Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mr. and Mrs. Wrong: Sharply funny "I Give It a Year" cuts the bull of most rom-coms

I Give It a Year (2013)
97 min., rated R.

Over a hundred times, you've seen a romantic comedy where Mr. Right and Ms. Right fall in love, have problems, and then fix their problems so they can stay together forever. This isn't that film. For all the lame-duck, bull-pucky American romantic comedies that trudge through the motions, the freshly funny and nearly anti-romantic but still blissfully satisfying "I Give It a Year" debunks the clichéd genre template and subverts the expectations of viewers who find comfort in happily-ever-afters. First off, it's a British production from Working Title Films, the same company to produce "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill," "Bridget Jones's Diary," and "Love Actually" (all with Hugh Grant), so it has a saltier, cheekier, sharp-as-cheddar sensibility than most star vehicles Hollywood churns out. Funnily enough, in a self-aware wink, a snarky side character equates the leads' wedding to "a Hugh Grant film." Secondly, it has the audacity to get all the lovey-dovey meet-cute business out of the way in the first minute and beg the viewer to root for the leading couple to separate already. Imagine that and it's not even getting a nationwide theatrical run.

Dan Mazer, one of the writers of 2006's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" and 2009's "Brüno," makes his directorial debut here and works from his own script, tracking the foibles and squabbles of the focal newlyweds' voltaile marriage. Josh (Rafe Spall) and Nat (Rose Byrne) become husband and wife after meeting at a party; he's a thinker and a writer, she's a doer and a high-flying brand consultant. They're told that the first year of marriage is the hardest, but they can't even make it to nine months. While residing in London and seeing a none-too-helpful marriage counselor (a toxically hilarious Olivia Colman), Josh and Nat realize they're mismatched but still blind themselves of their matches by trying to figure out their differences. Josh never officially broke it off with his former girlfriend, Chloe (Anna Faris), whom he's still close with, when she left for Africa on a work retreat, and Nat's new client, Guy (Simon Baker), is so dashing that she continues to take off her wedding ring in front of him. The next three months will be the fateful test to see if Josh and Nat are really meant to be.

Punched up with a peppery sharpness by Mazer, "I Give It a Year" is also served well by its entire ensemble. In the leading roles, Spall, so affable, goofy, and brilliantly comfortable at playing uncomfortable, and Byrne, spiky, lovely, and adorable, have been untested in the comedic world up to this time. The latter, especially after going head-to-head with Kristen Wiig in "Bridesmaids," proves to have crack comic timing and perfect facial expressions to match, even when her Nat can be quite the nag. Josh and Nat aren't really suited for one another, but we see both sides of the story and want to see them grow old, only with someone else. Of the two couples, Josh and Chloe are more appealing than Nat and Guy, but all four deserve someone. A contrived and more formulaic film would have unbelievably fixed its characters for the foregone conclusion we'd expect.

As Chloe, an unusually frumpy but still wonderful Faris would seem to be underutilized as a comedic talent, until she hysterically owns a failed threesome scene where she can't seem to position herself. As the other love interest, Baker gets to play Guy as a smooth, charming guy, not the smarmy, totally unlikable womanizer he's used to playing or could have been written as. The rest of the supporting cast is more than welcome to hog the funniest and most scrumptiously tart lines, including Stephen Merchant as Danny, Josh's obnoxious best man and friend who suffers from a bad case of verbal diarrhea, causing one of the most cringe-inducing reception toasts in recent memory and Minnie Driver as Naomi, Nat's blunt, bitter sister who has a love-hate relationship with her punching-bag doctor husband (Jason Flemyng).

Much like last year's rapidly sharp-witted and emotionally honest "The Five-Year Engagement," this crowd-pleasing gem is accessible to mainstream audiences but never too broad to make its characters sink below their normal IQs. There are a number of laughs, none of them feeling shoehorned in as isolated sketches, like Josh and Nat being married by a minister with a coughing fit; a game of charades where Josh hands out naughty clues; an over-the-top declaration gone wrong with doves; a slyly executed gag with a intermittently humiliating photo show; and, most importantly, a convention-twisting declaration at Josh and Nat's anniversary dinner. Where there's humor, there are also nuggets of truth about incompatible relationships. 

And everybody loves a good soundtrack: there's a nice use of LoLo's cover of "Don't Dream It's Over," and Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" and Starship's "We Built This City" are cleverly integrated into the story as songs that Nat butchers the lyrics to, much to the annoyance of Josh. If "I Give It a Year" doesn't completely rewrite the formula, it certainly doesn't sell out to formula in the end. There might only be so many stories to tell, but here, old chestnuts feel original like they once did in 1937's "The Awful Truth."

Grade: B +

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