It’s never a great sign when the funniest part of your romantic comedy involves the female lead’s flawless boyfriend being killed by a drunk driver in the opening scene (picture Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ smiling face locked in a wide-eyed, ultra-slow-motion close-up as Keegan DeWitt’s lush and bouncy score is suddenly replaced by the Wilhelm scream of screeching tires), but in fairness to James C. Strouse’s absurd “Love Again,” this unclassifiable whatsit isn’t a traditional rom-com so much as a grief drama with a severe identity disorder.
Based on a German film called “SMS für Dich” — which sadly doesn’t mean what it sounds like — Strouse’s moribund yet almost intoxicatingly strange new movie is more or less exactly what you would expect to happen if the guy behind depressive indies like “Lonesome Jim” and “Grace Is Gone” decided to make a poppy date flick that adhered to the rhythms and logic of a Lindsay Lohan vehicle from 2006.
Yes, most of the laugh lines in “Love Again” are stale enough that even just hearing them kind of hurts your teeth, but for all of its blatant ridiculousness, this movie seldom tries to be funny. Don’t be fooled by the snarky gay best friend, the advice-giving sister, or the freak lightning storm that magically connects Chopra Jonas’ character to the world’s most chiseled music critic (Sam Heughan) through the mystical powers of their Sony mobile phones: “Love Again” might be possessed by the spirit of a rom-com, but it’s as deadly serious as a Celine Dion power ballad.
Celine Dion… what a totally random point of comparison, right? WRONG! The Quebecois singer — who seems to be something of a magnet for batshit movies that hinge on her life story, uses this once as a chance to reflect on her own lost love — proves crucial to this mixed-up tale about two strangers teaching each other how their hearts might go on.
Rob Burns (Heughan) is no stranger to the power of love, specifically its power to crush you into a million tiny pieces. His work has been suffering as of late, and while that seems to be explained by the fact that he’s clearly never listened to a single piece of music in his entire life (the character’s entire personality is that he watches Knicks games alone on his couch with a basketball in his lap), his editor seems to believe that it’s because Rob was recently dumped just a week before his wedding.
Rob’s lucky that he looks like a Scottish Tom Brady, and luckier still that he’s been assigned to write about Dion’s first American tour in 10 years. Not only is Rob so bad at his job that the singer (playing herself) take a personal interest in his incompetence, but — in the aftermath of some purple lightning above Manhattan — the work phone he’s given to record his interview starts receiving the voluminous text messages that children’s author Mira Ray (Chopra Jonas) has been sending to her dead partner as a healing exercise.
It’s been two years since the tragedy, and Mira is basically still stuck in the “hide yourself away from the world” stage of grief. She’s living in her parents’ house, the caterpillar she’s famous for drawing seems like it’s never going to turn into a butterfly, and her punchy younger sister Suzy (an effervescent Sofia Barclay) is so desperate to get Mira some Dich that she even creates a Bumble profile for her. Watching Chopra Jonas and Barclay turn to the camera and say “that’s the dating app where the girl gets to make the first move!” was enough to make me wonder if “Love Again” might not be weirdly serious for a rom-com, but rather weirdly romantic for a piece of sponsored content.
Anyway, Rob obviously becomes infatuated with the rando who’s spamming his phone with messages about how much she misses his scent, and, with the help of his bowtied co-worker Billy (Russell Tovey), even more obviously contrives a way to cross paths with her in real life. That his plan involves sitting through several dozen opera performances of “Orpheus and Eurydice” in the hopes of catching sight of his mystery crush — rather than, say, standing outside the entrance of the theater and waiting for her to walk by — epitomizes the fiercely romantic but utterly inane spirit of a film that’s far too love drunk to make sense of its sobering tone.
For a story whose third act (kind of) pivots on a random job offer from Celine Dion, “Love Again” could hardly be more predictable. From the moment that Rob endeavors to find Mira, you know that he’s going to hide the fact that he’s been getting her dead boyfriend’s texts, you know that they’ll eventually rekindle each other’s dormant romantic streak (cue: “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”), only for Mira to discover the truth behind their meet-cute about eight seconds after they finally have sex.
Not to begrudge a rom-com its conventions, but the scene where Mira learns Rob’s secret — and then storms out of his apartment without any follow-up questions! — goes a long way towards exposing the disconnect between the heaviness of Strouse’s hand and the silliness of his plot. There’s something admirable about the sterility of his direction, which resists the easy charm that most rom-coms rely upon to pave over their plot holes, but Strouse forfeits too much of the levity that “Love Again” needs to remain light on its feet.
It doesn’t help that Chopra Jonas and Heughan have all the spark of a rusty lighter in the middle of a rainstorm, even though Chopra Jonas eases into her natural radiance once Mira begins to relax around Rob (an unmotivated turn that happens in the blink of an eye). Or that even Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert would struggle for something to hold onto amidst such oppressively forced circumstances; one problem with devoting roughly 45 minutes of a film to aerial shots of New York City is that it doesn’t leave a lot of time for the lead actors to develop their characters any deeper than they appear on the page.
It certainly doesn’t help that Dion puts the emphasis on the wrong word when she tells Rob that he has “the presence of a pair of used underwear,” as if the perfect man should boast the charisma of some freshly laundered Fruits of the Loom. But Dion’s questionable acting talents shouldn’t distract from the fact that her voice remains as commanding as ever, and — wouldn’t you know it — the first of the five new songs that she wrote for this movie’s Sony Music soundtrack is available to download now. Here’s hoping they stir up stronger emotions than the film that inspired them.
A Sony release, “Love Again” is now playing in theaters.