Romantic comedies are rigidly formulaic, which is part of what people enjoy about them. Most throw two gorgeous people together and concoct various impediments to their inevitable clinch, with the most common impediment being that they’re complete opposites who take an instant dislike toward each other. Over the course of the movie, the audience watches them slowly realize that they’re in love. I Give It A Year, the directorial debut of Sacha Baron Cohen’s longtime writing partner, Dan Mazer, ingeniously reverses this template, opening with a marriage and then observing the couple’s first 12 months together, during which it slowly dawns on them that they’ve made a huge, mutual mistake. That Mazer succeeds in playing this for laughs—however sporadic—rather than as a kitchen-sink downer is an achievement in itself.
Both parties have a proper soul mate waiting in the wings, so that helps. Having gotten hitched after a whirlwind seven-month courtship, Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall move almost instantly from the infatuation stage to the “every single thing you do sets my teeth on edge” stage. She finds him boorish and insensitive; he thinks she’s stuffy and humorless. Frankly, it’s hard to comprehend how they fell for each other (or even imagined they did) in the first place, given their blatant incompatibility. Their stubborn refusal to acknowledge the obvious, however—which would entail admitting failure—rings true. As their disenchantment grows, Spall increasingly finds excuses to hang out with the former girlfriend (Anna Faris) he never officially broke up with, while Byrne engages in heavy flirtation with a new client (Simon Baker) who’s much more her urbane type. Still, neither wants to be the one who throws in the towel.
This is an inspired idea for a rom-com, and Mazer makes it pay off with a climactic speech that’s at once a parody of the genre and utterly, bizarrely heartfelt. Getting there is a somewhat bumpy ride, though, because he can’t quite decide whether he’s making a wry comedy of manners or an outrageous, Borat-style raunchfest. Stephen Merchant overstays his welcome as Spall’s obscenely lecherous best friend, and when the couple’s new digital photo album displays their homemade porn to family members, or Faris takes part in a gymnastically awkward ménage à trois, the movie starts to seem a bit desperate. But it continually recovers via endearing nuggets of minor idiocy, like Spall stationing himself next to good joke material at a party so that he can repeat the same one-liners to everyone who happens along. Even if the gags’ hit-to-miss ratio isn’t what it might be, originality counts for something. Half of all marriages end in divorce; for a movie not only to acknowledge that but to treat it as inspirational—well, it’s oddly inspiring.