Looks aren’t everything, this is true. But in movies, they’re not nothing, either, no matter how hard filmmakers may try to politely demur. In the new romantic comedy Anyone But You, writer-director Will Gluck makes an effort, as he probably must, to downplay the superhuman attractiveness of his stars, Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney. Ben (Powell) may have “like a ten-pack,” as Bea (Sweeney) quips at one point, but his beach sit-ups are made to look silly – uptight and overexerted – and when he goes for a swim with Bea, she’s shocked to learn he’s “hot-girl fit,” all tone and no stamina for cardio. (This doesn’t really comport with what we see anywhere else in the movie, but good effort!) As for Bea herself, the movie can’t find much fault with her own eye-popping body, so Sweeney’s whole deal gets scrutinized; at one point another character describes her as a sad-eyed girl who looks like she’s hiding a secret.
Yet despite this false modesty designed, in concert with various slapstick escapades, to keep audiences from outright resenting its characters, Anyone But You is very much about its looks – in ways that even the most unabashed romantic comedies tend to shyly avoid. Gluck’s sorta-update of Much Ado About Nothing isn’t especially raunchy; it’s rated R, but not really in the Apatow-era mode of all-talk raunch-coms situated squarely from a boy’s point of view. This is a rom-com that embraces plenty of tropes – tries to pass them off as cutely Shakespearean, even – while at the same time rejecting the tacit prudishness of the genre revival we were supposedly getting via streaming services – a cornerstone of which, the mild Set It Off, starred Powell in bland-bro mode. He’s playing a similar type here, and maybe I felt more affection toward him after watching such a sly acknowledgement of his ramrod dorkiness in Hit Man, a weirder and trickier Richard Linklater version of the rom-com. Maybe, though, I was just appreciating how he and Sweeney both play familiar characters who are simultaneously types who seemed to have been banished from the genre: Hot people who take their clothes off.
It would be easy to oversell this aspect of Anyone But You, because it’s relatively tasteful as T&A&A (imagine one of those is for “abs”; Bea’s right, there are a lot of them, maybe too many to count). Ben and Bea meet cute and wind up spending the night together in about a chaste a way as possible for two people who are obviously dying to jump each other’s bones: They cross paths in a coffee shop, do some walk and talk, hang out at Ben’s apartment, and fall asleep together, clothed, on his couch. Then a series of misunderstandings quickly separates them and leaves each party wounded and angered by the other’s presumed rejection, only to have fate knock them back together when it turns out Bea’s sister Halle (Hadley Robinson) is marrying Ben’s pal Claudia (Alexandra Shipp). Trapped together at a destination wedding in Australia, with Bea’s parents pushing her recent ex on one side and Ben’s own ex looming tantalizingly on the other, the pair agrees to put aside their bickering and pretend to be a couple for mutual advantage. But how long can you fake the blush of new lust before it turns into the real thing?
There’s no suspense, not even rom-com suspense, in the answer, because Bea and Ben’s mutual dislike is so canned. The cuteness of their initial encounter requires genuinely barbed screwball banter to sell the thin line between love and hate, and like last year’s Ticket to Paradise, the movie isn’t up to that task, failing to discern between witty dialogue and bluntly traded insults. (Worse, because these two so obviously like each other from the jump, there’s no comedy-of-remarriage ruefulness to their attacks; they’re both essentially shooting blind, which is realistic but not especially funny.)
The movie is funnier as Bea and Ben learn more about each other’s quirks and react to each other, and to their own dilemmas, with incredulity. This is where Gluck makes good use of his trademark self-consciousness. Some of his past comedies, especially Friends with Benefits, seemed mortally terrified that someone might watch them and wonder aloud if Gluck had seen any other movies before, and so he would race to assure his audience that yes, of course, he knows this is kind of dumb, so dumb, ha ha ha. There’s a dash of that here – “are they doing Titanic?” bystanders wonder aloud about Bea and Ben, not long after she entreats upon him to “Titanic me” – but, perhaps in a bid to avoid that relentless suspicion that he’s Doing a Thing, Gluck defuses a lot of stock situations without a traditional payoff. Early slapstick episodes with Bea attempting to dry off her jeans and avoid the appearance of an unsightly stain and, a little later, contorting herself into odd positions while attempting to steal a cookie from a first-class plane cabin, don’t end with grand humiliations; Sweeney bends but doesn’t break, and the film moves along. This should be anticlimactic, but it gives the movie an easy breeziness, chased with the understanding that the characters suffer enough for their own miscalculations. (Besides, how often do those humiliation payoffs offer much beyond a predictable button?)
Anyway, Anyone But You is more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny.
The teaser trailer for the movie sold it more than particular jokes, as a way of foregrounding Sweeney and Powell as sex symbols while avoiding getting into the ins and outs of a farcical plot whose deceptions aren’t quite as hooky as marketing demands. Judging by social media reactions, it baffled plenty of people, but it turns out to be pretty honest about this movie’s whole deal. Are Sweeney and Powell good in it? Well, in the traditional sense of creating subtly dimensionalized characters who feel like real people, perhaps not particularly. Whatever the screenplay’s Shakespeare-inspired aims, the final film seems more interested in showcasing hotness, which is something movies do exceptionally well – and both stars commit to the task with gusto. They’re both almost more interesting for the limitations that allow them to lead with their bodies. Sweeney sometimes swallows her own dialogue with vaguely Californian marble mouth – something else called out by another character, who refers to her as mumbly – and Powell doesn’t have an enormous range of facial expression. (That’s the problem with guys chiseled from stone.) The way they grope their fakery, though, dressing themselves up and down as needed, gives them an almost tangible sense of purpose. As ever, there’s something endearing about watching hot people emotionally bumble, especially when they’re unencumbered by genre prudery. Zoey Deutch, who co-starred with Powell in Set It Up, might be a rangier performer than Sweeney, and certainly performs relatability more convincingly. (She’s also, to be clear, plenty charismatic.) But Sweeney has enough sense of mystery that when Bea hints early on that she may not be cut out for her designated career in law, I thought: Yeah, that tracks. She and finance-bro Ben aren’t meant to find career fulfillment. They’re meant to find each other and satisfy their audience. It works, and the movie becomes appealingly sweet; the characters seem too guileless for their attraction to be heartless formula.
I’m not suggesting that Anyone But You is about dim people fucking. But it at least feels carnal – and its treatment of bodies, equally carnal – in ways that would make most rom-coms blush. (Admittedly, it doesn’t take much.) It’s not that Gluck offers a realistic, earthy, multifaceted view of sex in between the gags about Natasha Bedingfield songs; he and his stars just appear unfazed by its presence. It’s a small gesture, as quick and crisp and the withering sleep-eyed looks Sweeney occasionally shoots in Powell’s direction, but for a genre so often in disrepair, much appreciated. The movie exists at the intersection between faux-classiness (courtesy of the loose Shakespeare adaptation and, more immediately, the real location shooting) and salaciousness (repeated excuses for the leads to go off half-clothed). It’s the corner of cute and sexy.