We may tend to speak of the romantic comedy being a formula-driven genre, but Spanish writer-director Mateo Gil takes that idea to unique extremes in “The Laws of Thermodynamics.” A winningly manic fusion of love story and physics tutorial, in which every step along the well-worn boy-meets-girl path is literally a teaching moment — not on the ways of the heart, but atoms, entropy and the space-time continuum — this is cheerfully ambitious material of the type Charlie Kaufman might turn into a genuinely emotive headrush. If Gil’s film never stirs the heart as much as it tickles the brain, that’s down to the relative flatness of his characters, who exist by design as mere factors in the screenplay’s tangle of theories, as parsed throughout by a talking-head panel of real-life scientists. The final result is a curiosity, sure, but a cute, quick-witted one, with much (maybe too much) on its mind.
Netflix announced its acquisition of international rights to “The Laws of Thermodynamics” on the eve of the film’s Miami Film Festival premiere: It’ll hit the streaming service in August, but should do healthy home-turf business when it opens in Spanish theatres next month. For Gil, who made his name as Alejandro Amenábar’s regular co-writer, it’s a zesty return to (mostly) Spanish-language cinema after the crossover efforts of the 2011 western “Blackthorn” and last year’s sci-fi puzzler “Realive,” while broadening his reputation as a playful genre experimentalist. (The film’s documentary-style component, featuring the scientists’ mostly English-language contributions, will be dubbed by Spanish stars for domestic purposes.)
Scenic, sunnily-lensed Barcelona backdrops notwithstanding, “The Laws of Thermodynamics” trades mostly in universals, as befits a film founded in science: populated with well-worn types, generally behaving as the movies (perhaps more so than life) has led us to expect. From its first meet-cute in a crowded town square, as nebbishy astrophysicist Manel (Vito Sanz) and gorgeous model-actress Elena (Berta Vazquez) literally bump into each other in a freak four-person collision, Gil stages copious romantic-comedy tropes with added commentary, diagrams and action replays to prove that what we think of as human behavioral cliché is in fact dictated by physical relations between different forms of energy.
As Manel and Elena embark on an opposites-attract relationship, it doesn’t take long for us to tell that it’s probably not meant to be — but is that because their interests and personalities seem essentially incompatible, or does a more literal form of chemistry make their romance fundamentally impossible? Gil’s script juggles talk of electromagnetic force fields with disordered, unruly emotions more persuasively and engagingly than might be expected, with the push-pull complication that Manel — nicknamed “Mr. Method” by his increasingly exasperated girlfriend — himself believes in the scientific theory the film is selling, rather to the detriment of his own love life.
Striking as that tension between fact and fancy is in the beginning, however, “The Laws of Thermodynamics” comes to feel like a project pulled overly tight by opposing impulses. The love story and the academic treatise gradually impinge on each other more than they inform each other, with the former seemingly pressed for time in terms of narrative and character development: Incrementally phasing out the film’s restless, mind-whirring documentary conceit (in particular, its rather pedantic talking heads) might have made for a more full-hearted fictional romance. It takes all Sanz’s doleful-goofball appeal to make us invest much in Manel’s thin romantic travails, while the secondary arc of his suaver best friend Pablo (Chino Darin, charismatic son of Argentine megastar Ricardo), a ladies’ man learning the adult limits of his charm, is strictly sitcom-level.
Still, the film’s considerable pleasures lie chiefly in the snappy, caffeinated execution of its big, brazen brainteaser concept. Editor Miguel Burgos deserves special credit for keeping a veritable deluge of balls aloft and spinning with nimble, wink-wink ingenuity: At its storytelling zenith, “The Laws of Thermodynamics” may be exhausting, but it’s never unstimulating. That’s something that can’t be said for many a school physics lesson, much less a date movie: Rare is the work required somehow to dodge the pitfalls of both those things, but Gil’s film dizzily makes science into something of a magic trick.