The anti-rom com: When “I do” becomes “Actually, I might not”
Two weeks ago, I reviewed the insipid Austenland, a banal, predictable, utterly forgettable romantic comedy. This week, however, I am happy to report that I have found its antithesis with I Give It a Year, an edgy, brilliantly funny British romantic comedy that is as fresh and inspired as Austenland is stale and uninspired. If a film like Austenland makes you think you hate romantic comedies, then you owe it to yourself to go see I Give It a Year, which, I promise you, not only will make you laugh, but will also give you a newfound appreciation for the genre’s possibilities.
Written and directed by Dan Mazer in his directorial debut (his writing credits include both Borat and Bruno), I Give It a Year takes the stereotypical romantic comedy and turns it upside down and inside out. Most American romantic comedies follow two people, who, however unlikely matched, end up falling for each other, overcome a variety of obstacles and misunderstandings, and, naturally, end up happily ever after as a peppy pop tune plays over the passionately kissing lovers. With I Give It a Year, though, the British Mazer comes at that well-known, overplayed story from its ubiquitous ending: in a fun twist, Mazer starts his film with the wedding of a couple who, we are quickly told, have only known each other seven months.
Indeed, we don’t know much about Londoners Josh (Rafe Spall) and Nat (Rose Byrne)’s courtship, nor do we need to; all we know is that Nat’s sister Naomi (an acerbic Minnie Driver) snidely whispers about the couple, “I give it a year” during their wedding reception. And with that auspicious beginning, the film is immediately set up to work backwards from tradition – the ostensibly happy couple is married, but now there are doubts among the couple’s intimates – where will things go from there?
Naomi’s words soon prove prophetic, as Josh and Nat, too, begin having doubts about their suitability and their hasty nuptials, as their differences quickly reveal themselves (she’s a highly efficient, career driven ad exec; he’s a laid back, jokey novelist). They do seem to genuinely like each other, though, and to recognize the solemnity and commitment of their recent vows, even going to see a marriage counselor, a daffy woman who may quite possibly be the world’s worst therapist, but who provides some of the film’s wackiest moments.
Josh and Nat’s doubts are further amplified, however, when two alternative romantic prospects enter the picture. Nat meets Guy (Simon Baker, looking especially dashing), an American factory owner who becomes one of Nat’s ad agency clients. And Josh begins spending more time with Chloe (Anna Faris), an old flame recently back in London after a stint of charity work in Africa. How these four navigate the complicated romantic waters in which they find themselves make up the bulk of the film, allowing the story to explore issues of attraction, love, commitment, compatibility, and happiness.
Mazer’s script sharply sends up a host of typical rom com clichés with biting, perceptive wit. Nothing is sacred – from the best man’s toast, which finds Josh’s best friend Danny (a hysterical Stephen Merchant) delivering a speech so inappropriate and cringe-inducing that it’s awe inspiring in its crassness – to family Christmases (the gift giving scene with Nat’s parents is comic gold), to Guy’s dramatic seduction overture involving white doves that goes terribly awry, in a memorable scene that we can safely assume must have been created via the magic of visual effects, or else PETA would have had a field day.
Mazer also does a terrific job directing his talented cast, who all have impeccable comic timing and play nicely against each other. Byrne and Spall beautifully convey the frustration and dismay of a couple who truly care about each other, but start to realize they may have rushed things as their quirks and differences start to surface and annoy one another. Faris and Baker, both playing Americans, have fun seeming alternatively amused and bewildered by their British romantic interests, and Mazer gets some great mileage out of poking fun at British perceptions of Americans. Baker’s Guy especially takes some gentle ribbing for his golden boy good looks and GQ suaveness. And Stephen Merchant’s sidekick Danny almost steals the picture from the lead actors with some of its best bits and funniest lines, delivering them in a droll, clueless way that only heightens their offensiveness.
Mazer’s film ultimately epitomizes what romantic comedy audiences have always known, but those films themselves often have not: “happily ever after” may not be quite so easy, and there can be just as much – if not more – comedy from exploring that angle, instead of the everything-is-perfect-from-now-to-eternity unrealistic ideal. With that unique sensibility, then, I Give It a Year works so well because it is refreshing in its honesty, and derives its laughs from reality, not fantasy.
I Give It a Year opens in Bay Area theaters today.