There’s no meet cute in “Meet Cute,” which is kind of the point. The film, which takes its name from the romantic comedy trope wherein two people meet in an unusual, makes-for-a-good-story kind of way that rarely happens in real life, owes as much if not more to “Groundhog Day” as it does to “When Harry Met Sally…” Kaley Cuoco and Pete Davidson are the would-be couple in Alex Lehmann’s time-loop rom-com, which could have just as easily been named “500 First Dates” for its portrayal of a lovesick woman on a monomaniacal quest to get things just right. The movie itself is more freewheeling than its heroine, deriving much of its charm from a performance that’s well rehearsed on several levels.
What appears to be Sheila (Cuoco) and Gary’s (Davidson) first night together unfolds over nearly 30 minutes of screentime and is in the “Before Sunrise” vein of walk-and-talk romance, with the two of them opening up to each other the way people only seem to be able to when they’ve just met someone new and attractive. They venture from bar to restaurant to ice-cream truck, all the while both hinting at and downplaying how into one another they are, but there are signs that something is, if not amiss, then certainly odd: Sheila will finish Gary’s sentence before he can or anticipate something happening just before it does. This would be a good deal more effective had Sheila not jokingly-but-seriously revealed she’s a time traveler within a few minutes of meeting him, alas — like an over-sharer on a first date, “Meet Cute” can’t help giving away too much too soon.
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There is a twist, though: Sheila isn’t forced to relive this night by powers beyond her control, nor is she voluntarily returning to it to correct a past mistake and ensure that they get off on the right foot. She’s doing it because she believes the only place to go from a perfect night is down, into the messiness of a warts-and-all relationship, and she’d rather remain suspended in a permanent honeymoon period. She more or less tells Gary this at the end of every night, figuring there’s no harm in it since he won’t remember her words the next time they meet. There’s a bit of humorous hopelessness to her, ditto the fact that her time machine is actually a tanning bed in the backroom of her favorite nail salon.
The number of headlines generated by Davidson’s romantic entanglements surely dwarf those pertaining to his movies, which is a shame. He’s essentially playing himself in “Big Time Adolescence,” “The King of Staten Island” and even “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” yes, but at least he does it well. That’s the case here as well, though the “Saturday Night Live” alum impresses less than he has in the past if only because he’s still not doing anything we haven’t seen from him before. (He was even in an “SNL” skit called “Meet Cute” with Kristen Stewart five years ago.) The real star is Cuoco, who finds a fruitful middle ground between charming and caustic that will feel familiar to anyone with a hilarious friend whose sense of humor comes across as a defense mechanism. Her pain comes through more and more with each scene and culminates with the reveal of what she was really doing when she happened upon her time machine.
Though masked by humor, this premise has been inherently sad at least since “Groundhog Day.” Bill Murray’s character wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to escape his 24-hour prison by offing himself otherwise. “Meet Cute” leans into that sadness more than its predecessors, and is better for it. Whether you consider Claire’s actions romantic, obsessive or both, there’s no denying that it isn’t coming from the healthiest of places. This gives the movie more depth than the average rom-com, but it also creates a tonal friction that’s never fully resolved.
Just as their first-date magic feels forced, a result not of natural chemistry but the fact that Sheila has rehearsed it countless times, so does the movie’s. Should we actually be rooting for this romance to work, given both the deception and obsession behind it? Cuoco keeps us wondering, but the answers don’t quite satisfy. It can even be difficult not to wonder whether “Meet Cute” only exists because Peacock wanted to replicate Hulu’s “Palm Springs” success, forgetting, however ironically, one of the genre’s key messages: that you can’t force perfect moments into being and have to let them happen on their own.
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