Spoken English evolved such useful phrases as “blah blah blah” and “yada yada yada” so that in conversation we don’t have to suffer through numbingly repetitive descriptions of the perfectly obvious. Sadly, no such shorthand exists in the “After” universe, which, now on its fourth instalment, seems dedicated to spinning the already vanishingly wispy romance between good-girl Tessa and bad-boy Hardin, YA fiction’s most colossally boring golden couple, into ever thinner straw. After a placeholder second film (“After We Collided”) and a wheel-spinning third (“After We Fell”), the new episode — which itself ramps up to a face-palming “to be continued” — can’t even charitably be said to be blah. It’s the space between the blahs.
Laboring under the aggravatingly agrammatical title of “After Ever Happy” (hats off if you get the order of those three words right on your first attempt), this desultory go-round picks up at the English wedding that Tessa Young (Josephine Langford, dewy) and Hardin Scott (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, surly) were attending at the end of the last movie, when Hardin discovered his bride-to-be mom Trish (Louise Lombard) having sex with her not-fiancé Christian (Stephen Moyer). Christian is revealed as Hardin’s secret biological father, which allows Hardin to start this episode in his favorite psychological territory: a funk.
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To be fair, given the series’ track record in repeatedly recasting the older generation’s roles, there’s a lot to get angry and confused about, parentally speaking: Moyer is the second actor to play Christian; Peter Gallagher and Rob Estes have both played Hardin’s dad, Ken Scott; the less said the better about the three actresses who have been cast as Hardin’s stepmom; and imagine being Tessa, popping home to your mother Selma Blair in “After We Collided” only to discover, in “After We Fell” that she’s now Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino. The lack of object permanence with respect to one’s mom and dad is enough to make anyone hit the bottle.
So, remembering his alcoholism and forgetting his love-inspired reformation, Hardin glugs down a whisky and runs off to burn down his childhood home, ignoring Tessa, who has scuttled after him bleating pallidly like a veal calf. Their relationship would appear to once again be on the outs, though fans know not to worry too much, as the terminally self-involved pair will continue to toggle that on-off switch so fast it should come with a strobe warning for those with epilepsy. In one of their off moments, Tessa flies home to Washington State, to be confronted with an even bigger daddy issue than Hardin’s, namely her father’s corpse in her apartment, where the formerly homeless man had been staying when he OD’d.
Hardin, who is still in London punching walls and awkwardly lobbing F-bombs into every sentence like he’s meeting the R-rating quota, hadn’t been taking Tessa’s calls but is informed by a mutual friend of her crisis and repentantly flies to be by her side only to discover she now won’t speak to him and blah blah blah, yada yada yada. Suffice to say, there is at least one more cycle of make-up and break-up, at least two more gauzy flashbacks to those happy afternoons spent baking (?) together, and maybe three more occasions on which they quote Hemingway, who has replaced Jane Austen as “After’s” literary touchpoint du jour. He can currently be found spinning so hard in his grave that the entire state of Idaho is at serious risk of ground collapse.
Director Castille Landon shot the third and fourth entries back-to-back during the pandemic with Bulgaria standing in for the various locations, which perhaps accounts for the film’s faltering grasp on time and place. It’s hard to tell if this scene is happening a continent away or in the café next door from that one, or whether it occurs the next minute, the next day or several months down the line (except for one time jump indicated by Tessa’s sudden and rather wiggy-looking bangs).
The photography, from Rob Givens and Joshua Reis, is gauzy and insincere, and sometimes plain odd, as when the camera does an admiring sweep up Tessa’s body as though she’s just effected a major makeover when actually she looks exactly the same as before — except maybe she changed her tights? And it’s especially artificially sunflared during the two very vanilla sex scenes, which are hampered by the continuing, astonishing lack of chemistry between the leads. Despite their best efforts, their golden-hued humping sessions emit roughly the same erotic voltage as exists between a glass of milk and a ham sandwich. To quote an exchange that happens in a restaurant when Tessa is recommended some dish or other: “Is it spicy?” “No.”
Based on the Harry Styles-fanfic-inspired YA book series by Anna Todd, who also co-wrote the last three screenplays, the “After” films have built up a devoted fanbase. As to these perplexingly self-dubbed “Afternators,” it is perhaps understandable why, during a pandemic, a stimulation-starved segment of a homebound generation got Stockholmed into thinking this was as good as they deserved. But surely even they will be appalled by the sheer formlessness of this episode which, given the trajectory of the franchise’s aggregator scores to date (18%, 13%, 0%), could, like the series’ box office numbers, defy all known laws of mathematical logic and provide us with the world’s first subzero Rotten Tomatoes rating.
Either way, when that final “to be continued…” title appears — and never has a girly, curly typeface looked more like a ransom note — it’s by far the most heart-clutching #Hessa moment so far, because we realize we’re still at least one whole movie away from release from our collective captivity to this absolute nonentity of a franchise. “All of us have demons,” husks the opening voiceover in “After Ever Happy.” That’s very true: The apparently unkillable “After” series is one of them, and it’s not done with us yet.
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