Given so many romantic comedies are crushingly conventional in both style and content, it’s hard not to give No Stranger Than Love credit for taking a interesting risk with its basic, batty premise: Just before schoolteacher protagonist Lucy (Alison Brie) is about to have sex with her married colleague Clint (Colin Hanks), a three-foot-wide hole magically opens up beneath his feet, plunging him into an extra-dimensional abyss where he spends the rest of the film, alive and audible but suspended in total blackness.
However, although that striking inciting incident sets up expectations for something inventive and edgy — a little bit Charlie Kaufman-esque, say, with a dash of Groundhog Day sci-fi surrealism by way of early Hal Hartley — sadly the rest of director Nick Wernham’s debut, written by Steve Adams, is disappointingly bland and dramatically wan, and laced with some painfully pretentious dialogue. Hard-core fans of Community and Mad Men’s incomparable Brie (for we are many) could raise an indulgent cult following for this offbeat item on VOD platforms, but theatrical distributors will be less affectionate.
It seems like every guy in the small town where pretty, kind-hearted Lucy Sherrington (Brie) lives is besotted with her, from the principal (Jonathan Potts) and science teacher Vernon (Mark Forward) at the high school where she teaches art, to the town drunk (Paul Fauteux) and the local garbage men. Lucy can’t get through a single day without three guys hitting on her or declaring undying love, but she declines each advance with her characteristic sweetness and gentle forbearance. Clint Coburn (Hanks), the school’s football coach, is in with a better chance than most, even though he’s married to Verna (Robin Brule, an MVP brought in far too late in the narrative game). But on the night they’ve decided to consummate their love, that aforementioned hole opens up in the middle of Lucy’s living room floor, which rather kills the moment.
Although the two are understandably shocked and baffled by this peculiar turn of events, Clint is unharmed and can be heard even though he seems to be thousands of feet from the surface. He sort of begins to enjoy the flotation tank-like experience of hovering in total blackness. More worried about being busted for adultery than anything else, Lucy and he agree to keep his situation a secret until she can aquire enough rope to haul him out. When Rydell (Justin Chatwin), a soulful tough guy with a penchant for poetry writing, shows up in town looking for Clint to collect on a gambling debt, he seems like the perfect candidate to pin suspicion on for Clint’s absence. But then Lucy and Rydell start to feel a mutual attraction, and it gets complicated.
In actual fact, the script’s problem is a distinct lack of complication that would enrich, build on and harmonize with the whole portal to another dimension thing. It’s not a problem there’s a hole, as it were, in the common-sense logic of the film’s world; it’s that there’s a big, gaping hole where the illogic should be, a whole lot of nothing where there should be metaphor, playfulness, all that juicy, enigmatic, magical-realism stuff that helps films like Being John Malkovich and its many knockoffs become fodder for film-studies essays.
Adams’ dialogue tries to compensate by having some of the characters deliver excruciatingly unconvincing speeches about what the hole might mean (one calls it a “peephole into the vast landscape of our ignorance,” and “exhilarating and humbling view into our frailties and limitations,”) but no one looks like they’re either convinced or even care that much.
As the perky, popular and impossibly nice protagonist, Brie does her best to make this goody-two-shoes less obnoxious than she might have been, but it’s clearly a slog. It’s also possibly a retrograde career move, a step back to the sort of cutesy ingenues she should be growing out of by now. And it doesn’t help that of the dozen or so men who are supposed to be in love with her in the story, she chooses to fall for the dullest, most self-pitying one on offer.
Production companies: An Innis Lake production in association with Pangaea Pictures
Cast: Alison Brie, Justin Chatwin, Colin Hanks
Director: Nick Wernham
Producer: Paul Fler
Executive producers: Nick Wernham, Simon Wernham, Jeffrey Latimer, Julia West, Fred Roos, Richard Wernham
Director of photography: Michael LeBlanc
Editor: Michelle Szemberg
Production designer: Adam William Wilson
Costume designer, Alex Kavanagh
Composer: Geoff Zanelli
Casting: John Buchan, Jason Knight
Sales: Innis Lake
No rating, 90 minutes