“Plus One” is proof of the continued vitality of traditional romantic comedy formulas. Yet far more thrillingly, it’s a testament to star power — which it has in spades, courtesy of Maya Erskine (Hulu’s “Pen15”), whose lead turn in writers-directors Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer’s winning film would, in a just world, make her an immediate A-lister. As a single woman who forges a pact with her college friend to attend their litany of summer weddings together, Erskine has a force of personality — and whip-crack comedic timing — that energizes this superior brand of amorous adventure. Genre fans won’t want to miss it when RLJE Films releases it in theaters and on VOD in June, following its Tribeca Film Festival premiere.
Forced to navigate a nuptials season that reminds them of their loneliness — highlighted by their relegation to the singles tables — oft-drunk Alice (Erskine) and picky Ben (Jack Quaid) realize that it’s more bearable to endure such lovey-dovey proceedings as a pair. Their subsequent agreement to be one another’s plus-ones affords Ben a wingman that can help him find a new paramour, and gives Alice someone who can hold a trashcan near her head when the evening’s alcoholic beverages begin their rebellious journey out of her stomach. More importantly, it makes the events fun, as the two share a natural chemistry, as he takes her absurd whims and foul-mouthed insults in stride, and she helpfully pricks his pretentious bubble.
Anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy can guess that these perfectly paired “just friends” will soon explore a relationship together, but Chan and Rhymer’s script is so busy throwing amusing conversational jabs during its earlygoing that any predictability is mitigated. “Plus One” is in its element when simply spending time in the duo’s company, playing flip cup at a crummy motel or scoping out new targets for Ben while arm-in-arm on a dance floor. The filmmakers use these lighthearted moments to deepen a sense of their characters, revealing key backstory details — like Alice’s misery over her still-fresh break-up to Nate (Tim Chiou), or her closeness to her mother (a scene-stealing Rosalind Chao) — and, also, the underlying reasons for their ongoing single status.
While Alice’s lonesomeness is directly related to Nate’s cheating, Ben’s has to do with his fixation on finding “the one” via a “meet-cute” – an idealistic concept to which he clutches tightly, to his own detriment. A subplot involving the impending third marriage of Ben’s father (Ed Begley Jr.), and Ben’s discomfort with it, further exposes the fantasy-over-reality issues that have stymied Ben’s chances at commitment. “Plus One” handles this somewhat schematic thread with aplomb, thanks in large part to Begley’s simultaneously goofy and heartfelt work (especially during a bachelor party bit involving LSD), and a script that never misses an opportunity to inject even the most serious incident with humor.
Guy Godfree’s vibrant cinematography and Leo Birenberg’s lively score set a suitably upbeat mood, although “Plus One” rests on the shoulders of its headliners. Quaid laces his good-natured charm with hints of stunted-adolescent arrogance and unreasonable fussiness, albeit never to the point of sullying Ben’s likeability. He’s a flawed, funny protagonist, and well-matched with Erskine’s Alice, who lacks not only patience with hot-air nonsense but also a verbal filter, resulting in the film’s finest laugh-out-loud remarks. With a sharp tongue and a messy demeanor, Erskine is a riot, but the strength of her performance is that it roots Alice’s wittiness in a dogged (and brave) commitment to face whatever life throws at her. Like “Plus One,” she understands that happiness comes in unexpected forms — a fact that’s also true of the actress herself, who here marks herself as a bona fide marquee name in the making.