a gig rewriting a rom-com (meta!), when his agent (Anthony Mackie) dangles the prospect of a much more desirable action movie job to follow if he completes the assignment. The problem, of course, is how can you write about love if you’ve never experienced it? Luckily, it doesn’t take long for the scribe to cross paths with Michelle Monaghan (who also doesn’t get a name; the credits refer to them as “Him” and “Her”), and soon his heart is all aflutter. But there’s another problem: she’s engaged. For most men, this might be signal to perhaps back off, but then the movie dips into a fairly outdated handbook to motivate our protagonist to keep pursuing his love interest. “Women, they want to be fought over. They like to feel desired,” his grandfather (Philip Baker Hall) advises, painting a rather primitive portrait of the female gender. But it seems to be one that “Playing It Cool” woefully endorses as the underlying justification for the screenwriter (who doesn’t seem to write all that much) to break up an impending marriage. And oh yeah, the fiancé is a stuffed shirt British guy (literally credited as “Stuffy,” and played by Ioan Gruffudd), which automatically defaults him into the villain category.
It’s hard to know what to make of the screenplay by Chris Shafer and Paul Vickner, but an early description of the movie as being in the same spirit as “Amélie” and “(500) Days Of Summer” is not far off (though not as accomplished as either of those films). Packed into the 90-minute movie (which feels like it had an edit that left more material on the cutting room floor), are a plethora of fantasy sequences, voiceover narration, animation, and the physical manifestation of the lead character’s heart, who looks like a 1950s detective for some reason, complete with a fedora. But on the other hand, it attempts to have the loose, slightly raunchy flavor of a Judd Apatow movie. It’s a jumble of styles and tics, borrowing from a lot of other movies that did this stuff much better. Maybe it’s not a surprise given these guys also wrote the “Before Sunrise” aping “Before We Go,” which Chris Evans directed, clearly happy with the work they did here. But that resulting effort was a superficial duplication of Richard Linklater‘s film, and not surprisingly, “Playing It Cool” is similarly empty.
But even if it lacks substance, director Justin Reardon does give himself half a chance by stacking the supporting ensemble with familiar faces and hoping they can perhaps charm their way through a thoroughly un-charming script. Topher Grace, Aubrey Plaza, Luke Wilson, and Martin Starr make up the lead’s circle of writer friends, who he continually turns to for advice. But as you’d expect, their feedback is mostly there for comedic value, and while these scenes won’t force much more than a smirk, the film does liven up whenever they’re around. They are playing types you’ve seen them do in other projects (Topher Grace’s deeply romantic best friend character is surprisingly charming, though the mileage on Aubrey Plaza’s “dark weirdo” schtick is beginning to wane), but they are quirky enough that their antics are more interesting than whatever is going on in the main storyline. And they serve as a nice diversion from Chris Evans’ blandsome lead.
As “Playing It Cool” heads into the final act, whatever whimsical elements it may have had, or vaguely adventurous spirit toward the conventions of the genre it might have taken, they recede quickly for a race-to-find-the-girl chase, followed by a cornball, overly familiar speech, and closing with an iris zooming in on our infatuated couple holding hands (no, that’s not a spoiler, this is a romantic comedy). And yet, the movie leaves viewers with some questionable assumptions about relationships. It argues that men must be forever persistent in order to land the woman they want, while women are not emotionally equipped to make decisions about what they actually require in a relationship. If “Playing It Cool” is meant to be an ironic interpretation of what happens to these characters, the film isn’t sharp, smart, or insightful enough about how actual humans interact to pull it off. [D+]