Here’s one of Chris Evans’ first voiceover lines in Playing it Cool: “See, I’ve been hired to write this romantic comedy screenplay….” If your brain isn’t inserting “The problem is I’ve never actually…been in love” into the pregnant pause before Evans himself says it, I don’t even know you anymore.
Evans’ character has no name; his eventual paramour (Michelle Monaghan), who for most of the movie is engaged, also lacks a name. An hour and a half of nonsensical Love in the Time of Cholera references later, they still don’t have names, but they are in love—just like in Ghost, which the movie also references. Because this is a film about a writer, see, and those are always the best!
There are two good things about this film. The first is that, admittedly, I didn’t notice that Evans’ and Monaghan’s characters don’t have names the first time I watched it, which means the conceit is not quite as annoying as it sounds. The second is that the film employs a bunch of actors I enjoy, like Aubrey Plaza, Luke Wilson and Martin Starr. And the actors do seem like they’re having a good time with each other. Unfortunately, that’s mostly in the sense of “Can we finish this take already so we can get back to the actually funny conversation we were having between takes?”
The rest of Playing it Cool is fairly typical for the kind of film it is. Fratty enough to be offensive, but not fratty enough for you to believe in the conviction of the writer’s will to offend, which makes you wonder why they bothered crafting lines like “this cigarette is like an elephant’s dick” in the first place. The film’s meet-cute is a mostly eye-rolling conversation about the objectification of women that begins when Monaghan overhears Evans complaining that all of the women at a party are ugly; they immediately fall in love because they have crackling chemistry while sarcastically discussing women’s rights, I guess? I think that’s the point, but I only know they have crackling chemistry because Evans’ voiceover narration tells us they do and also because they hold hands briefly and there are CGI sparks.
Truly a romance for the ages, right? Which is why, once Monaghan is revealed to be engaged, Evans exploits a lame Shakespeare in Love pick up line and immediately goes out to get an immediate blowjob. That seemingly redundant “immediate” is not, by the way. Seriously: the woman gets in Evans’ car and immediately gives him a blowjob. He doesn’t let her finish because he’s a better person now.
Like in many male-centric romantic comedies, the main character’s willingness to indulge in or tolerate casual sexism and racism disappears at the moment those character traits are no longer useful to the plot. Suddenly, the character’s failings are far more mundane: He can never remember the title of Love in the Time of Cholera, BFF Scott’s (Topher Grace) favorite novel; he doesn’t realize that his friend with benefits Mallory (Aubrey Plaza) is in love with him; he’s unable to commit, even though he deeply craves connection. We also learn that this 30+ writer texts booty calls like this: “Think u r up for it?” I’m surprised they didn’t go whole hog and replace “for” with “4.” Because like in many male-centric romantic comedies, the main character’s relative level of maturity is a moving target that doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Under Jason Reardon’s direction, the movie is paced well; that forward momentum works to give the story a sense of urgency it never really merits. Turns out that Monaghan’s fiancé (Ioan Gruffudd) is a jerk, because of course he is, but just like in Made of Honor—that other Monaghan joint where her fiancé turns out to be a jerk—the revelation hardly justifies all the time her true love refuses to take “no” for an answer. Because even with the energy Reardon gives the film, there just isn’t very much to root for in Chris Shafer and Paul Vicknair’s script. Their writing emphasizes clever references and unexpected takes on familiar rom-com scenes over actual humor. Which could be amusing, but the film isn’t sarcastic enough to work as a parody, and it isn’t developed enough to work as anything else. So when Playing It Cool ends with Monaghan telling Evans, “I hate you,” you get the sense that this “clever” moment was the elevator pitch: “It’s a romantic comedy that ends with one character saying, ‘I hate you,’ and the other saying, ‘I love you too.’” The characters make out as the scene fades to black; the audience wonders why movies about writers are always so poorly written.
Director: Justin Reardon
Writer: Chris Shafer, Paul Vicknair
Starring: Chris Evans, Michelle Monaghan, Ioan Gruffudd, Aubrey Plaza, Luke Wilson, Anthony Mackie, Martin Starr
Release: May 8, 2015
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.