When we first see our duo at a cozy local New York City bar, Sheila (Kaley Cuoco) has had her eye on Gary (Pete Davidson) for quite some time. She’s staring at him with a freneticism and urgency that bartender Phil (Kevin Corrigan) mistakes for lust (who can blame him?). When Sheila, all too-big smile and bright dress, finally sidles up to the doe-eyed loner, it seems we might be in for — what’s that — a meet cute. But this isn’t a meet; it’s all happened before. Sheila is playing a role. So is Gary. And so is perhaps every overeager gal and maybe-shy guy who has ever populated a rom-com.
Such is the big idea at the heart of Alex Lehmann’s “Meet Cute,” and that’s not even counting the film’s ambitious but messy time-travel conceit conceived by screenwriter Noga Pnueli. If Sheila seems desperate, it’s because she wants to cut the crap, skip the small talk, and jump to the good stuff. And Sheila knows it’s possible: She’s spent the last few days (weeks? months? years?) jumping 24 hours backward in time so that she might meet Gary at this random bar, introduce herself, and send the two of them on the best first date ever.
Don’t let the cloying title fool you and don’t get caught up in the “Groundhog Day” of it all. Lehmann’s film is both a credible romance and a clever attempt at deconstructing just what it is we love about love, both on the big screen and in the mess of our everyday lives. Many elements of this anti-rom-com (that is also a rom-com) don’t quite gel, with explanations for Sheila and Gary’s damaged psyches that feel paper-thin and movie-made. Still, the stuff that does work interrogates the entire genre; it’s both entertaining and smart as hell.
Sheila didn’t set out to time travel or to find a guy to fix all her problems. As she tells Gary over and over (and over and over), awhile back, Sheila stumbled into a random nail salon with the vague notion that she should get a manicure (to say more would be to spoil a big twist). Fortunately for her, said salon contained both deadpan nail tech June (an uproarious Deborah S. Craig) and a tanning bed with magical time-travel powers. With a little shove from June, Sheila took the bait: time travel! For Gary, this story is always new, although with each retelling he notes that she seems maybe, a little… no, a lot more unhinged.
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As Sheila tells Gary during the early, peppy moments of “Meet Cute,” the thing about him is that no matter how she acts or what she says during that “initial” meeting, they have a wonderful first night together. We watch the various iterations unfolded, snappily edited by Christopher Donlon, and it’s clear: Despite the awkward vibe of this very awkward scenario, these two are damn cute together. Maybe it’s not so crazy after all?
However: Sheila can only handle one night with Gary. She’s terrified of what “tomorrow” might bring and ends every evening with a “see you tomorrow” that feels increasingly poisoned. Eventually, even Gary — Gary, who you might remember, gets dropped into this scenario fresh each evening — can’t handle it. In this high-concept world, the repetition of relationships still wears, recycled stories lose their pop, and emotion often doesn’t quite match intellect. So, like love?
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Sheila is so driven to keep these nights with Gary going (no spoilers, but when you see what Sheila does with her doubles when she goes back in time, you’ll get a gist of how far she’s willing to go) that she lands on an even crazier idea: She’ll go even further back in time! That way, she can “fix” Gary so that he might turn into an even more-perfect date. (Like most time-travel stories, the particulars of Sheila’s journeys make less sense the more you consider them; best to accept it at face value and move on.)
Like everything Sheila attempts in “Meet Cute,” things don’t work out as planned. In movie parlance, especially the rom-com variety, that usually means something wacky and sweet — but Lehmann and Pnueli aren’t interested in the stuff that only happens in the movies. Even as “Meet Cute” embraces rom-com tropes, it explores the way they can taint entertainment as well as real life. Love is messy, unpredictable, and painful, hardly ever as “cute” as we see it in the movies. But if even these two crazies can overcome bad families, fraught histories, and an actual time machine, maybe there’s hope for everyone. Especially the rom-com.
“Meet Cute” is now streaming on Peacock.
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