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Ally (Alison Brie) is an overworked TV producer whose life revolves around a reality television show about dessert. The gig is a far cry from her dream of making documentaries, but it pays the bills and gives her, a Los Angeles transplant from Washington state, a sense of purpose. When Ally’s show gets cancelled by the network, she returns to her small, picturesque hometown of Leavenworth to recalibrate. What she finds instead are reminders of her past and the life she could have had.
Somebody I Used to Know, written by Brie and her husband Dave Franco (who also directs here), is a sharply conceived and smart romantic comedy — the kind of film that might inspire hasty accusations of trying too hard to be different. It takes the narrative skeleton of the genre and enhances it with its own subversive elements. The writing — intelligent but not showy — has echoes of Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally. The visual language hews closer to the dusky and moody aesthetics of contemporary indies than the glittering fluorescents of, say, Marry Me. These initially discordant qualities ultimately meld nicely together; it’s a low-key film with a lot of heart.
Somebody I Used to Know
Cast: Alison Brie, Jay Ellis, Kiersey Clemons, Haley Joel Osment, Danny Pudi, Julie Hagerty
Director: Dave Franco
Screenwriters: Dave Franco, Alison Brie Rated R, 1 hour 46 minutes
Within the first few hours of landing in Leavenworth, Ally runs into ex-boyfriend Sean (Jay Ellis) at a local pub. Their initially awkward encounter slips into something more comfortable. Sean invites Ally to lunch, which turns into drinks, which turns into dinner, which turns into an evening drunkenly cavorting through their town. At the end of their nearly 12-hour hangout, Ally starts to second-guess her life choices. She confesses to Sean her misgivings about moving to Los Angeles to pursue dreams that never materialized. He admits that he has also wondered what would have happened to them.
But there’s no room to explore the “what if” because Sean is getting married. He doesn’t tell Ally that outright: In true rom-com-leading-man fashion, Sean is a coward. It’s only when Ally drives to his house the next day and stumbles upon his engagement party that she realizes Sean is getting married. And his fiancé, Cassidy (the effortlessly cool Kiersey Clemons), reminds Ally a lot of her younger self.
The fingerprints of classic ’80s and ’90s romantic comedies are all over Somebody I Used to Know, whose central plot — of Ally trying to win back Sean — is reminiscent of My Best Friend’s Wedding. But there’s also an obvious desire to shape the film for modern audiences (think season 2 of Love Life) and have it stand on its own. Brie and Franco succeed on that front by tethering their narrative to something more than a simple love story and peppering their screenplay with the kind of sly, clever humor that recalls Brie’s days on the television show Community. (It also helps that her excellent costar Danny Pudi returns here to play Benny, Sean and Ally’s closest friend and our source of comedic relief.)
When Sean’s mom, Jojo (Olga Merediz), asks Ally to be the wedding videographer, the TV producer sees this as her chance to, of course, win Sean back. But as Ally spends more time with the bride-and-groom-to-be, she starts to question what she really wants out of life.
The questions propelling Somebody I Used to Know have more to do with how Ally, Sean and Cassidy feel about themselves than with their chaotic love triangle. All three of them are trying to find and sustain sparks — to hold on to the things that make them feel alive. It’s through this shared goal that they forge an unlikely bond. As Ally gets to know Cassidy, she realizes that they have more in common than they initially thought. They don’t become friends, but over the course of the film’s nearly two-hour runtime their animus turns into a somewhat mutual understanding.
Their relationship, like the film, ebbs and flows at a gratifying pace. Somebody I Used to Know isn’t the kind of romantic comedy built on big, splashy moments; instead, Franco (The Rental) focuses on the details that make up a life. DP Brian Lannin guides our attention to seemingly minor touches — the looks exchanged by Sean and Ally when they first spot each other in the bar, the way Cassidy’s body language changes when she sees her fiancé and his ex bonding — that feel devastatingly human. Lannin and Franco also take advantage of the coniferous, slightly uncanny atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest to give the film a cozy, grounded feel.
Of the Valentine’s Day film offerings being released this week (which include Netflix’s Reese Witherspoon/Ashton Kutcher vehicle Your Place or Mine), Somebody I Used to Know feels the least like a traditional romantic comedy. Of course, there are couples to root for and a love story to cheer on, but what you find yourself most interested in are the conversations between Sean, Ally and Cassidy. You start rooting for them to find their sparks — even if they’re not in another person.
Production companies: Amazon Studios, Black Bear Pictures, Temple Hill Entertainment
Cast: Alison Brie, Jay Ellis, Kiersey Clemons, Haley Joel Osment, Danny Pudi, Julie Hagerty, Amy Sedaris, Olga Merediz
Director: Dave Franco
Screenwriters: Dave Franco, Alison Brie
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner, Ben Stillman, Michael Heimler, Leigh Kittay
Executive producers: Dave Franco, Alison Brie, Teddy Schwarzman, Laura Quicksilver, Bart Lipton
Cinematographer: Brian Lannin
Production designer: Brandon Tonner-Connolly
Costume designer: Amanda Needham
Editor: Ernie Gilbert
Composers: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Rated R, 1 hour 46 minutes
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