This Looks Terrible! Playing It Cool
Playing It Cool is not just an astonishingly ill-conceived romantic comedy. It’s a mystery. It’s a riddle. It’s a conundrum. Its unlikely, perplexing and unfortunate existence poses the question, “How could a movie starring Chris Evans, one of our biggest and most likable stars, as well as his Captain America costar Anthony Mackie, Aubrey Plaza, Philip Baker Hall, Martin Starr, Patrick Warburton, Evans’ Fantastic Four cast-mate Ioan Gruffudd and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s Michelle Monaghan as the female lead receive a sheepish apology of a limited/video-on-demand release and one of the tackiest, screamingly fake and Photoshop-abusing posters since the heyday of Touchstone pictures?”
It’s not like Playing It Cool is a relic of Evans’ pre-stardom days, either. The movie was completed in 2013, after Evans had established himself as not just a bankable movie star and action hero thanks to Captain America, but also a likable and adventurous comic actor with a jones for character actor roles like the one he played in Snowpiercer.
Evans, who also Executive-Produced Playing It Cool, was big fucking star by this point. He’d played not only Captain America but also The Human Torch and one of the seven evil exes in Scott Pilgrim Versus The World so he theoretically knew what he was doing when he helped make Playing It Cool happen.
When you see as much crap as I do, you end up seeing connections in everything, perhaps because you subconsciously seek them out, or maybe just because that’s how the universe works. I didn’t necessarily choose Playing It Cool for this column because it reminded me of (500) Days of Summer but it ends up playing like an annoyingly slick, facile, bro version of the alternately loved and hated Zooey Deschanel-Joseph Gordon-Levitt cult hit.
Playing It Cool is like the McG version of a quirky, meta independent romance, which is appropriate, since the man who created much of Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth’s signature iconography through his groundbreaking work with the Southern Californian troubadours actually is the movie’s producer. This is a McG production, baby, not unlike the “All Star” video, and when I saw his name pop up in the credits, I thought, “Eh, that figures.”
In a move that instantly divorces the movie from any known reality, Playing It Cool casts Evans, who, as I have pointed out, has a resume lousy with movies where he plays strapping super-heroes, as "Me", a screenwriter who was abandoned by his mother and consequently can’t commit to the many women who throw themselves at him sexually because he does not believe in love.
Yet, in the kind of twist I feel like I’ve only seen in every other romantic comedy, this young man who does not believe in love finds himself asked to write a romantic comedy around the same time he meets an exceedingly verbal, elfin fantasy figure credited as “Her” played by the beautiful and charismatic Monaghan.
Monaghan has a definite type: otherworldly beauties whose elegance is undercut by earthy, profane chatterbox attitude. It’s a type she played most memorably in Kiss, Kiss Bang, Bang, a movie whose post-modern, meta-textual smartassery so resembles what Playing It Cool is trying to do, and feeling miserably at, that I just found myself wishing I was watching a Shane Black movie instead of a movie full of characters that, like, Shane Black, are movie-and-self-obsessed writers deeply in love with the sound of their (and by extension the screenwriters’) voices. Unlike Shane Black, however, the love the aspiring scribes here have for their lovingly over-written words is wholly unmerited, as is the film’s steamy on-set love affair with itself and its ridiculously over-inflated sense of its own cleverness.
Being narcissists by trade, personality and profession, screenwriters linger under this bizarre misconception that the world could not be more fascinated by movies about movies in general and movies about screenwriters in particular. Oh sure, movie stars might get the big bucks and the girl, but what could a screenwriter find more personally compelling than the trials of screenwriters? In a neat bit of synchronicity, some screenwriters are able to use their power as the Gods of their little worlds to make movies about the universal travails of screenwriters trying to navigate a crazy maze of lazy show-business cliches.
Here’s the thing. With some exceptions, people become movie stars because they are ridiculously good looking, like, say, Chris Evans, whereas people become writers because they are ridiculously not-good looking. Yet by putting words into the mouths of beautiful people like Chris Evans, writers can justify their very sad, very minor place in the Hollywood food chain.
So when a movie is made about a screenwriter (something that can never happen enough, as far as the public is concerned), and movies, and the overlap and interplay and cross-pollination of life and movies, we end with Captain America playing a dude who makes his living in film not as a strapping stud in front of the cameras but rather as an ink-stained wretch who spends the entire movie jibber-jabbering to us via voiceover in ways that made me wish that the filmmakers had heeded the old maxim to use voiceover or narration only if it is absolutely necessary.
Ah, but if Evans didn’t spend the movie unpacking metric tons of insufferably self-satisfied verbiage, we would never know, for example, that his spunky gay best friend sidekick Scott (Topher Grace) leaves copies of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in random places, something that he considers his “art” and life’s mission.
