A full quarter-century has passed since Nora Ephron deftly articulated the pitfalls of platonic friendship between men and women in “When Harry Met Sally … ” Yet if “Love, Rosie” is to be believed, a whole new generation of adults has arrived at much the same conclusion Ephron did: In the movies, at least, the sex part always gets in the way. A thoroughly likable English-language debut for German comedy helmer Christian Ditter, this marzipan-sweet adaptation of Cecelia Ahern’s 2004 bestseller, “Where Rainbows End,” is elevated by vibrant visuals and the winsome chemistry of Lily Collins and Sam Claflin. Cast as childhood BFFs who dance around their true feelings for each other through multiple decades, countries and partners, this inordinately pretty star pairing lends youthful appeal to a romantic comedy that could also woo the adult chick-lit crowd.
With its 12-year narrative timeframe, comfy middle-class Britishisms and sparky pairing of striving, pure-hearted girl and raffish, self-oriented guy, “Love, Rosie” evokes Rob Reiner’s aforementioned 1989 hit far less than it does Lone Scherfig’s “One Day” (2011) — another polished adaptation of a megaselling romantic novel, but one that fell oddly short of commercial expectations. Collins actually evokes that film’s lead, Anne Hathaway, in her porcelain physicality and warmly klutzy comic persona; even the appearance on the soundtrack of K.T. Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See,” the song that introduced Hathaway’s breakout turn in “The Devil Wears Prada,” seems calculated to forge the connection. (Unlike Hathaway’s notoriously wobbly stab at a Yorkshire brogue in Scherfig’s film, however, the half-American Collins’ English accent is daintily precise.)
Where “Love, Rosie” differs from “One Day” — and, indeed, from the cozy Richard Curtis strain of British romantic comedy from which it descends — is its streak of surprisingly bawdy humor, sometimes tipping over into outright sex farce. Ditter demonstrated his aptitude for broad comedy in his 2006 debut, “French for Beginners,” though he doesn’t always hit the right note here: A disastrous condom-related accident that ushers in a key plot development is wince-inducingly frank and funny, but a later comic setpiece involving S&M handcuffs seems awkwardly imported from a more heightened bedroom romp.
Papering over such tonal lapses is the consistently affecting, plausibly protracted core relationship between Rosie (Collins) and Alex (Claflin), two bright young things who have grown up in close proximity in the film’s picture-perfect, geographically muddled slice of suburbia. (Shot in Dublin and County Wicklow, Ireland, the setting evokes the novel’s Blarney roots, though most of the characters appear to have been teleported from North London.) So deep is their mutual affection that they risk taking it for granted, as they agree to accompany passing crushes to the high-school prom instead of each other. It’s a blithe pact with far-reaching consequences: On prom night, Rosie is accidentally impregnated by callow dreamboat Greg (Christian Cooke), halting her plans to follow Alex across the pond to Boston, where they had planned to study hotel management and medicine respectively.
From this crucial separation, the would-be lovers’ lives diverge quite dramatically. As Alex climbs the Ivy League class ladder, scoring an immaculate Type A g.f. (played with gleefully manicured unpleasantness by Tamsin Egerton) to match, Rosie is thrust blind into the challenges of cash-strapped single motherhood. While the film’s depiction of her predicament is undeniably romanticized — we’re still in the kind of movie utopia where no one need ask how Rosie affords her shabby-chic Victorian walk-up on a chambermaid’s salary — the spry script by Juliette Towhidi (“Calendar Girls”) still conjures sincere pathos from its pile-up of missed chances and paths not taken.
As appealingly humanized by Collins and Claflin, Rosie and Alex are sufficiently flawed, three-dimensional beings for their continued attachment to each other to convince, even as their circumstances (including a pair of bad marriages) make it ever harder to sustain. Required to carry the characters from their late teens to their early thirties, both actors deftly pull off that tricky transition, aided considerably by Tony Cranstoun’s fleet, springy editing. Collins, who made such a bright, fizzy Snow White in 2012’s “Mirror Mirror,” proves a particularly agile comedienne, showing womanly wit and gumption beneath the requisite, radiant ingenue exterior. The narrative outcome may never be in doubt, but “Love, Rosie” makes its heroine work harder than most for her genre-mandated destiny.
In a bracing break from the insipid televisual pastels of most comparable comic fare, Ditter has opted for a richly stylized mise-en-scene that enlivens the material without overwhelming it. Fresh from collaborating with Wim Wenders on “Cathedrals of Culture,” d.p. Christian Rein isn’t afraid to saturate the frame with brash primary tones and ambient lighting schemes, often boldly externalizing characters’ feelings in the process. It’s a film youthful and frisky enough to support such bold pop textures, even as Ditter’s direction verges on the over-literal: In a film heavy on upbeat song cues, the choice of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” to soundtrack a childbirth scene was perhaps unnecessary.