Anyone But You (R) ★★½

Review Date: December 28th, 2023

Hey nonny nonny?

One of the small pleasures in a romantic comedy replete with them (but generally lacking in what one might consider a "large pleasure") is the recognition that Anyone But You is, in fact, a twisted and repackaged version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Expectations, however, should be set for Elizabethan fans in search of a 21st century fix. The source material has been pretty thoroughly obliterated by Ilana Wolpert and Will Gluck's screenplay. (Gluck also directed.) Still, those familiar with the 425-year-old play (or perhaps Kenneth Branagh's considerably newer movie version) may recognize some of the quotations that pop up along the way. The dead give-way can be found in the names of the constantly-bickering couple. Just as every "reworking" of The Taming of the Shrew inevitably has its Kate, so this one has its Bea(trice) (Sydney Sweeney) and Ben(edick) (Glen Powell).

Keeping in mind that Much Ado About Nothing owns one of the half-dozen-or-so rom-com plot staples, it should come as no surprise that Anyone But You is short on surprises, twists, and anything else that would give the movie a reason to watch beyond the chemistry between the leads. There's plenty of that, to be sure - probably enough to keep the dedicated viewer engaged for the full 105 minutes - but there are times when the screenplay seems underwritten and the dough feels a little on the mushy side.

Anyone But You opens with a meet-cute prologue in which Bea and Ben have an awkward initial encounter that leads to a long night of talking and canoodling before a miscommunication results in each of them thinking poorly of the other. They coincidentally reconnect some time later when both are invited to a wedding in Sydney. While there, various friends and family seek to push them together...a tactic that might work if they weren't so committed to hating one another. However, when Bea's parents bring in the Old Milquetoast Boyfriend, Jonathan (Darren Barnet), and Ben finds himself pining for an ex, Margaret (Charlee Fraser), who might be interested in a reunion, both decide it might be advantageous to pretend they're a couple. (This would have the double advantage of chasing away Jonathan while making Margaret jealous.) And, of course, the harder they work to convince everyone of their devotion, the closer that becomes to the truth.

Rom-coms with formulaic structures allow viewers to concentrate on the cleverness of the dialogue, the sophistication of the comedy, and the chemistry between the leads. The late Nora Ephron often worked with tropes and cliches but she had a keen ear, a sharp pen, and access to some of the most appealing actors in Hollywood. Despite having a Shakespearean advantage, Ilana Wolpert and Will Gluck don't achieve Ephron-esque levels. The dialogue is often pedestrian and the comedy is as apt to cause cringing as chuckling. That puts an awful lot of weight on the shoulders of Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell. They're up to it - to a point. They make for great fencing partners, whether they're dueling with verbal rapiers or jousting under the sheets. (Despite this being an R-rated movie, the sex/nudity is strictly PG-13.) Sweeney, who has shown her gifts for comedy and drama in past projects, has a couple of genuinely poignant moments where she isn't required to say a word. In one, her eyes project a loneliness that raises that scene to another level.

There was a time when throwaway rom-coms like this were common multiplex fillers. But the genre has fallen out of favor with audiences and movies like this are being given outsized profiles simply because there are so few of them. Saying this is one of the "better holiday-season rom-coms of 2023" might be damning with faint praise because I'm not sure there are any other "holiday-season rom-coms of 2023" in competition for the title. It's an enjoyable enough parfait but far from a theatrical destination.

© 2023 James Berardinelli