LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT ½
PG-13, 90 mins.
2023, PG-13, 90 mins.
Haley Lu Richardson as Hadley Sullivan / Ben Hardy as Oliver / Rob Delaney as Andrew / Sally Phillips as Tess Jones / Jameela Jamil as Narrator (voice) / Dexter Fletcher as ValDirected by Vanessa Caswill / Written by Jennifer E. Smith, based on the book by Katie Lovejoy
I'll open this review of the new Netflix-produced romcom LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT with a question.
Why the hell is this film not called LOVE AT FIRST FLIGHT?
After all, the plot revolves around a young couple that has a meet-cute at an airport and then share the same flight, falling deep into mutual attraction with one another along the way. When they arrive at their destination they become separated and (for reasons I'll get to in a bit) they have no idea how to reach one another afterwards.
I mean...seriously. The title is a letdown, in pure retrospect.
This Vanessa Caswill directed affair (marking her feature filmmaking debut) is certainly not without its charms. Based on the longwinded titled book THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT (not much better than the film's) by Katie Lovejoy, the story features a pair of young and appealing leads that we yearn to get together as the film hurtles itself towards a happily ever after ending. The film also benefits from being emotionally grounded and sometimes moving in just the right spots as we navigate through the respective lives of the romantically linked couple in question. There's an overarching gentleness in the approach to LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT that makes for an agreeable watch, and it should also be said that most good romcoms make up for their predictability by the solid journey they take viewers on (the preordained outcome is the least crucial ingredient).
Still, despite some solid performances from the cast and a keen willingness to get inside of the headspaces of the lovers-to-be, LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT is nevertheless riddled with far too many plot contrivances (and some frankly distracting elements) that hurts it from proudly segregating itself in a very busy and well established genre.
There's a weird narrator to the film (played by Jameela Jamil, who takes multiple forms throughout) that opens everything by telling audience members that "This is not a story about love...it is a story about fate and statistics" (yeah, not exactly the stuff that makes the heart flutter). We first meet Hadley (a well cast Haley Lu Richardson), who is frantically racing through JFK airport in New York to reach her flight to London. It's December 20, which the omnipresent narrator instructs us is the worst day of the year for traveling and then spoon feeds us ample stats about number of passengers, flight delays, time spent going in and out of security, and so forth (again, not the most alluring hook to begin a love story). Poor Hadley has missed her flight by a mere four minutes, which forces her to wait for the next one that's available in business class. She's a bit of a mess, mostly because she's traveling to attend the wedding of her father (Rob Delany) to a woman that she has never met before (adding to her stress).
And - wouldn't you know it? - she has a chance meeting with Ben (Oliver Jones), who's at the same airport and is set to take the same flight with Hadley to the same destination in London. He's going back home to see his family as well, and as the pair begin striking up conversation, the more attracted to each other they become. The two manage to get seated together on the flight, which affords them even more time to get to know one another. When the plane lands and they depart, Ben adds his contact information to Hadley's phone and they go their respective ways. In a cruel twist, Hadley drops and cracks her phone, which leads to her losing Ben's number. She then manages to make it to her father's, whom she's been somewhat estranged from (he apparently uprooted himself from America to London and left his family behind to peruse another woman). Ben also reacquaints with his parents, who are about to hold - shall we say - a special kind of gathering with other family, friends, and loved ones. Of course, Ben and Hadley think out each other constantly, and the latter is especially crestfallen by losing this man's contact info. She makes it her newfound mission to find out more about who he is and - more importantly - where he is so she can once again see him and send their relationship to the next level.
I'll give LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT points for doing a few interesting things with its obligatory meet-cute. This isn't an instantly fall head-over-heels encounter between Hadley and Ben, but rather a series of scenes involving introductions, a warming over period, and then many spirited conversations about everything from life goals to, yes, statistics. The early sections of the film are involving as we witness these characters slowly, but surely letting their guards down and building up trust in one another. They just smoothly click as the plane's journey continues. Both Richardson and Hardy are naturally attractive and genuinely feel like everyday people coming together through chance and fate. Richardson is a fly-under-the-radar kind of adept actress that's able to be both bubbly and endearing while hinting at deeper anxieties that plague her characters. Hardy is also decent and exudes confidence and quick wits, but evokes some undeniable vulnerability (his relationship with his parents - like Hadley with hers - is strained, but in more devastating ways that's hard to delve into without going into spoilers). Overall, Richardson and Hardy have a nice and effortless chemistry together despite the relatively limited screen time they share throughout much of the film. I also appreciated the time spent with their character's respective parents and how they will affect (for better or worse) their children's lives moving forward. LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT is pretty democratic in its overall focus in this regard, which is somewhat refreshing.
But - gee whiz - the screenplay here really betrays these amiable characters and the finely tailored performances by this ensemble. The early machinations of the plot and how Hadley and Ben meet is, to be fair, pretty manufactured. She meets him while looking for a place to charge her phone at the airport after missing her flight, which sparks the conversation and the get-to-know-you phase. Then they discover they're on the same flight and then - rather miraculously - manage to have seats together on the flight because his original seat has a broken seatbelt. Then both have to travel for family reasons that they're both dreading. Then she loses his contact info through a phone mishap (and having never gotten his last name, which seems like an unrealistic oversight). Then they get separated in customs and later completely from one another, without being able to text each other. And then...and then...man...what a series of lousy breaks. All one of them had to do was get the other's name and phone number and then immediately text it...then both would have their information. Problem easily solved. But in the weird alternate reality that is this movie, no one thinks about doing that.
One glaring issue with this film is its aforementioned narrator, who magically appears throughout various points in the story as a fellow traveler...then a flight attendant...then a customs agent...then a bus driver...and so forth. She breaks the fourth wall repeatedly while unleashing weird Zen-like platitudes about love and fate that become more irksome and unintentionally laughable as the film progresses. This narrator does not appear in the source novel, which left me questioning why she's here in the film in the first place. That, and many of her borderline Yoda-isms sound like backwards talking gobbledygook (like, my favorite, "Fate can only be fate if we decide we want it to be"....wait...what?!). LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT seems to lack conviction in the power of its two main characters and their long and winding road towards happiness. Instead, we get this gimmicky and silly narrator that's constantly showing up to talk to the audience, which led to me checking my watch a lot during my stream. It really is a bizarre addition to the film. The setup of Hadley and Ben is interesting, but this overall handling of their story takes so many cockamamie and fanatical twists and turns (combined with strange creative choices) that I just started checking out after awhile.