A wildly melodramatic (yet weirdly endearing) love story for and about a generation of young Americans who first have to survive their own government if they hope to spend the rest of their lives with someone else, “Purple Hearts” may unfold like a ludicrous mash-up between “The OC” and “A Star Is Born” — this super-cheap Netflix Original is so determined to satisfy the algorithm that it would lack any coherent sense of self if not for the fact that it was chiefly designed as a star vehicle for Disney Channel grad Sofia Carson — but there’s something rather stubbornly honest about the heartbeat of desperation that thrums below its Walmart veneer.
Some movies just tempt you into making excuses for them because their essence rings true in spite of everything else; that “Purple Hearts” is able to pull that off for at least the first half of its overstuffed two-hour running time is all the more impressive because the whole thing is shot with the reality and panache of a prescription drug commercial. Side effects may include eye-rolling, exhaustion, and an intense desire to google whether “stolen valor” applies to faking a marriage in order to squeeze more cash out of the U.S. military (do not use if allergic to “Purple Hearts”).
Which brings me to my first excuse: From a certain perspective, “Purple Hearts” is a prescription drug commercial. More specifically, a commercial advertising the need for affordable prescription drugs.
Second-generation immigrant Cassie Salazar (Carson) is a spunky waitress at a SoCal bar where she leads her band in pop-punk covers of “Sweet Caroline” and Portgual, the Man’s “Feel It Still” and imagines becoming the next Olivia Rodrigo while serving drinks to handsy soldiers from the local military base. Alas, Cassie is snapped awake from her American Dream when her insurance won’t pay for the insulin prescription she needs to keep her diabetes in check (“Go big pharma” she withers at the helpless clerk who gives her the bad news).
Sober, square-jawed marine Luke (Nicholas Galitzine) is a bit more sincere in his oorah, pro-American sentiments, but this country isn’t doing him too many favors, either. Sure, Luke’s military stipend might help him pay off some of the $15,000 debt he owes to the mouth-breathing drug dealer (Anthony Ippolito as Johnno) who helped keep him high after his mother’s death, but it’s not enough to settle the score. If he had a wife, the spousal benefits might put him over the top, but there’s little chance of finding true love in the two weeks he has left before his deployment to Iraq, and Captain America over here would never dare to stage a sham marriage for the sake of protecting his family. That would be ripping off the government!
Sure, Luke just happened to meet a sharp, star-bound, symmetrically-faced stranger who’s so desperate for access to his military insurance that she would agree to be his wife (and put up with the many performative displays of affection that come with the role), and sure, her mom was forced to pay taxes for ten years before this country even granted her citizenship, but not even Daniel Day-Lewis could convince the military brass that he was in love with some “lib” who thinks war shouldn’t last forever and freaks out every time one of Luke’s soldier friends brags about “hunting Arabs.” And Luke — whose only two emotions seem to be “I’m horny” and “Everything sucks” — is no Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s barely Daniel Baldwin. But if pretending to be attracted to each other is what it’s going to take for these two beautiful people (who are obviously attracted to each other) to stay alive, then so be it. America can be a kind place to those who figure out how to rip it off in return.
It’s a premise that feels reverse-engineered from the raucous pop anthems that Luke inspires Cassie to write in absentia from Iraq, the best of which — a breathy, mid-tempo banger called “Come Back Home” — deserves to be as much of a crossover hit for the semi-famous Carson as it instantly becomes for her obscure fictional counterpoint. Before they crush “Purple Hearts” to death under the weight of their own contrivances, the overwrought subplots that pump attention away from the love story at the center of the film are justified by the script’s need to support Cassie’s music (Carson herself is one of the credited writers, alongside Liz W. Garcia and Kyle Jarrow).
A little will they/won’t they flirtation isn’t enough to justify the arena-ready anthems that Cassie performs across a series of PowerPoint-worthy montages. No, we need tragic deaths, an IED explosion, home invasions, severe daddy issues, a drug shakedown in a parking garage, one seriously challenging set of stairs, and a host of other impediments that distract from the core romance.
Director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum (“Aquamarine”) has a proven knack for pushing YA audiences into unexpected places, but her clumsy handling of this film’s soapier excesses is made all the more frustrating because of the easy spark she’s able to create between Luke and Cassie. These kids may not be Bogie and Bacall, but there’s a stronger fizz to their screen chemistry than you would expect from a glorified commercial for Carson’s talent — largely because Carson is such a spiky, electric presence. It’s fun to watch Cassie and Luke fall for each other as they pretend to be in love for the military officials, even if a better version of this story would’ve engaged with the level of scrutiny our couple is under (“Purple Hearts” makes the dramatically inert decision of suggesting that Cassie and Luke are under constant surveillance).
Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough time for that in a movie that has a million other beats to hit; a movie that can’t settle down even though its two lead characters give each other something to be sure about for the first time in their lives. Both Luke and Cassie want to live in a country that will let them enjoy that. By the end of “Purple Hearts,” we’d settle for a movie that would do them the same favor.
“Purple Hearts” is now streaming on Netflix.