A neat-and-tidy romantic comedy dedicated to capturing the messy reality of modern dating, Sam Boyd’s Los Angeles-set “In a Relationship” suggests what “La La Land” might have been if you took away the retro-chic musical numbers and sparkly, soda-fizz chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, leaving only commitment-phobic white people looking for connection in a city where there’s always something better around the corner. Though unlikely to land more than a day-and-date VOD release (or Netflix, if they’re lucky), the movie is much funnier than the vast majority of indie comedies, serving as a great audition piece for a career of sitcom directing.
By focusing on two couples — one testing out a break after several years together, the other hooking up for the first time — Boyd presents an amusing before-and-after view of millennial mating rituals, such as they are. That was also the conceit of his 2015 short film of the same name (which starred Dakota Johnson), a 20-minute, mockumentary-style investigation of how no-strings-attached 20-somethings define their sexual partners. Recycling the same characters (and a lot of the same jokes) with an all-new cast, the long-gestating feature version goes for a more conventional scripted approach, finding ways for characters to ask the questions an off-camera interviewer did before.
Hallie (Emma Roberts) and Owen (Michael Angarano) have been dating long enough — five years, by her count, even if he insists it’s only been three — to think about moving in together. Sex is still good, though they bicker constantly, and while that doesn’t mean they’re not right for each other (heck, in some cultures, screaming matches are just one way couples show their love), it certainly makes them unpleasant to be around. And yet, in nearly every going-out montage — and there are many — Roberts is shown smiling so hard you’d think they were shooting a tooth-whitening commercial. Finally, after Owen rejects the idea of living together one too many times, Hallie decides to give him his space.
On the opposite extreme, there’s Matt (Patrick Gibson), a doofy romantic who can still keep track of how many partners he’s had, and Willa (Dree Hemingway), Hallie’s man-eating cousin, who has long since lost count of her conquests. She’s not promiscuous, per se, just more sexually liberated than most, leaving a lot of broken hearts in her wake. Pairing her with Matt is like offering a cashmere chew toy to a Doberman, although they get along better than anyone would have predicted — even if Willa doesn’t necessarily agree with Matt’s idea that they’re dating (she describes it more as “hanging out”).
That’s about the extent of the joke: In this confusing modern world, men and women aren’t always on the same page about where their relationships stand (no wonder Facebook offers an “It’s complicated” option). But hasn’t that been true since at least the beginning of the sexual revolution, if not dating all the way back to the Garden of Eden?
In effect, Boyd has picked an obvious subject — sort of a watered-down version of the 2012 comedy “Five-Year Engagement,” cleverly updated in last year’s “It Happened in L.A.” — and made it the central focus of a comedy that might have multitasked such observations with something a bit more high-concept. While waiting for Owen and Hallie to decide whether to get back together, Boyd serves up a series of observational scenes in which the characters ill-advisedly snoop in each other’s cell phones, wrestle with awkward contraceptives, and show just how open-minded they are by hooking up with same-sex partners.
Unfolding across three months — July, August, September — in what appears to be summer 2016, the movie feels slightly out of sync with the present moment, like yogurt eaten a few days after its “Best if used by” date. Characters refer to watching “O.J.: Made in America” (which came out in 2016) and stand around the concession stand at Cinefamily (a cult Los Angeles cinema that shut down last November in the wake of sexual harassment claims) sharing inappropriately graphic details about their sex lives. That unfortunate coincidence won’t bother nonlocals, and judging by the warm reaction at the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere, this seen-it-all-before satire of L.A. dating culture may actually play better to the rest of the country.