College senior Blake Conway (Jessica Barden) is desperate to fall in love Hollywood-style. During Carly Stone’s gangly “The New Romantic,” she’ll hail “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle” as her dating ideals. Alas, name-drop Nora Ephron to a cute colleague at the school paper (Brett Dier) and he’ll grunt, “Who is that? Zac Efron’s mom?” “The grandest it gets these days is swiping left instead of right,” writes Blake in the school paper, concluding, “Romance is dead.”
Stone and her leading lady are full of big, banal pronouncements about the problem with modern courtship. Worse, she’s a sex diarist who isn’t having any sex, so her editor Matt (Avan Jogia) refuses to print her columns until she has something more original to say. When Blake pitches a story idea about becoming a sugar baby for a wealthy man, Matt doesn’t arm-twist her to lay back and think of web hits, at least not in a way that’s clearly illegal. “I am too close to graduation,” he insists. However, if she chooses to sleep with gentlemen who give her gifts, she can get back in the paper, and maybe even have a shot at a $50,000 grant for gonzo journalism.
Immoral? Not to classmate Morgan (“Riverdale” actress Camila Mendes in a too-short cameo) who swears that sugar babies like them aren’t hookers, they’re in relationships, or at least facsimiles of them, though as Stone layers a blonde YouTuber’s defensive dismissal of prostitution over Blake’s hot nights and awkward mornings with an economics professor named Ian (Timm Sharp), the two don’t seem much different. And even if they aren’t, hey, she’s still living a movie romance — or as her roommate Nikki (a charismatic Hayley Law) jokes, “‘Pretty Woman’ in reverse.”
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Stone is vaguely interested in the biological imperative to gold-dig, a survival instinct she claims that humans share with tigers. (And tigers don’t even have to pay off college debt.) But the film only feigns at analysis. It’s as naïve about love as Blake herself, who skips through the world like a temperamental child. Blake doesn’t seem to have a passion for journalism, though she does show up to a costume party dressed like Hunter S. Thompson. She just has an urge to do something, anything, that makes her feel special, even if it’s fake. Her picnic dates with Ian look picturesque if she doesn’t think too hard, and compared to bros who just want drunken one-night stands, this Gen-Xer is practically Hugh Grant.
But the film isn’t sure how to handle Blake’s low bar for love. Her lack of standards is more tragic than funny, but Stone is hoping for laughs — or really, swoons — or maybe just whatever will make audiences happy, an eagerness to please that makes the tone wobble from scene to scene. When Ian claps a jewelry box on Blake’s fingers in a nod to Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, the corniness and creepiness cancel each other out so that the scene doesn’t mean a thing. And the firestorm we’re expecting from Blake’s thinly-disguised articles about boning a university employee never ignites, fizzling out in a series of closeups of the girl looking fretful.
Barden, who was brilliantly naïve and cruel in Netflix’s “The End of the F***ing World,” is up to any challenge, but is stuck in a role that feels like a caffeinated mouse. The camera is fixated on her face which has a childlike openness that contrasts wonderfully and terribly with Ian’s graying beard. Sharp’s caddish role is almost as tricky as Barden’s. He has to play a loser capable of pretending to be a titan, and a gag where he bores her prattling on about his vinyl collection is an easy base hit. Later, the two share a devastating sex scene that suggests what Stone is capable of accomplishing when she reaches for something deeper than nostalgia. If only the film could commit to its own cynicism instead of panicking that Blake deserves her mega-romantic movie moment after all.