Chris Evans is an attractive guy. I don’t mean physically, obviously, as he’s not much to look at, but he has a seemingly effortless charisma about him that that makes for an appealing persona. He has a fun sense of humor, a disarming smile and an unassuming attitude that seems at odds with his potentially imposing physique – and his best roles see him putting these traits to repeated use. Think Captain America, The Losers, Not Another Teen Movie – these films embrace his casual charisma and channel it towards memorable performances that serve to elevate the rest of the film.
Playing It Cool attempts to do the same – Evans is having a good time here – and the film even ups the ante by filling the supporting cast with other highly likable performers including Michelle Monaghan, Martin Starr, Aubrey Plaza, Anthony Mackie (Avengers reunion!), Patrick Warburton, Philip Baker Hall, Luke Wilson and Topher Grace. Pretty quickly though it becomes clear that for everything director Justin Reardon’s film gets right in front of the camera it just isn’t enough to overcome the screenplay.
Evans plays an unnamed Hollywood screenwriter – he’s listed as Narrator in the credits – whose agent (Mackie) has landed him a gig writing a romantic comedy, and if all goes well he’ll be hired to script an action movie set in Malaysia. Unfortunately for him, and I would assume the studio that hired him, his lack of experience with love has made him uninterested and unable to write about it.
Flashbacks show us how unsuited he is for the emotion as girls and young women express their feelings only to see him shut them down with a shrugged dismissal. Plus, you know, his mom left when he was young, so the idea of love is understandably unappealing to him. Everything changes though when he meets Her (Monaghan, again, stupidly, no character name is given). She has a boyfriend, but a few chance encounters later and the pair can’t help but be aware of their connection. Can these new stirrings in Narrator’s loins mean that he’s actually falling in love? And more importantly, will this experience help him write a fantastic screenplay?
I’ll leave that question unspoiled for you, but Playing It Cool’s script is most definitely not of the fantastic variety. Writers Craig Shafer and Paul Vicknair are aiming to be smarter than the average rom-com – a worthy goal if nothing else, but one accomplished by very few films (When Harry Met Sally, My Best Friend’s Wedding) – by allowing its characters to pick at the genre’s cliches. So far so good, but its commentary on those tropes doesn’t prevent the film from falling prey to them all the same.
The script seems equally enamored with Narrator’s screenwriting trick of imagining himself as a character in a given story. So as others share love stories from their own lives or even Korean soap operas we’re treated to his imagined scenes with him and Her in starring roles. It’s the kind of conceit that would work if what happened in those scenes was relevant in some way, but here they exist solely to get Evans and Monaghan in various costumes. Other feats of imagination work mildly better including elements of the third act and the visual representation of Narrator’s heart – basically a chain-smoking, fedora-wearing version of himself who hangs around silently in the background.
As mentioned above, as uninspired and obvious as the film is it’s paired with a highly appealing and entertaining cast. Everyone is basically doing their most notable shtick – Grace is comedically angsty, Starr is dryly indifferent, Plaza is dark, dour and hiding a heart and Monaghan is perfection – and none of that is meant as a criticism. The group shares a few solid scenes of banter including one in a gun shop (?), and they’re ultimately what makes the film worth watching.
Playing It Cool has moments that work, usually thanks to the cast, but it its attempt to be different and better than the seemingly hundreds of other rom-coms that hit screens each year it instead ends up as more of the same. The romantically-challenged guy and his comic relief sidekicks, the perfect girl, the big third-act run through the airport (metaphorical in this case). We’ve seen it all before… albeit usually with a far less attractive lead.
The Upside: The cast
The Downside: Lines like this → “Love is like a 401k, it matches your investment.”
On the Side: Shafer and Vicknair also co-wrote Evans’ feature directorial debut, Before I Go.