When Netflix announced that they were going to be releasing 80 (yes, eighty) original films in 2018, it was hard to imagine how they could possibly handle that kind of volume. At a time when more traditional outfits like Disney and Warner Bros. are distributing huge movies in small doses, it seemed unfathomable that a studio would be able to put out more than one new movie per week (even a studio that didn’t always have to deal with pesky industry headaches like shipping DCPs and informing customers that their movies exist). But here we are in early February, and Netflix’s agenda is already seeming all too fathomable.
The crux of their strategy — the streaming giant’s ace in the hole — couldn’t be clearer: They’re just going to release the movies that nobody else would.
That idea seems to be the one thing that all of the recent Netflix Originals have in common, but it’s a double-edged sword that means something different for each film. Nobody else would release Duncan Jones’ forthcoming “Mute” because it’s the kind of smart, challenging science-fiction that scares off most studios. Nobody else would release “The Cloverfield Paradox” because it’s the kind of bland, incompetent science-fiction that makes people resent paying for a ticket. And nobody else would release “When We First Met,” because it’s the kind of vaguely passable entertainment that wants points just for existing; a high-concept, low-reward comedy made with the same degree of ambivalence that the average Netflix user will bring to it when they stumble across the movie after 20 minutes of aimless scrolling.
A rusty vehicle for “Workaholics” star Adam DeVine, “When We First Met” is essentially “Groundhog Day,” but instead of being about a dude who’s stuck in time, it’s about a dude who’s stuck in… wait for it… the friend zone! Yes, because what the world needs now is another movie about a guy violating every rule of the space-time continuum just to convince a resistant girl to have sex with him. Movies take a while to make, so it’s hard to blame director Ari Sandel (“The Duff”) for not reading the room, but Netflix has already proven that it’s never too late to just throw in a Cloverfield monster whenever things aren’t working. They might want to play that card more often.
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Anyway, our story begins on November 1, 2017, when Noah Ashby (DeVine) shows up to Avery Martin’s (Alexandra Daddario) engagement party. We’re led to believe that these two chipper kids are getting married to each other, a long flashback walking us through the night they first met. It happened at a Halloween party three years earlier; he was Garth Algar, she was a Rockford Peach, and their meet-cute took them to a jazz bar with an old-timey photo booth before they wound up at her place.
Alas, Noah is something of an unreliable narrator, and it turns out that Avery is actually getting married to some square Abercrombie type named Ethan (Robbie Amell). Noah, distraught over watching his dream girl get away, gets drunk with her best friend, Carrie (“Unfriended” star Shelley Hennig), revisits the aforementioned photo booth, and wishes that he hadn’t screwed things up. Before you even have time to groan at the idea of a magical photo booth, Noah has already been transported back to the morning of October 31, 2014. Ebola is on the front page of USA Today, Blueberry Red Bull hasn’t been invented yet, and Avery is still free to be manipulated into falling in love.
Written by John Whittington, but strikingly absent any of the blistering wit he brought to “The LEGO Batman Movie” and “The LEGO Ninjago Movie,” “When We First Met” soon starts to resemble “Bedazzled” more than “Groundhog Day.” In part, that’s because the film only subjects us to a few rotations through that fateful night, Noah course-correcting for his behavior in a series of banal ways (one time he tries to be Avery’s perfect match, the next time he acts like a complete asshole, etc.). And in part, that’s because it isn’t very good.
From the start, Whittington’s script lays everything out so schematically that there’s little reason to keep watching for the story. As soon as Carrie tells Noah that healthy relationships are based on mutual chemistry more than one-sided desire, it’s blindingly obvious how things things are going to play out; Hennig makes Carrie into a supernova of easy charm, while Noah and Avery are so wrong for each other that the dullness of watching them together almost seems deliberate. Intentional or not, that’s a tough pill to swallow in a laugh-free movie that’s solely relying on the appeal of its star. Fans of DeVine’s exuberant brand of sarcasm might enjoy seeing his “scrunched, insecure Van Wilder” shtick take center stage, but the actor has done so much solid work (“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” “Pitch Perfect”) that only the diehards should bother.
For the rest of you, the movie probably won’t be able to survive the realization that Noah is so narcissistic that he’s wasting a golden opportunity to negate the last few years of our sick, sad world. “When We First Met” asks you to care about a character who travels back in time to 2014 and can only be bothered to care about his own dick. He doesn’t scream at the top of his lungs about Russia interfering with our elections; he doesn’t tell his friends to buy all the Bitcoin they can; he doesn’t even call Justin Timberlake and tell him to just, um, really think through his future choices. No, all he does is try to manipulate a nice stranger — who is openly excited to have a new male friend in her life — into spreading her legs for him.
It’ll take you roughly five minutes to realize that Noah is going about things the wrong way; it’ll take him more than 90. Somewhere, in the vast time between those two epiphanies, you might stop wondering why you’re watching this movie on Netflix, and start wondering why you’re watching it at all. Then you’ll remember that you’re watching it because it’s on Netflix, and just like that it will all make sense: Netflix can only release films that nobody else would because Netflix subscribers will watch films that nobody else could.
Suddenly, 80 original movies a year seems pretty simple.
“When We First Met” will be available to stream on Netflix on February 9.