Lover Come Back to Me

Hey, Josh Lawson’s got a new movie out! Though you’d be forgiven for having missed it, as this time around he hasn’t been able to stir up controversy by calling it “an Australian film for people who hate Australian films” like he did with his last film The Little Death. But like his last film, Long Story Short is another quirky take on that can o’ worms we call love – Lawson had better be careful or he’ll turn into another Peter “King of Romance” Hellier.

Unlike Hellier’s various projects, where the extent of the imagination on offer is “what if Australia made sitcoms where the wife was clearly out of the husband’s league?”, Lawson has gone all high concept here: what if you found yourself moving fast-forward through your relationship, only checking in for minutes each year? If you guessed “a whole lot of standing around going ‘what the fuck is going on?’,” collect your prize at the front desk.

Better reviewers than us – so pretty much all of them – can discuss the films strengths at length. Briefly, the performances are good, Lawson displays some ability as a director (it wasn’t until later that we realised the film, which feels like your usual expansive summer rom-com, has maybe five main cast members and takes place in three locations), some of the jokes aren’t bad, and so on. Long story short (ha), this contains most of the things you’re probably looking for in a rom-com.

The one thing it doesn’t have, is a decent plot. It’s the big screen version of your typical Aussie sketch comedy sketch: someone has a decent idea, there’s high fives all around, and nobody ever gets around to thinking up any interesting twists or developments that might logically flow from that initial idea. Hey wait, isn’t that what we said about his last film?

Whereas The Little Death at least packed in a bunch of aimless sketches into 90-odd minutes, this features just the one, as if in tacit acknowledgement that plotting is never going to be Lawson’s strong point so maybe keep the plot stuff to a bare minimum. It’s probably a smart move, but it doesn’t do much of anything to hide the fact that this is a film that takes ages to get going and then doesn’t really go anywhere.

After a somewhat fun meet cute and a lot of blathering around, our lead Teddy (Rafe Spall) starts racing through his marriage one year every few minutes. All that actually means is that he spends a few minutes finding out how things have been going (spoiler: not well) and then suddenly lurches forward another year*. He has zero agency throughout most of the film – everything just happens to him – so while any similarities to something like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are most definitely intentional, Dickens remembered to also give us some cool ghosts.

To be fair, there are a couple of minor subplots running throughout the future that add some much needed texture to events. The film actually acknowledges that he’s moving into the future, with a few slightly amusing technological developments in the background. And Leanne (Zahra Newman) as the wife is pretty good; she has to show the changes over the years while keeping the core of their relationship alive, which is tricky to pull off as well as she does here.

This comes out and references Groundhog Day so it clearly doesn’t mind the comparison, but the difference between this and Groundhog Day – the moral of which it somehow manages to get wrong – is that once Groundhog Day established its premise it went absolutely nuts exploring every possible angle. This has Teddy leaving a message for his mate to do something a year later then it’s a year later and his mate messed up so it doesn’t happen and he gives up on trying to change things. Makes you think.

There’s really only two ways this story can end and you get absolutely nothing for guessing that this chooses the one where the entire film could have just been someone slipping Teddy a note saying “don’t let life pass you by”. After 90 minutes spent watching this, it’s a message that really does hit hard – though probably not in the way the filmmakers intended.

.

*well, one version of him does – the other (who we never see) just lives through his life one day at a time. So after a while it’s basically a movie where a middle-aged man is briefly possessed by his 30-ish self for a few minutes every year.

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