It’s February, so the rom-com deluge is upon us and for those who pooh-pooh the genre, you won’t find a grumpy enabler here. In fact, I’m an unabashed connoisseur of the quirky rom-com, amply swayed by those particularly odd and unexpected pairings that feel like they were born of someone recklessly spinning the “chemistry wheel,” somehow ending up with gold. Movies like French Kiss, 50 First Dates, Easy A, Always Be My Maybe and anything with petticoats get my enthusiastic deep sigh of approval.
What the best of the genre offers is that ephemeral chemistry that just lights up when the leads appear on screen together, coupled with the snappiest updating of those tropes we know are coming: Opposites attract, enemies-to-lovers, road trip, etc. In the case of Amazon Studios’ Book of Love, the tropes del día include the tried and true “cultural opposites attract,” with a dash of enemies-to-lovers and a sprinkle of emotional constipation. Nothing exactly world-changing nor screenplay-shattering for the genre, but it’s the charming chemistry of Sam Claflin and Verónica Echegui that makes director Analeine Cal y Mayor’s work a sweet confection to enjoy.
Boasting some modestly budgeted international locale hopping, Book of Love opens in London with Clafin playing the visual definition of buttoned-up as Henry Copper, a floppy-haired wannabe literary darling desperately trying to attract any attention to his six-month old stinker, The Sensible Heart. It’s a book with no passion, no sex and no readers. It’s only when Henry’s new and less-than-sympathetic editor (Lucy Punch) tells him that it’s a surprise hit in Mexico that he gets a second wind. Trying to gain any traction they can for sales, she sends him on an immediate mini book tour with the Mexican publisher Pedro (Horacio Villalobos) and Maria Rodríguez (Echegui), the book’s Spanish translator.
As soon as the English-only gringo lands, he doesn’t comprehend that the airport ads for a lusty-looking bestseller, El Corazón Sensible, is actually his book. He only comes to understand when his first book tour stop features a packed house of fans who are mighty thirsty for Henry, and to know more about his inspiration for the story and those blazing hot love scenes. In those moments, Clafin does British befuddled almost as well as Hugh Grant, as he blushes and blows up—measuredly—when he’s able to decipher that his vanilla exploration of chastity did not translate with any kind of veracity.
As it turns out, Maria took it upon herself to upgrade his boring book into something better, and no one bothered to pass the changes on to Henry. He’s now stuck doing a three-city tour with her, her grandfather and her 10-year old son Diego (Ruy Gaytan), along with chipper Pedro, in a tiny VW bug. And yes, those close quarters make for plenty of fiery presumptive back-and-forths between a put-out Henry and the equally upset Maria.
She’s particularly steamed at being roped into babysitting this nerd when she has always aspired to be a writer, but has never been afforded the opportunity—as her time is filled with a useless ex, single-mothering and caretaking her aging grandfather. She’s livid that his privilege and mediocrity still got him published, and now he’s a hit in her country based on her rewrite of his lame book. Cal y Mayor’s work on the script is refreshingly laser-precise when it comes to contextualizing Maria’s witheringly disappointing experiences with love. To Maria, the love inside books is a dream, but for sheltered Henry, it’s an ideal. She quickly makes it clear that his “love” bubble is about as far from her real life as possible, which forces him to open his eyes to just how little he’s allowed himself to actually experience other people’s realities and to let himself feel real things.
Their witty sparring along the road gets fleshed out with conversations of more depth along the way, which allows Henry to immerse himself within her family unit in charming scenarios. And then there’s Maria’s selfish ex, Antonio (Horacio Garcia Rojas), who gets jealous and adds some expected misunderstanding road bumps to the couple’s burgeoning feelings. Cal y Mayor also enriches the cultural landscape by framing Mexico as a gorgeous backdrop to their trip. The cinematography serves up a beguiling taste of the country, from Mexico City to tiny rural roads, which puts a distinctive stamp on the film and extends the dappled sense of romance to the country as well. Even though there’s definitely a sense the film had to get creative with its budget, as evidenced by truncated carnival setpieces and modest book tour stops, Cal y Mayor knows when it’s best to give Claflin and Rodríguez the floor to beguile one another and the audience.
Cal y Mayor and David Quantick’s script is a witty reworking of oft-traveled tropes, but they make it fresh by giving the ensemble fun things to do and say, then weaving in the tropes of the telenovela into the last act—grounding the film in its cultural heritage. The rest of it lands because of the two leads. Echegui knocks it out of the park whenever she’s given the opportunity (which is frequent) to really make us feel either the depth of Maria’s disappointments or the glee of finding her voice in eventually writing and connecting with Henry. As her scene partner, Claflin is also to be commended for dorking up his look with commitment and landing a romantic earnestness that isn’t cheesy, but deeply sweet and especially sexy when he unabashedly conveys his pride and awe for Maria. They work together, and the film could have used a few more extended scenes of them slowly bonding to cement their eventual coming together. But quibbles aside, Book of Love ends up being a surprising mix of sweet and salty, silly and sincere, that earns those coveted rom-com sighs.
Director: Analeine Cal y Mayor
Writer: Analeine Cal y Mayor, David Quantick
Starring: Sam Claflin, Verónica Echegui
Release Date: February 4, 2022
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written official books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and The Story of Marvel Studios (2021). You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.