Poor Jane Goodale (Ashley Judd). She just can’t get a date in New York. She’s got a good job booking talent for a popular TV talk show, nice enough apartment, great wardrobe, and, of course, a chatty and sympathetic best friend, Liz (Marisa Tomei). In other words, Jane is a character in a ‘00s romantic comedy, and so, she will endure some ninety minutes worth of joke-worthy heartache and loss before she will find the man of her dreams, who has been right under her nose all along, only disguised as the opposite of the someone she’s looking for.
This is, of course, a familiar strategy in romantic comedies, one that makes them rather like buddy movies, only without the high tech weaponry and car chases. From Bringing Up Baby to My Man Godfrey and Save the Last Dance to The Wedding Planner, the emotional trajectory of partners-to-be in this genre is predictable, and when you don’t follow the rules, as Chasing Amy or Forces of Nature were brave enough to do, the consequences are usually dire, that is, quick—and infamous—box office failure.
Someone Like You is not out to break any rules; in fact, it’s more inclined to reinvent them. Based on Laura Zigman’s best-selling novel, Animal Husbandry, the film offers a standard plot, in which Jane’s inability to find a decent guy is made clear by a preliminary disastrous relationship. There are any number of cues that her boyfriend Ray is a bad choice, not least being that he’s played by Greg Kinnear, who’s made a bit of a career out of playing exactly this self-interested, glib, superficially charming character (even in the A Smile Like Yours, where he was the romantic lead, he acted glib and self-interested).
And, even if you grant that Jane has somehow managed never to see a Greg Kinnear movie, you’d hope she’d take notice of Ray’s corny khakis and smirky facial expressions, not to mention his general inability to focus on her. But she’s so giddy and cute, so happy to be with him—literally blowing dust off her diaphragm for their first sexual encounter—that you almost wish it would work out. But then you see the cheesy romantic montagey sequence, where the couple spends time in the park and in bed, making googly eyes and giggling like the proverbial school-kids, just 20 minutes into the movie, and you know that it’s all too good to last.
Indeed, there’s a wrench in the works from the start, and that is that Ray has a girlfriend, whose invisibility is mostly fine with Jane. Trying to mollify her own sense that something’s amiss, Jane spends much of this early part of the movie with Liz, which is great because Marisa Tomei is so delightful and Liz is slightly less mushy a character than Jane—but then you might start to wish that maybe Liz was the protagonist rather than the best friend, or better, that Liz and Jane might hook up.
By that time, the movie is galumphing headlong toward Jane’s second romance, which is hindered briefly by her immediate response to the Ray fiasco, which comes when they’re supposed to move into a fabulous apartment together and he decides to dump her and go back to the first girlfriend. In desperate need of a place to live and a way to make Ray jealous, Jane moves in—as roommates only—with another guy from work, the dashingly handsome and relentlessly womanizing Eddie (Hugh Jackman, a.k.a. X-Men‘s Wolverine, another fellow whose movie history might give pause).
Once ensconced at Eddie’s place, she observes his behavior (short version: he brings home a different girl every night), correlates it with Ray’s, reads a few anthropology books, and watches Discovery Channel documentaries on mammalian mating habits. Mixed with her anger and frustration, all this activity results in what she calls the “New Cow Theory” (the very formulation that structures Zigman’s book, and provides the film with a book-like frontispiece and some journal-like entries for exposition). This is actually a very old theory dressed up in cutesy black and white hide—men sow their seed and women want commitment. But it is a theory that, as Jane points out, allows her to believe that it’s not her fault that she has only met the wrong guys, because there simply are no right ones.
As everyday as it is, this idea might pass for okay if the film wasn’t so hung up on it. For a minute, it looks like Someone Like You might take this overripe and silly theory to task, when Jane writes it up as a pseudonymous column for the glossy men’s magazine where Liz is an editor. The column hits a popular nerve and suddenly the non-existent author is sought out by talk show hosts, including Jane’s diva-boss, Diane (Ellen Barkin). You see where this part of the movie is going, and unfortunately, it doesn’t have time along the way to critique the pop-culture industry that makes stars out of people who know how to market bad ideas for lots of money.
Instead, Someone Like You follows formula, which means that Jane will realize her folly and realize that Eddie is really the guy for her (this is telegraphed when the pretty couple shares their feelings and eats Chinese food while seated on the kitchen counter and dressed in their fashionable underwear). For all this business as usual, the film features a couple of secondary storyline moments, especially having to do with a crisis suffered by Jane’s sister and brother-in-law, which puts her “ordeal” in perspective. Poignant without being too goopy, these moments show that director Tony Goldwyn retains the subtle, unsentimental touch that he brought to his first film, the terrific A Walk on the Moon. And that makes you hope that his next film won’t be so constrained by generic patterns.