How does a movie go from broad romantic comedy to something more self-aware, even insightful, in a single scene? How does a diverting but middling romp suddenly become, well, good, and in the process refocus the meaning of the film up to that point?
Improbable as it may seem, A Case of You fascinates as an experiment in directing the romcom to greater emotional authenticity, but only through a risky headfirst dive into the muck of overused tropes and too familiar character types.
It’s a difficult task, and this sly subversion of genre begins in a hardly original place. Justin Long plays Sam, a writer living in Brooklyn trying and failing to write. (Yes, there’s plenty of insipid typing and deleting of sentences.) Sam’s life, you guessed it, has some quirks: he writes the novelizations of a popular teen vampire movie franchise, and he has the perfect foil to his high-strung personality in stoner roommate (Keir O’Donnell).
When Sam meets free-spirited barista Birdie (Evan Rachel Wood), he’s instantly smitten, but what’s an uptight writer with low self-confidence to do when attracted to an out-of-his-league traveler-artist? Why, use her Facebook profile to become her ideal guy, of course. (Yes, let the groans begin.) Sam learns her interests, reads her favorite books, and constructs a self who likes everything she likes with little to no thought about how this could blow up in his face. Just like that, the entire movie with its familiar beats of complication, confession, and a run-to-your-love-in-the-rain is mapped out, or so it seems, for a while.
What makes the otherwise painful scenes of Sam lying his way into dates with Birdie tolerable, and even enjoyable, is a host of great secondary characters. Vince Vaughan plays Sam’s unwittingly condescending literary agent, and Peter Dinklage shows off a Stefon hairstyle, John Waters mustache, and name that’s indefinably between Stuart and Gerard as a catlike barista. Sam’s guitar teacher (Sam Rockwell) is more interested in debating the finer points of Woodstock ‘99 than teaching. The weirdness of all these male foils gives Long the opportunity to play straight man, something more fun to watch than stalker.
Unlike romantic comedies that might have gotten away with a plot predicated on a bet or another kind of deception, A Case of You seems not only aware that its lead is doing wrong but that an audience might find him a bit of a sleazebag. It compensates with distraction, relying on Long’s sympathetic portrayal to buoy Sam’s straining likability and peppering its second act with enough legitimately amusing silliness that results from Sam’s contortions and white lies that it’s almost possible to forget for a moment that he’s being a dishonest doofus.
When his lying and sycophantic agreement threaten to erase his own identity and any chance he might actually have with Birdie, the movie has seemingly nowhere to go but the way the formula demands, and any sort of redemptive happy ending would feel false. However, by conforming to formula long enough to make its lead truly pathetic, the movie takes the real-world consequences of actions that only make sense in the world of romantic comedies to their logical conclusion.
In a critical scene between Sam, his agent, and a publisher interested in his latest piece of original writing, the world of the movie transforms, as characters before mistaken as clichés reveal themselves, and Sam’s relationship, to be more complicated and psychologically realistic than they appear. The film isn’t so blunt as to have Sam realize he’s living in a trivial romantic comedy, but the scene states with some urgency that when life is treated as one, you’ll find it doesn’t work that way.
The film surprises by aiming so intentionally for the predictable that is asks to be underestimated as another unthinking romcom. Long’s performance, too, only seems to be another variation on the broad nice guy he’s played before when Sam, whose anxieties and reasons for fearing rejection are specific, and, when manifested, make him vulnerable and even rather ugly—human, essentially.