Is the long-struggling feature-length romantic comedy showing signs of life? The recent Netflix crop (Set It Up, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and others) weren’t actually very good [ducks for cover], but at least they raised the rom-com’s sinking profile. And 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians and Love, Simon pushed — gently and with ingratiating charm — at the genre’s boundaries, expanding our conception of who these stories include, if not what they look, sound and feel like.
Now there’s Plus One, an uneven but winning and at times bracingly alive indie (premiering at Tribeca before a limited June release) that more than gets by on the strength of its fundamentals: leads with crackling chemistry, crisper-than-average dialogue and a pair of directors who know how to stay out of the way.
It helps that one of the aforementioned leads is Maya Erskine, who gave a brilliantly gonzo performance as a fictionalized version of her 13-year-old self in Hulu series PEN15. Here, the actress lights up a familiar tale of friends turned lovers with her fierce timing and blush-inducing brashness, her flying limbs and scathing line readings. As a recently dumped twentysomething navigating the wedding circuit alongside a college buddy and fellow lonely-heart (Jack Quaid), she helps lend what might have been another airily melancholic L.A. hipster quip-fest some sardonic snap and a bit of soul.
Plus One is nothing if not formulaic. Its central premise — two people who are perfect for each other but don’t want to admit it — is one of the narrative pillars of romantic comedy (including When Harry Met Sally, which, incidentally, starred Quaid’s mother, Meg Ryan). And the movie’s tone and trappings — SoCal setting, indie rock soundtrack, first-world-problem-filled plot — will be recognizable to anyone versed in Sundance/Sundance-like rom-com fare (2012’s Celeste and Jesse Forever comes to mind) or the many TV shows shaped by alumni of the independent film world (Amazon’s Transparent, HBO’s Togetherness, Netflix’s Love, etc.).
But what Plus One lacks in originality it at least partially makes up for in warmth and watchability. Writer-directors Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer (who wrote an episode of PEN15) have a fine sense of pacing, a good ear for banter and a knack for wringing maximum comic juice from an exchange. Most crucially, they make space for the leads to create screwball sparks as they tease and torment each other while gradually letting us in on their mutual yearning.
Erskine plays sharp-tongued Alice, who’s smarting from a break-up. Quaid plays sensitive Ben, so preoccupied with finding “the one” that none of his relationships last. Tired of facing the indignity of the dreaded singles table, the two friends agree to be each other’s plus one to a summer’s worth of weddings (each of which is introduced with a title card and a glimpse of an awkward toast).
It doesn’t take a romantic comedy scholar to predict how this unfolds. But the pleasure of Plus One comes from the scene-to-scene volatility of the protagonists’ connection; Ben and Alice’s fighting and flirting may be programmatic, yet the way Erskine and Quaid plug into and play off each other feels fresh, spiky, persuasively intimate.
Like Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, Erskine is a comic virtuoso who makes glorious use of her full range of tools — voice, body and facial expressions. She also doesn’t dull her edges for the sake of “likability.” Alice deploys irony as both shield and weapon — and she knows how to draw blood — but Erskine’s performance is more than just well-delivered putdowns; the actress never loses track of the human beneath, or between, the barbs. When Alice drops the jeering-cool-girl act in the movie’s final stretch, her sadness pierces as powerfully as her sarcasm.
Quaid (Logan Lucky), who looks like a lankier Joshua Jackson, is a definite type: the wry but emo white dude. But he proves a quick-witted sparring partner for Erskine, as well as a touching and versatile leading man, registering Ben’s sudden emotional shifts with impressive nuance.
He and Erskine give their scenes an infectious combative energy and authentic romantic tension, even when the dialogue occasionally veers toward the shticky (a debate over cuddling feels forced, for example). Chief among the strengths of Plus One’s screenplay is that most of the one-liners sound organic rather than imposed from above, workshopped or brainstormed to death; jokes about “diner tilapia” and Ben’s “little peenasaurus” land because we believe these characters would actually talk like that, using humor to throw each other off the trail of their real feelings.
Plus One peaks in the middle, then drags in the home stretch, devoting too much time to Ben’s not-very-interesting hang-ups. Another flaw is the movie’s utter lack of curiosity about Maya’s work; there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it allusion to her being a supervisor of something or other, but the fact that this ferociously intelligent, highly educated woman’s career is such a non-factor in her life registers as an oversight.
DP Guy Godfree doesn’t try anything adventurous, but the film is loose, nicely lit and inviting. The biggest name in the supporting cast is Ed Begley Jr. as Ben’s dad — though the biggest giggle is earned by Erskine’s PEN15 costar Anna Konkle in a cameo that will make fans of that delicious show want to go back and devour it all over again.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Production companies: Red Hour Films, Studio71, Bindery Fims, Firewatch Entertainment, Lunacy Productions, Inwood Road Films
Distributor: RLJE Films
Writer-directors: Jeff Chan & Andrew Rhymer
Cast: Maya Erskine, Jack Quaid, Beck Bennett, Rosalind Chao, Perrey Reeves, Ed Begley Jr., Brianne Howey, Tim Chiou, Tom Yi
Producers: Debbie Liebling, Greg Beauchamp, Andrew Rhymer, Jeff Chan, Jeremy Reitz, Ross Putman
Executive producers: James Short, John Short, Milan Chakraborty, Dan Weinstein, Michael Schreiber, Amee Dolleman, Ben Stiller, Nicholas Weinstock, Jackie Cohn
Director of photography: Guy Godfree
Editor: John Daigle
Costume design: Annie & Hannah
Production design: Francesca Palombo
Music: Leo Birenberg
Original songs: Martin Courtney
Casting: Lindsey Weissmueller, Neeley Eisenstein