I am a 26-year-old dude, but I’m not afraid to admit I love rom-coms as much as any self-respecting 16-year-old girl. I particularly have a soft spot for ensemble pictures, particularly of the sort where college friends gather, Big Chill-style, in someone’s house somewhere in the country following the death of one of their comrades, and two old flames reignite. At this point, I feel like I’ve seen every gimmick, genre, satire, high-concept or conceit played out in the service of getting two lovestruck people together in the end, while delivering some laughs along the way. That’s okay—I love a good, kind-of-gooey, predictable romance. But I’m always on the lookout for a movie that brings something new to the form.
So it was with glee that I turned on When We First Met, a new rom-com that comes out Friday on Netflix, boasting a fun little pitch: a previously friend-zoned guy, Noah (Workaholics’ Adam DeVine, whose brand of big, physical comedy never quite fits here) discovers the ability to travel back in time, via an old photo booth, to the night he first met Avery (Alexandra Daddario), in the hopes of changing the course of the future and ending up with the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately, this is a case of format swallowing function; it’s an otherwise charming rom-com whose very existence is crushed under the weight of rom-coms past, their twists and turns and treacle and tropes.
The movie begins in 2017, at the engagement party of Avery and her fiancé, Ethan, played by Robbie Amell, who’s swiftly and irreversibly reduced to a cardboard cutout of the “perfect guy.” Noah is in the first row, sipping champagne, and Avery is describing the moment she and Ethan first met. We’re then whisked back to Halloween 2014—the night Noah and Avery first meet, at a party in New Orleans. Noah is dressed as Garth from Wayne’s World, Avery as Geena Davis from A League of Their Own (Daddario does bear a striking resemblance to a young Davis). It’s a cute enough meet, if not an unimaginative one—costume parties are to cute meets what tequila is to bad decisions. The two appear to hit it off, snidely commenting on the other patrons at the party—a classic rom-com indicator that these characters are cooler and different than everyone else—before leaving to go to a jazz bar, where Noah plays piano. He impresses her with his musical abilities. Then they take a photo in the bar’s photo booth and proceed to go back to Avery’s place, where the night ends, to Noah’s chagrin, with a warm, friendly hug. The rest is history.
Back in the present, at the engagement party, Noah switches from champagne to Don Julio and gets sick in Avery’s bathroom. Eventually, her best friend, Carrie (Shelley Hennig), is enlisted to take him home. Instead, they stop at the bar—the same bar where Noah took Avery that fateful night three years ago—and Noah stumbles into the photo booth. The next thing he knows, he’s waking up in bed. But aha! It’s Halloween 2014.
Thus begins a series of attempts to be the kind of guy he thinks Avery wants him to be and change his fate—a no-no in both the greater rom-com universe and pop culture world of time travel. In one trial run, he tries to be more like his friend Max (Andrew Bachelor), a facsimile of charm whose pick-up artist-level tactics make it hard to buy he’s the kind of lothario the movie wants him to be; in another, he presents himself as prototypically husband material, waking up three years later to find himself super rich from a corporate job and actually engaged to Avery.
This is where the inner-logic of the movie falters: at the end of each night in 2014, Noah wakes up in 2017 as an extension of the persona he put on at the Halloween party to win Avery’s affection. That Noah would stay in character—as someone he’s so blatantly not—for three years is simply not believable, even in a world where time traveling photo booths are involved. More importantly, it doesn’t serve the story—the utter malleability of his person serves to reduce his character to a plot device. Noah, and by extension, Avery, never amount to anything more than a few quirks, traits and cultural preferences. (The movie is also at a loss as to how much these present-Noahs know about the three years prior; in the version of 2017 where he’s gone corporate, Noah has no idea how he’s ended up in such a big house, but is shocked to discover he speaks and understands Chinese.)
Without giving too much away, the ending will come as no surprise to those who've their fair share of rom-coms. The director, Ari Sandel, hints at it early and often. You’ll probably realize where the movie’s heading before Noah does; once you do, the entire thing of going back in time to alter the future becomes a futile and boring exercise (it also ends up revealing the shallowness of the characters and their relationship to each other in the first place).
Regardless, When We First Met has its fair share of laughs, and provides a good case study in rom-com-ing. While some novel takes on the form, like the great (500) Days of Summer, About Time and even Bedazzled, the film which might most resemble this one, succeed in creating something new, they never do so at the expense of their protagonists. Like anything high-concept, the initial flash might draw you in, but it’s the characters that keep you there.