The recent Netflix romantic comedy boom has emboldened both filmmakers and fans to embrace oft-disparaged elements of this oft-disrespected genre: the formulas, the heightened reality, the supposed frivolousness. While it’s neat to see a genre reclaim its own conventions from gendered criticism, the real trick to making an unabashed and non-terrible mainstream romantic comedy is balancing all of that familiarity with some genuine feeling—whether it comes from the comedy or the romance. Too much synthetic engineering (or too little attention to actual craft) can smother laughs and swoons alike, and make a movie start to resemble an algorithm.
Plus One, a scrappy new romantic comedy that is somehow not premiering on Netflix, gets this balance mostly right. Ben (Jack Quaid) and Alice (Maya Erskine) are longtime friends who are both facing down a full summer’s worth of weddings, kicking off with the nuptials of a mutual friend. Because they’re both single—Ben bumbling (some might say picky) in his dwindling relationships, Alice still smarting from a major break-up—they cook up a plan to serve as each other’s plus-one, whenever necessary, throughout the season. They’re willing to double their wedding attendance if the arrangement can provide a trusted wing-person, as well as a commiseration partner for when their potential hook-ups inevitably misfire.
The premise checks an almost unholy amount of rom-com boxes: weddings, faux-cynicism about weddings, the “devastating” break-up to provide an unconvincing red herring, the close friends who might develop feelings for one another... and is it possible that someone will bare their soul through a toast at some point, too? Crucially, though, the familiarity of Plus One isn’t entirely based on other movies. Plenty of people will recognize that time, often from their late 20s or early 30s, where seemingly every other weekend is booked with another friend or family member getting hitched, creating weird little guest communities in their wake.
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Writer-directors Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer dedicate themselves to evoking that bittersweet sensation, even when they’re exercising plenty of well-worn tropes. Despite some background-filling furloughs away from wedding weekends, like the scenes with Ben squirming through talks with his divorced dad (Ed Begley Jr.), most of Plus One is about Ben and Alice insulting each other in hotel rooms, nudging each other toward ill-advised romantic encounters, and observing wedding toasts of widely varying, mostly low quality. The quality of the movie’s jokey banter, on the other hand, is largely on the higher side: believably conversational, not too quippy, and only occasionally over-pleased with its frankness.
Even if this is another movie desperate to treat the very utterance of “vagina” as a shocking, transgressive punchline, Erskine can make her weaker lines sound good, and her good lines sound better. Her performance brings a shticky comic type—the messy give-no-fucks woman who also cleans up conveniently well—down to the terra firm of recognizable behavior, and Chan and Rhymer (who also wrote an episode of Erskine’s show Pen15) seem to fully understand how charming she is. Quaid, whether through his performance or the writing, doesn’t fare quite so well, sometimes coming across a bit like a poor man’s Jim Halpert without the benefit of deadpan camera-takes.
Regardless, he and Erskine make a cute couple, casually combusting that peculiar chemistry that’s supposed to be obvious to the audience and various side characters, but somehow obscured to them (though the movie doesn’t make them nearly as oblivious as they could be). Their obligatory realization—or part of it, anyway—happens during a long post-midnight walk-and-talk through an empty downtown strip, a pedestrian setting that cinematographer Guy Godfree makes over into a romantic one. Even more lavishly budgeted contemporary rom-coms often land between indifferent-looking and gauzily overlit nightmares, so it’s an eye-soothing relief that Plus One often takes on the dusky warmth of an indie.
Technically, of course, it is an indie. But it’s also a spiritual successor to studio movies that don’t appear that often anymore. This is what Netflix rom-coms are aiming for, and also what plenty of them miss in a flush of infatuation with their self-conscious comfort-food status. Plus One isn’t much more than consistently amusing and sweetly romantic, but in the right hands, those qualities can still feel like a lot.