Never Just Friends: "Playing It Cool" wants to be a game-changer, then plays it safe

Playing It Cool (2015)
94 min., rated R.

It's becoming a stale question, but so many movies still ask the age-old question, "Can men and women just be friends?" and keep coming up with the same answer. No. No, they can't because love conquers all. There are genre movies that pretend they won't follow suit of the genre they are trying to deconstruct but still be a solid representative of that genre. "Scream" and its three sequels did this with the slasher horror genre. As with romantic comedies, a few have succeeded—2009's "(500) Days of Summer" and 2012's "Celeste and Jesse Forever"or come close—2014's "What If"and 2014's "They Came Together" obliterated every genre chestnut as a spoof. Now, "Playing It Cool" attempts to do the same with the antiquities of romantic comedies, pretending to be a meta anti-romantic comedy, and ends up having its cake and eating it too. There's a fine line between being clever and pleased with oneself, but it frustratingly becomes the latter and then even ordinary.

Cynical, conceited screenwriter "Narrator" (Chris Evans) resists writing a romantic-comedy script for "High School Musical's" Ashley Tisdale and "Glee's" Matthew Morrison because he just wants to write how love truly is and not how the movies fantasize it. If he does complete the script, his agent (Anthony Mackie) has an action-movie project with his name on it. Also a serial dater, he has always ended up cutting a relationship short, telling the woman he doesn't see a future for them. That all changes, natch, when he meets "Her" (Michelle Monaghan) at a party, where they spar and flirt and then engage in a game that involves hitting on the stuffy party guests, until "Narrator" realizes the woman has a boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd), only known as "Stuffy." Still, that doesn't stop "Narrator" from tracking her down, pretending to be a philanthropist for a charity, and when he does, "Her" agrees to go on a few "friend dates." Will he finish his script? Will these two break down the just-friends barrier? Have you ever seen a movie before?

Director Justin Reardon endows his feature debut with some stylish, whimsical directorial flourishes (i.e. scene-to-scene transitions, fantasy and animated sequences) and screenwriters Chris Shafer and Paul Vicknair show occasional spark for a quick-witted one-liner. And, yes, Chris Evans and Michelle Monaghan are infinitely appealing on their own and have an easy chemistry as a couple. At first, it's hard to invest in a romance where the two lead characters never actually get the other's name (and neither does the viewer) or know their jobs, but both have tragic remembrances of their deceased parents. The soon-to-be-official couple has a sweet moment when "Narrator" wakes "Her" up at midnight outside of her apartment and they go shopping for a birthday card for herself, and a cleverly written scene at a diner where they order food based on their conflicted feelings of where their relationship should go with a back-and-forth ("Some cold turkey…I want a hot, open-faced sandwich…I want soup…No, I want ice cream"). There is, of course, never any doubt in one's mind that "Narrator" and "Her" will get together in the end, so there's never much will-they-or-won't-they tension.

Chris Evans is naturally charismatic and able to get by, despite him being given a protagonist who's a little too confident for his own good, seeing his alter ego as a chain-smoking noir gumshoe, and not that different from the romantic leading man he played opposite Anna Faris in 2011's "What's Your Number?" Granted, his name-free character is still kind of a softie; he's still emotionally reeling from the absence of his mother and being raised by his granddad (Philip Baker Hall), so there's motivation for his cynicism, but he has to lie and wreck another relationship to pursue his infatuation. Keeping up with him and often surpassing him, Michelle Monaghan is a ray of light with an infectious warmth and innate intelligence, seeing through everyone's bullshit. However, between her impressive work in "Gone Baby Gone" and HBO's "True Detective," one wonders why she keeps playing it so safe by co-starring in a slew of uninspired romantic comedies? She is the saving grace in "Made of Honor," "The Heartbreak Kid" and "The Best of Me" and always just pleasing to watch, but clearly, Monaghan can do more. If you've wanted to see both actors play around in fantasy sequences in period dress and even drag, now is your chance. Of the comedic back-up, Topher Grace is the likable (and admirably unstereotypical) gay best friend and Aubrey Plaza is her spiky, deadpan self, while Martin Starr and Luke Wilson round out the rest of our leading man's chummy circle, a sounding board with plenty of feedback on love. The film is so meta that Anthony Mackie (who plays Chris Evans' superhero pal in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier") pops up as "Narrator's" agent.

Yet another film that can't decide what to call itself, the generically titled "Playing It Cool" (formerly "A Many Splintered Thing") meets its biggest obstacle in its ambition. It wants to be a game-changer, having its characters pooh-pooh rom-com clichés and love itself. So, after that novelty runs out, the film shortchanges itself and starts checking off all the cornball genre boxes without any sense of irony. One character actually says, "Oh my god, you're falling for her?" and one of the romantic leads complains, "I can't eat, I can't sleep." At the hour mark, there's the temporary break-up. A faded actress cameos to give the advice and final push "Narrator" needs to go get the girl he loves. And, you better believe that after an "an Act III running-through-the-airport scene" is discussed in the first act, that exact mad-dash happens in the third before a big declaration of love in front of a crowd in San Francisco. The tone is also a bit shaky, serious enough for the script to kill off a loved one and have a funeral, and then artificial to have us buy that "Narrator" finishes the script for his "split-personality rom-com" all in a day. Chris Evans and Michelle Monaghan surely brighten the film in spots and make it agreeable, but despite some light laughs, how "Playing It Cool" plays it isn't original, sharp, or charming enough.

Grade: C +