If you held a contest for worst movie title of the year, then surely the contest would be over the moment someone submitted “Literally, Right Before Aaron.” It doesn’t sound like a title, or even a coherent thought. As if that weren’t enough of an impediment for an audience, “Literally, Right Before Aaron” turns out to be a scathing piece of cringe comedy. It’s “My Best Friend’s Wedding” with the Julia Roberts character replaced by a smug and entitled male scoundrel, played by Justin Long. It probably sounds like I’m saying: Whatever you do, don’t see this movie! And that’s what most critics have said. But don’t listen to them; they’re being way too moralistic. “Literally, Right Before Aaron” is an inside-the-mind-of-a-jerk romantic comedy that refuses to patronize the audience by sanding off the porcupine quills of its main character.
The film was written, directed, and edited by Ryan Eggold (a supporting player on “The Blacklist”), and he’s an instinctive filmmaker. “Literally, Right Before Aaron” is minor — a spiky indie trifle — but it has a convincing perversity and flair. Long, with his quick delivery and weaselly deadpan, plays Adam, a film editor who let the love of his life slip away. The movie is about how he tries to win her back, a battle so uphill that every desperate calculated lunge just backslides him further. Early on, he takes his latest girlfriend out to a lavish restaurant and does something that may be a movie first: He proposes to her, quite sincerely, and dumps her at the same moment. The scene plays out with a car-wreck spontaneity that’s deft enough to evoke the opening breakup scene of “The Social Network.”
A little later, we flash back to the moment when Adam met Allison (Cobie Smulders), the woman he was with for eight years and should have stayed with his entire life. It’s a pick-up scene set in the stacks of a college library, and it’s startling in terms of how scurrilous Adam behaves — but it still makes you grateful that you’re not seeing the mediocre-Owen-Wilson-comedy version of the same scene, which you’ve watched a thousand times.
Adam sidles up to Allison, mumbles a few nothings to get a conversation started, and then notices that she’s reading “Of Mice and Men.” To get her to have coffee with him, he tells her the ending of the book (complete with impeccable analysis); he also says that he loves her. It’s played as funny ha-ha meets not-so-funny WTF. She’s genuinely pissed off by his spoiled — or maybe I should say spoiler — arrogance, but she also lets her guard down. That the audience is just as on guard against Adam’s bluster is the reason the scene works. Allison, voicing a thought that a lot of women have every day, says, “I can’t tell if you’re charming or just an a—hole,” and the truth, in this case, is clearly both. The movie is about how Adam pushes his a—hole side to the extreme, since that’s the only way he has to kill it.
He flies up to San Francisco, where Allison still lives, and checks into a hotel and calls her. She’s all friendly and sweet and mature and evolved: Come to my dinner party! That’s because she’s about to get married. Her fiancé is a grinning stud of success named — yes — Aaron, played by Ryan Hansen, who looks like Tom Cruise’s blond-brute Neanderthal cousin. In the bad Hollywood version of this movie, he would be a back-slapping blowhard who Allison is ultimately led to see through, and there’s a tinge of that here, but only a tinge. The real loser is still our hero.
We can tell because he’s up to his old tricks, trying to rekindle the romance, but his ex-flame is too smart. Cobie Smulders is a marvelous actress who plays Allison with a knowing wisp of a bohemian smile that tells the audience, in every scene, that she sees right through Adam, but also that she could have imagined a life with him. (It’s that layer — completely unspoken — that makes Smulders’ performance fascinating.) The game of life, however, is now playing Adam, rather than the other way around. “Literally, Right Before Aaron” keeps popping off comic bubbles of suspense, all emerging from the question: What scam is this half-crazy broken-down player going to pull next?
He goes to the wedding, taking along an awkward date (played with a scene-stealing damaged-nerd bloom by Kristen Schaal), and once there he proceeds to make a jaw-dropping spectacle of himself. As in “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” the bad behavior goes beyond uncomfortable — it attains a majestic masochism. It’s like the wedding climax of “The Graduate” stretched out to a squirm-inducing half hour, and it’s all worth it for the moment when Adam confronts the most precious wedding cake you’ve ever laid eyes on. Justin Long makes every scene count, but he doesn’t win our sympathy, at least not completely; it’s more like he sustains our curiosity. “Literally, Right Before Aaron” is a study in male-jerk narcissism, which sounds like it should have an audience of next to no one. But a lot of mainstream comedies have shouldered that topic; they’re just softer and less forthright about it. “Literally, Right Before Aaron” has enough shameless finesse to make me eager to see the movie that Ryan Eggold makes, literally, right after this one.