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In ANYONE BUT YOU, Looks Aren’t Everything – But They’re Not Nothing, Either

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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.)
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