That’s not the only time the movie takes a big, perfume-scented, moleskin page out of the big Manic Pixie Dream Girl handbook. The movie gives Me a ridiculously overqualified Greek chorus in the form of his buddies and fellow creative types Lyle (Martin Starr, playing the usual bone-dry Martin Starr character, but without the usual Martin Starr funny lines), who lives in a van on account of that’s quirky, Luke Wilson’s weirdly avuncular Samson and Mallory, which finds Aubrey Plaza playing the Aubrey Plaza character, in this case a pretentious, angry young woman who performs avant-garde one-woman shows, that favorite of hack comedy writers for decades now.
Plaza is gorgeous in a more quirky manner than the movie’s romantic lead. Yes, she’s the faithful, long-suffering best friend who’s a hell of a catch in her own right. Now you might be asking yourself, “Huh, I wonder if Playing It Cool is like every other movie and in the third act it’s revealed that she’s been in love with the hero but has been too shy to act on those emotions.” You would be right!
Plaza gets her fourteen second showcase late in the film when she tells a distraught Me that she’s in love with him, and I just wanted to take her aside and tell her, “You know, you’re a beautiful, intelligent woman! You’re only a few years away from starring in movies like Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. Don’t sell yourself short with a nothing part in a terrible movie.”
Despite apparently being all cynical and aloof and sad cause of mom and all, Me nevertheless falls in love with Her despite Her letting him know that she kind of has a boyfriend named Stuffy (played by Mr. Fantastic himself, Ioan Gruffudd) and also is kind of engaged to that dude. Or something.
Me is supposed to hate all that romantic comedy bullshit, on both an artistic and personal level, yet he seems to fall in love with Her, and break all of his rules for her, and let her into his previously armored heart pretty much exclusively because she’s leading-lady gorgeous as opposed to quirky-best-friend-quirky-hot like Plaza.
Late in the film, when our glib hero is supposed to be revealing new depths when his world begin to fall apart, but instead reveals new depths of glibness, Her tells Me that they are two awful people who do not deserve love. In another context, this might qualify as bracingly honest, the kind of hard, ugly truth romantic comedies usually try to avoid. Because not everyone deserves love. Some people are selfish and toxic, narcissistic and incapable of giving of themselves emotionally.
Me and Her are those kinds of people. A good romantic comedy makes you fall in love with its characters and their love. This made me wish there was a weird bummer ending where they’re both killed in a car-jacking. That’s how little I cared about these characters. I would be ambivalent to positive on them both dying violently and they don’t really do anything that bad other than be annoying and full of themselves.
Like the rest of the world, I have come around on Chris Evans. I have a lot of respect for the actor. Yet I found my affection for Evans dwindling as the film went on. It went beyond that. Playing It Cool genuinely made me dislike Evans, who isn’t just smug and gratingly unrealistic as the movie’s douchetastic protagonist but also fills out other, more colorful roles thanks to an incredibly irritating gimmick where Me, being a hopeless narcissist, can’t help but insert himself into the stories he hears all around him. And since he’s besotted with Her because she’s somehow different from all the other incredibly hot women in his life, he can’t help but insert the object of his desire into these little vignettes as well.
Playing It Cool is full of storytelling. Terrible, terrible storytelling. And in a storytelling device that is never effective, when we have flashbacks to stories (including an animated flashback to World War II from Phillip Baker Hall’s Grandpa), the stars of those stories look an awful lot like Me and Her, which, incidentally, sounds an awful lot like She and Him, the tweecore duo Zooey Deschanel has with M. Ward.
Watching Playing It Cool smugly do everything wrong, I wondered if anyone looked at dailies early in filming and thought about just shutting the entire production down because Playing It Wrong is utterly beyond redemption. There is, however, a neat synchronicity to many of the characters being bad writers whose every utterance feels like it’s being stiffly read off a script that never should have seen the light of day.
What does Playing It Cool have to say? Nothing. Does Playing It Cool winking and calling out the many romantic comedy cliches it employs, like the climactic race to keep the love interest from marrying the wrong man, make it cleverer and more honest than movies that play genre tropes straight, without constantly winking to the audience? Not at all.
If anything, deconstructing romantic comedy cliches has become as cliched as the cliches they’re supposed to upend. Despite their similarities, (500) Days of Summer is a masterful work of breathtaking realism and depth compared to Playing It Cool. It’s a movie by bros for bros that seems to think it’s a cinephile dream because it was made by people who’d seen Pulp Fiction and Swingers a whole bunch of times. Whatever magic existed on the page that got a bunch of talented up and comers to lend their names and time and stature to the film is never apparent onscreen.
I’m fascinated by movies about movies, particularly screenwriters, to the point where I write column for them for TCM Backlot called the Fractured Mirror because they are so often utterly self-absorbed and myopic in their predictable, if wrong, contention that the world is endlessly fascinated by all things Hollywood.
I ended up hate-watching Playing It Cool but even on that level the movie is a joyless affair. Playing It Cool looks terrible because it is terrible but it’s not the kind of terrible anyone other than a professional masochist like myself needs to subject themselves to. If you love Evans, then you especially should not see him all over a movie that presents him in a singularly awful light, and that’s not just a reference to his noticeably thinning hair, which is distractingly bad, but never quite awful enough to make him look like a writer and not a goddamn movie star.
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