The heyday of romantic comedies seems to have come and gone, but there continue to be a few brave souls who venture into the genre looking to add their spin to the well-worn formula. Some are more successful than others. Actor-turned-director Dave Franco’s Somebody I Used to Know falls somewhere in between the good and the bad. The film spends too much time upfront establishing its quirkiness and delving into familiar tropes to be labelled great, but stick with it, and the talented cast delivers some exciting ideas worthy of deeper exploration.
Co-written by married couple Franco and star Alison Brie, Somebody I Used to Know introduces us to Ally (Brie), a 30-something, hard-working Hollywood showrunner of a baking-cum-dating reality show Dessert Island. The series is clearly her life, so when visiting network execs break the bad news that they’re cancelling the show, it sends Ally into an emotional tailspin. It’s clear she doesn’t like the show but gave herself entirely to it anyway. She left her family, friends and loved ones in her small hometown in Washington state for the City of Angels with the single-minded goal of becoming a documentarian but tells herself she has no regrets. With little to keep her occupied, she decides to clear her head by taking a long-overdue trip home (with her adorable cat) to visit her mother (an underused Julie Hagerty). It turns out she does have some regrets, and they’re about to confront her full force in the shape of her ex-boyfriend Sean (Jay Ellis), his fiancee Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons), and old friend Benny (Danny Pudi). When she decides there is still a spark worth exploring in her relationship with Sean, she sets out to come between the happy couple for her own happiness.
Marketed as a full-on rom-com, the film’s first half leans hard into those tropes–even going so far as to name-check My Best Friend’s Wedding, which walked so Somebody could run, when Cassidy jokingly (but not so jokingly) confronts Ally about her nefarious plans. Like Julia Roberts before her, Alison Brie’s Ally is awkwardly charming despite her awful intentions. Her return home has softened her edges; she’s rediscovering the person she was and wanted to be. There are awkward moments a-plenty as Ally tries her best to throw a wrench into the proceedings, but with each scene, audiences may get the sense they’ve been here before and in better stories. There are jokes that land, quirkiness that works, but equally, there are jokes that fall flat (older people having sex!) and moments that try too hard too. What does work up top is any scene between Brie and her former Community co-star Pudi. The actors revel in being onscreen together and as Benny attempts to be a lone voice of sanity amid Ally’s crazy plans, it makes us yearn for more scenes dedicated to their friendship.
But as the narrative hits the halfway point, it shifts to something less formulaic and much more worthwhile. As the other woman, Clemons’ Cassidy is well-defined–a rarity in films like these. She opens up to Ally about her broken relationship with her parents due to her bisexuality and her conflicted feelings about giving up her promising punk rock career to settle down with Sean. Ally sees her younger self in Cassidy and advises her not to give up on what she truly wants, even if that means Sean isn’t the one for her. A pre-altar break up has been Ally’s end goal, but it pivots to become about Cassidy and what’s right for her. It’s in these moments with the two women that Somebody I Used to Know finds its authentic voice. And a film we thought was a bog-standard rom-com becomes something much more interesting: a study of the dreams and ambitions women give up for men.
Which is good because, frankly, Sean doesn’t seem worth the trouble. A thinly-drawn character as often happens in these types of films, he decries Ally’s attempts at manipulation while blithely ignoring his own blatant string-pulling. His charm quickly fades as it becomes clear how immature he still is, especially around the give-and-take of relationships. Ellis does a decent job of trying to make Sean a three-dimensional being, but even then, the growth his character experiences seems shallow and rushed. Has he truly changed? It’s hard to tell.
But this is Ally’s story at the end of the day, and Somebody nails her growth and hard-won happy ending. It’s never been about getting the guy for her; once that crystallizes, her path becomes clear. What she truly wants is what she’s always dreamed of—to become a documentarian—and she has enough experience and clout in the business to make it happen. And, mainly due to Alison Brie’s genuine performance, it’s equally as satisfying for audiences when she achieves her goal by the time the credits roll.
Though the script by Franco and Brie doesn’t say much upfront that will impress or linger, it finds its footing once the film breaks new ground. So stick with this one, and you’ll be glad you did. Once Somebody I Used to Know shakes off the genre and attempts something new, it becomes something worth watching.
Somebody I Used to Know is streaming now on Amazon.