Skillfully customizing a traditional chassis and then souping it up with bawdy, “Bridesmaids”-style humor, “I Give It a Year” is a racy British laffer that updates shingle Working Title’s romantic-comedy house style for the 2010s. Under the stewardship of debutant writer-helmer Dan Mazer (a longtime Sacha Baron Cohen collaborator), Rose Byrne and up-and-comer Rafe Spall star as mismatched newlyweds whose marriage seems doomed from the start. Pic should have long legs domestically when it bows Feb. 8, with rosy prospects offshore and strong ancillary potential.
“I Give It a Year” starts where most romantic comedies end, with a lavish wedding between two comely, endearing characters — in this case, brand consultant Nat (Byrne, again cast, a la “Bridesmaids,” as an uptight, neurotic beauty) and novelist Josh (recently much-in-demand Spall, last seen in “Life of Pi”). With a minister afflicted by a coughing fit at a crucial moment and other bad omens, including a cringe-inducingly inappropriate speech from best man Danny (Stephen Merchant), the titular prediction, uttered by Nat’s shrewish sister, Naomi (Minnie Driver), looks spot-on.
Indeed, the action fast-forwards nine months to find the couple seeking marriage guidance from Linda (Olivia Colman, providing a master class in the comedy truism that the secret to making a deranged character’s madness really funny is to play it dead straight). Flashbacks then attempt to explain what went wrong. It’s soon apparent that two of the main reasons for their matrimonial disharmony are Josh’s torch for his aid-worker ex-g.f., Chloe (Anna Faris), and Nat’s growing attraction to handsome client Guy (Simon Baker), oddly both Americans (although Baker, like Byrne, hails originally from Oz).
However, Mazer’s script has the tricky task of explaining that the real problem is that Nat and Josh ultimately just aren’t that suited to each other, while still making it understandable that they fell in love in the first place (the sex is apparently great). It’s a daring core premise for a romantic comedy, flying in the face of genre conventions that dictate marriage is always the ultimate goal, and that any couple having problems at the beginning of a film should fall back in love by the end for symmetry’s sake. But the subversive intention expressed at the pic’s tender, beautifully played and utterly sincere climax is slightly undermined by the strong chemistry throughout between Byrne and Spall, while their characters’ respective extramarital romances don’t entirely convince.
Nevertheless, even if the emotional mathematics don’t quite add up, enough diversion is provided by pic’s broader comic setpieces to paper over the cracks. Highlights that will ensure strong word of mouth include a farcical bedroom threesome that shows off Faris’ comic chops, an ill-fated Christmas game of charades (whose play on the slang word “quim” may not translate so well beyond Blighty’s borders), and a declaration of love upstaged by two panicked white doves.
The way the film’s component parts are stronger than its narrative whole recalls a similar quality in Mazer’s work as a scripter-producer with Baron Cohen, from their early collaboration on “Da Ali G Show” up through features “Borat,” “Bruno,” and “The Dictator.” Editing is occasionally choppy here, motivated more by the need for a new bit of funny business rather than natural flow. Even so, ultimately the film hangs together well enough, sutured with crisp dialogue, memorable supporting characters (especially Driver and Jason Flemyng as Nat’s perpetually bickering sister- and brother-in-law, and Merchant as the forever maladroit Danny), and self-deprecating British humor. At one point the characters sarcastically refer to the romantic antics of “Hugh Grant movies,” slyly referencing the thesp who helped put Working Title on the map with such pics as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill.”
“Year” will do nothing but enhance the reputations of its core actors, especially Byrne, who’s shaping up into an ace comedienne perfectly suited to screwball. Spall offers a strong line in affability and dorkiness with a face handsome enough to make him a plausible lead, but not so chiseled as to alienate with perfection.
Tech credits are unobtrusively pro if not especially memorable, apart from the non-source soundtrack of mellow, well-chosen indie rock that will make this appealing to twentysomething auds. (The songs are given extra prominence by a fine running gag about how Nat always mangles lyrics when singing along.) London locations enhance atmosphere, although those familiar with the capital’s Soho neighborhood may spot a geographical goof involving the layout of Berwick Street at the climax.