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As Hollywood mid-budget films became a rarity in the 2010s, romantic comedies appeared to be a dying species. Then in 2018, Claire Scanlon and Katie Silberman’s summer sensation “Set It Up,” starring Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch, seemed poised to revive the genre. Five years later, the fate of rom-coms is still on rocky ground, but another star vehicle for the charismatic Powell has emerged as another potential savior. “Anyone But You,” from director Will Gluck and co-writer Ilana Wolpert, has the charm, wit, swoony romance, and, most importantly, star chemistry that has been solely missing from recent lackluster entries in the genre.
A loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” Powell stars as Ben, a finance bro hiding deep emotional wounds with f-boy nihilism, who meet-cutes with Bea (Sydney Sweeney), a law student unsure she even wants to be a lawyer. Sparks fly immediately between the two, who spend a day and night passionately talking, eating grilled cheese, sharing with each other pieces of themselves they rarely show to anyone. Waking up on Ben’s couch the next day, a euphoric-but-hesitant Bea panics and leaves without saying a word. Regretting her mistake almost immediately, she returns to tell him how she feels just in time to overhear a hurt Ben tell his best friend Pete (GaTa) that she was just another one-night stand who means nothing to him.
A few months later, Ben and Bea cross paths again when Pete’s sister Claudia (Alexandra Shipp) begins dating Bea’s sister Halle (Hadley Robinson), and again a year or so later when they’re both invited to the women’s destination wedding in Australia. The squabbling duo make such a mess of things that the wedding party plots to get them together just to keep the peace. The couple decide to play along with the poorly executed ruse so that Bea’s parents will stop trying to get her back with childhood sweetheart Jonathan (Darren Barnet) and make Ben’s ex Margaret (Charlee Fraser) jealous. But, as they say about best-laid plans, things go awry, and, eventually, true love prevails.
Like “Easy A,” Gluck’s millennial spin on “The Scarlet Letter” which helped launch the career of Emma Stone, “Anyone But You” brings a classic story and structure to life with thoroughly contemporary characters and themes. Ben is a man who has built an emotional wall around his life. Bea is a good girl afraid to risk reaching for more than just the comfortable life her helicopter parents (Dermot Mulroney, Rachel Griffiths) have planned for her. Both are constantly talking to the people in their lives, but rarely daring to actually communicate.
Despite the stacked supporting cast, this is really a two-hander for Powell, whose scruffy charm is reminiscent of Kurt Russell a la “Overboard,” and Sweeney, whose sad eyes and soft timbre recall Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl.” Their palpable chemistry is enhanced through a skillful use of medium and close-up shots that bring into focus both their characters’ fire, and their shared melancholy. While the film has its fair share of wacky moments, its greatest moments are found in the many scenes where Ben and Bea truly see each other, and, eventually, find the courage it takes to embrace being with someone who recognizes the real you, flaws and all.
Along with the strong character work from Powell and Sweeney, the film’s greatest asset is the creative visual ways Gluck finds to subvert viewer expectations for an R-rated comedy. There is nudity, sure, but mostly the camera gazes on Powell’s toned body. Gluck further subverts this gaze, using the actor’s hulking frame for farcical sight gags and light barbs. Gluck’s positioning of Sweeney’s petite frame in slightly absurd physical situations (a scene featuring a malfunctioning sink in an early scene is a standout) allows the actress to showcase her own slapstick prowess.
These comedic moments are perfectly contrasted with the film’s romantic moments, grand and small, which are also subversions of well-worn tropes. There are the bookend scenes of Ben cooking Bea grilled cheese (food is love, after all, and nothing says love to me more than a perfectly cooked sourdough grilled cheese). Bea helping Ben overcome a fearful moment by singing to him his “serenity song,” Natasha Bedingfield’s undeniably upbeat bop “Unwritten.” Or the film’s requisite final mad dash declaration of love. But rather than the final speech being a plea for the couple to be together, like the endings to classics of the genre that are swoon-worthy, yet also, unfortunately, essentially ultimatums, there is instead a more emotionally complex understanding that to love someone is to wish the best for them, regardless if that future includes you or not. Remember, the rest is still unwritten.
In theaters on December 22nd.