Chris Evans and Michelle Monaghan battle valiantly to keep the banter frothy and the bromides fresh in “Playing It Cool,” a broad romantic comedy that submits the genre to such a rigorous self-examination it nearly tips over into parody — which would have been a good thing. Debuting feature director Justin Reardon leans on first-person narration to comment on the action throughout, a conceit that sucks much of the romance out of the story, and makes it feel a bit like a class project. Available on VOD for more than a month, the movie is getting a limited release from distributor Vertical Entertainment, perhaps in hopes that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” co-star Evans can somehow save the day here, too.
In “Playing It Cool,” Evans is a screenwriter — to drive the meta aspect home, he’s identified in the closing credits as “Me” — commissioned to punch up the third act of a romantic comedy. Endlessly sharing his inner thoughts, he lets us know he’s hamstrung by the fact his mother left him when he was a boy, scrawling a Post-It note on a box of his favorite cereal and leaving him in the care his grandfather. Now he can’t feel true love or eat Cap’n Crunch. Worse, his heart has become an out-of-body second Me dressed like Humphrey Bogart. Much worse.
Trolling the waters at a philanthropic event, he meets the beautiful, brainy Her (Monaghan), and his outlook on romance abruptly changes as they spend time pranking the other guests. Just as quickly, he reverts back to morose when she tells him she’s engaged. But Me can’t get Her out of his mind. When his writer friends trade stories of romance, he inserts himself, and Her, into the scenes, in tableaus that are initially funny — a role-playing reversal-of-the sexes with Evans and Monaghan is irrepressibly absurd — though the oft-used device becomes increasingly ponderous.
The script, by Chris Shafer and Paul Vicknair (their only other writing credit is Evans’ directing debut, “Before We Go”), borrows freely from other films in the genre — “Play It Again, Sam,” “The Graduate” and “Wedding Crashers” come quickly to mind — as Me attends a spate of fund-raising luncheons in hopes of meeting Her again. It doesn’t take long for him to succeed, leading to an on-again, off-again friendship that plays every cliche in the book, even taking time to name a few of them, before the final chase, in which Me takes to the road to try to stop Her from getting hitched to her fiance (Ioan Gruffudd).
Even in a self-absorbed role, Evans, who also exec produces, manages to be eminently likable, though the narration he’s asked to spew isn’t half as smart as the filmmakers think it is. Monaghan is luminous, and indeed, the actors shake every last bit of believability out of the thin gruel that’s given them. Among “Playing It Cool’s” shortcomings is that the best laughs — a riff on the names of great authors throughout history is particularly amusing — come from sitcom-like situations, frequently aimed below the belt, rather than rising organically from the characters.
The members of Me’s writing circle include trusted comedy vets Topher Grace (the overly sensitive gay), Aubrey Plaza (a nihilistic avant-gardist with a secret love), Martin Starr (guy with messy van) and Luke Wilson (insufferable older guy), with Philip Baker Hall as Granddad and Anthony Mackie as Me’s agent. An attempt to tack on happy endings for Grace’s Scott and Plaza’s Mallory feels arbitrary, though more so for Mallory, whose highlight (or lowlight, depending on your tolerance for public humiliation) comes earlier, in a bizarre performance piece.
A spate of editing flourishes and special effects, including continuity montages, quick-cut inserts, color saturation and desaturation, and animation, are accomplished but exhausting — more showy than supportive, with the cumulative result feeling like a competition to deliver the best calling card.