VOD film review: Playing It Cool
James R | On 03, Mar 2015
Director: Justin Reardon
Cast: Chris Evans, Aubrey Plaza, Michelle Monaghan
Watch Playing It Cool online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW / Apple TV (iTunes) / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Playing It Cool, which arrives on VOD this week, wasn’t always called Playing It Cool. But the film’s new title fits it better than the old one (A Many Splintered Thing).
The movie stars Chris Evans as an unnamed male, who falls in love with an unnamed female (Michelle Monaghan), only to discover that she’s engaged to another man (Ioan Gruffud). Captain America and Mr. Fantastic in a romantic comedy together? That’s only the start of the movie’s impressive cast list, which includes Anthony Mackie (The Winter Soldier’s Falcon) and Topher Grace (Spider-Man’s Venom). Why, then, is a movie featuring four Marvel stars skipping cinemas to go straight to streaming?
Perhaps a better question to ask is what attracted them all to the project in the first place. The answer to both lies in the movie’s script. Written by Chris Shafer and Paul Vicknair, it delivers all the familiar rom-com standards, from dashing through airports to gay best friends. But it does so with a twist: the narrator, we discover immediately, is a screenwriter. His task? To write a romantic comedy, despite not believing in love.
It’s a typically meta concept in an age that has already witnessed (500) Days of Summer and They Came Together. Soon, we’ve not only met the narrator, the unobtainable love interest and the horde of friends, but we’ve also been introduced to our lead’s “heart”, which is personified by Chris Evans in a suit and hat, who spends his time lurking in the background and smoking. It’s a neat device, one that debut director Justin Reardon pounces on with both hands. What follows is a string of surreal set pieces, ranging from bizarre cutaways and fourth-wall-breaking asides to fantasy sequences that Chris Evans inserts himself into.
“It’s a writer’s trick,” he tells the camera, explaining why he imagines himself in everyone else’s romantic stories. That’s where Playing It Cool starts to fall down: as well as stereotypical generalisations about writer, we find ourselves treated to equally cliched female characters, who are almost invariably presented as insecure and incapable of dealing with their emotions. A montage of booty calls and blow jobs do little to avert the screenplay’s male gaze.
It’s testament to the cast that they make so much from the material. Evans’ character has little depth, but he’s a likeable screen presence, while he and the always-excellent Monaghan have enjoyable chemistry. One scene where they hit on inappropriate people at a party is laugh-out-loud funny, while his repeated drunken visits to her doorstep at night are amusing. Aubrey Plaza also brings giggles as his dark, twisted artist friend, but Topher Grace bizarrely emerges as the most rounded character, achingly leaving copies of Love in the Time of Cholera everywhere, while hoping to win over someone he fancies in his local bookshop.
If it sounds bitty, it is: the patchwork of subplots is stitched together clumsily, leaving the overall tapestry rather threadbare – one narrative involving Plaza’s character is awkwardly brushed aside into what feels like a gaping chasm of deleted scenes. It’s Reardon’s enthusiasm, then, that keeps you going, chucking literal representations of abstract concepts at the screen with abandon. But it’s also what undoes his good work: when our couple first hold hands, he literally has sparks fly between them, which feels like a step too far. That self-aware streak ends up overshadowing everything, as the script highlights style over substance until the point where any engagement is lost.
The result isn’t terrible, by any means. In fact, it’s frequently entertaining. But it’s no (500) Days or They Came Together. If you spend your nights dreaming of four Marvel hunks in a rom-com, there is much to enjoy in this uneven outing. But Playing It Cool ultimately spends so much time playing it cool that it never quite warms up.
Playing It Cool is available on Sky Movies – and, for non-Sky customers, on NOW, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.