‘One True Loves’ Review: Simu Liu’s Charm Cannot Save This Hallmark-Adjacent Slog

The answer to healing trauma is having boring sex, according to the made-for-TV quality adaptation of the novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
"One True Loves"
"One True Loves"
screenshot / The Avenue

Simu Liu may be starring in one of the biggest movies of 2023, but no one will mistake “One True Loves” for that honorific. But, somehow, this rom-com adaptation is more plastic than “Barbie.”

Liu leads “One True Loves,” the big screen adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s 2016 novel of the same name. Liu is Sam, a high school music teacher who finally lands the woman of his dreams, childhood crush Emma (Phillipa Soo). The only issue? Emma’s first husband Jesse (Luke Bracey) was presumed dead after a fatal helicopter crash, and miraculously is rescued four years later, proving to be alive and very ready to rekindle his relationship with Emma right before her wedding to Sam.

If the premise sounds like the stuff of beach reads, it is. The Reid cinematic universe is rapidly expanding, with Prime Video series “Daisy Jones & the Six” having gone viral and fans clamoring to see who is cast in the highly-anticipated “Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” film, so it’s not entirely surprising that her earlier, less critically acclaimed works are also getting the big screen treatment.

Enter: “One True Loves.” Reid and husband Alex J. Reid adapted her novel for “One True Loves,” and while audiences would expect that having the original author on deck would lead to a more seamless transition to the screen, alas. Andy Fickman’s film is bogged down with blatant exposition, courtesy of Emma’s sister Marie (Michaela Conlin), Hallmark-esque declarations amid a bland score, and more plot holes (how did Jesse survive?!) than we care to admit.

“One True Loves” goes back and forth in time, courtesy of a “13 Going on 30” type nod to Sam’s enduring love for Emma since eighth grade. Jesse, of course, is the popular jock whom Emma has heart-eyes for, while she also knows Sam secretly has a crush on her.

The teen versions of the core love triangle, played by Cooper van Grootel as young Jesse, Phinehas Yoon as young Sam, and Oona Yaffe as young Emma, seem to be angling for their own spin-off series. Considering none of these characters fully have room to grow in this 99-minute film, maybe it’s not such a bad idea.

"One True Loves"
“One True Loves”screenshot / The Avenue

But it’s Soo’s performance as adult Emma that makes the film crumble; coupled with the flat script and Kia car commercial lighting and production design, Soo is the stake in the heart of “One True Loves” potential of being decent. The Grammy winner and Tony Award nominee best known for “Hamilton” falters onscreen and seems to push off the acting to her male counterparts, Bracey and Liu, who are both more than capable of picking up the slack.

Yet Emma’s desperation and conflicted emotions are the crux of the story: Without Soo as a strong lead, what is the audience left with? And that is Liu, glorious, marvelous Liu. Jesse, played by Bracey, is too emotionally stunted (he just got back from being trapped on a desert island for years, cut him some slack) to bring the charisma needed to carry a movie. Thankfully, Sam (Liu) is more than ready to step into the spotlight.

It’s Sam who states that their wedding should be put on hold in light of Jesse returning. It’s Sam who encourages Emma to give Jesse a chance. It’s Sam who is the only real adult there (and also lands the only real joke of the whole movie, involving a tuba of all things). “Everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own story,” Sam says at one point, contemplating how he went from happy fiancé to cuck in a matter of hours. “But maybe I’m not the hero. Maybe I’m the bad guy.” (Self-reflection, what a concept.)

"One True Loves"
“One True Loves”screenshot / The Avenue

But the film’s real villain? It’s Emma. She’s caught between two hot men, both representing her past and two distinctly different futures she could have: a life of international adventure with photojournalist Jesse, or a quiet hometown romance and family with Sam. Of course, Emma’s emotional journey to discover what she truly wants includes a lot of sex with both of her husbands instead of actually talking about what’s going on. The best way to heal trauma is by banging it out, it seems.

Oddly, the film resists showing much actual romance, in favor of cheap drama and a shabby story. The pacing is all off, and what we want to see more of — the actual romance(s)! — is as MIA as Jesse was for all those years. Perhaps it’s easier to just call it a day and have Emma, Jesse, and Sam embark on the inevitable throuple relationship. Have hotter sex, more romance (or both!), or a more compelling story, because as it stands, “One True Loves” doesn’t make the case for any continued affection.

Rating: D+

The Avenue releases “One True Loves” in theaters on Friday, April 7, with a digital streaming premiere via Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, and Redbox starting on Friday, April 14.

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