A convincing romantic and erotic attraction, we can all agree, is one of the keys to a good rom-com. Do you believe these two people love each other? Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell definitely have that in “Anyone but You.” It begins with the simple fact that both are such splendid camera objects. She, with her goldfish eyes and pout of self-possession, looks like a more wised-up, no-nonsense Brigitte Bardot, while he, with his squinty eyes and killer grin, resembles Tom Cruise with a weird touch of the young Dustin Hoffman’s geek glamour. These two have “mega movie stars of tomorrow” written all over them, though not merely because they look so good. Both are lightning-fast actors, delivering the spiked screwball banter and — important for this movie — the toxic insults with airy aplomb.
For, of course, the history of romantic comedy is also powered by another dynamic, one nearly as important as love. Namely: Do you believe these two people hate each other? Hate can be the secret sauce of a rom-com, the spice that makes it come alive. The original Hollywood romantic comedy, “It Happened One Night” (1934), featured Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert sniping at each other like there was no tomorrow, enough to convince us there maybe wasn’t going to be a tomorrow for this couple. Movies from “Adam’s Rib” to “Moonstruck” have followed suit, and “Anyone but You” follows suit to the nth degree. That’s what’s fun about it, and also what’s overly diagrammed. Yet it also makes the movie a rom-com for its time, and I’m betting that audiences will respond to it.
The director and co-writer, Will Gluck (who made the A-OK “Easy A” and “Friends With Benefits”), doesn’t waste a minute setting up The Obstacle — the big misunderstanding that’s going to transform the film’s two central characters into enemies literally overnight. Bea (Sweeney), a Boston University law student, has a brash, seen-it-all surface that covers up her doubts about nearly everything: the career path she’s chosen, the men in her life who never seem to work out. Ben (Powell) is a finance bro who used to work for Goldman and thinks of himself, in every realm, as a studly conqueror. The two have a pretty decent meet-cute. She walks into an obnoxious coffee boutique where the barista refuses to give her the restroom key, and he, already standing in line for coffee, comes to the rescue by pretending to be her husband. That they fake it so well lets us know their destiny.
The movie gets the falling in love out of the way fast. Bea and Ben vibe on every level (quick brains, inner sensitivity), then spend the night together. But the next morning, she, full of her old insecurity, sneaks away, making him think that she’s ghosted him. When she changes her mind and returns a few minutes later, only to overhear him trashing her to Pete (Gata), his best buddy (but only because she left!), the stage is set for the mutual jilted lovers to get their hate on.
“Stage” is the correct word, since “Anyone but You” turns out to be a kind of upscale American rom-com version of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Six months later, the two characters run into each other at a bar, where both are linked to an impending wedding. The dreadlocked, whimsically ball-busting Pete has a sister, Claudia (Alexandra Shipp), who’s marrying Bea’s sister, Halle (Hadley Robinson). Are they going to have a destination wedding at a splendid beach estate in Sydney, Australia, so that the film can have a backdrop of sun-soaked real-estate and culinary and tropical-vacation porn? Of course. But the setting — let’s at least give it credit for being more original than Hawaii — is also the fairy-tale locale where tricks and deceptions can unfold.
In this case, the sitcom Shakespeare is built around two contrivances. When everyone in the wedding party figures out that Bea and Ben are a former item who now can’t stand each other, they scheme to push the two back together — all so that their sniping won’t ruin the wedding. But Bea and Ben, being too smart not to see through this ruse, are so annoyed by it all that they decide to overcome it by pretending to be a lovey-dovey couple. Throw in a matching pair of romantic exes, as well a crew of supporting friends and family members who are sketchbook thin (though who could resist Dermot Mulroney’s befuddled dad?) yet all seem to know each other with the exact same degree of cozy intimacy, and you have the formula for one of Will Gluck’s watchable synthetic movies.
I will not belabor why this abstract gloss on “Much Ado About Nothing” worked better in “Much Ado About Nothing.” (It actually has something to do with the fact that Shakespeare’s plots were not exactly water-tight.) There’s a set piece on a clifftop where Ben, to act out how smitten he is, pats Bea’s behind as if it were (in her words) a Bop It game, then strips off his clothing when he discovers a large Aussie spider crawling through it. It’s a demonstration of the commercial principle that male nudity, at least when you’re built like Glen Powell, is the new rom-com gaze porn.
Bea, we’re told, grew up fantasizing about getting married (as a girl, she wore a wedding dress for Halloween five years in a row), but she now says that she’s been “deprogrammed.” That’s not just a tart line. It reflects how more and more people feel — that the marriage-and-settling-down thing is a package they’ve been engineered to buy. The insults that power Bea and Ben’s relationship exist in the great tradition of screwball banter, though in this case they have a vivid hostile edge. “Anyone but You” is a rom-com for the age of antipathy. It is, in many ways, as prefab as a lot of the rom-coms of the ’90s and aughts, but there’s something zesty and bracing about how it channels the anti-romanticism of the Tinder-meets-MeToo generation.
“Titanic me!” says Bea at the rehearsal dinner on a yacht (of course!), asking Ben, on the ship’s prow, to help her re-enact the arms-outstretched, king-of-the-world romantic epiphany from “Titanic.” What a different world that was! “This is so cringe,” says Ben, to which Bea replies, “So is saying cringe, old man.” Ouch! Then again, maybe the world isn’t really so different. “Anyone but You,” while no better than many of those cookie-cutter rom-coms that fans remember with affection, taps their spirit effectively. It’s brazenly traditional, right down to its use of Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” as Ben’s “serenity” song, and the one that seals the joy of their connection. The big final meet-up, in front of the Sydney Opera House (which looks about as romantic as a box of designer shoulder pads, but never mind), is a testament to the wounded sincerity that lurks on the other side of the new hostility. And the theme of the rom-com remains eternal: You probably have to love someone a lot to hate them this much.