It would be unfair to blame Harry Styles for “After We Collided,” the sequel to 2019’s “After,” just because both films are based on a series of novels that evolved from One Direction fan-fiction. But he should maybe lie low for a bit because by the time the end credits roll like a potential warrant list, we are looking for someone — anyone — to blame.
“This is a story you’ve heard before,” drones the toneless opening voiceover, but thing is, we really haven’t, because this is not a story. It is a numbingly repetitive series of manufactured minor dramas between the two terminally self-involved, staggeringly uninteresting protagonists of the first film, which set the bar so low it has to be the result of special effort that the sequel fails to clear it. “After” was merely awful. “After We Collided” is atrocious. Naturally, it’s proving an enormous pandemic-era hit.
The primary culprit is Anna Todd, author of the novels, who steps in as co-screenwriter with Mario Celaya. Apparently believing the sole problem with the first film was its PG-13 squeakiness (that was merely one of its problems), here the writers pepper the screenplay with f-bombs and gratuitous sexual encounters made somehow more clumsy by director Roger Kumble’s anodyne Gap commercial aesthetic. Exchanges like “Haven’t you got some carpet to munch on?” “Haven’t you got some d— to suck?” feel about as organic to the film’s ecosystem as an old condom in a glass of milk. And with most of the nasty delivered by and at women, it really does teach the exact wrong lessons about sexual rivalry, slut-shaming and how you don’t really love a guy unless you’ve messed up some catty b—’s ombre hair extensions over him.
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Josephine Langford returns as Tessa, while the role of troubled hunk Hardin Scott is reprised by Hero Fiennes Tiffin, who is an actor and not some beloved tinned British brandycake used as a poultice for shrapnel wounds in times of war. As before, Hardin is basically Rebel Mr. Potato Head — a perfect plastic blank accessorized with stuck-on leather jacket, tattoos and whisky bottle — with Tessa similarly featureless beneath waved hair, dewy complexion and oddly frumpy costuming.
As doubtless you recall, “After” ended with their tentative reunion, after Hardin’s Terrible Betrayal (he initially pursued Tessa as a dare) had been discovered by his recently deflowered paramour. Psych! The happy end was all in Hardin’s mind; actually he is drunk-sleeping in his car, and she is having her extremely realistic first day as a publishing house intern. Within 24 hours, Tessa has discovered the firm’s next bestseller, been whisked off for a wild night with an investor and been bought a gaudy cocktail dress on the company dime, in which she can totter down a staircase to dazzle her co-workers. Lovestruck accountant Trevor (Dylan Sprouse, the film’s sole bright spot) is duly dazzled.
But she is pining for Hardin, and when his mother (Louise Lombard) comes to visit, Tessa agrees a little too quickly to pretend they’re still together for the sake of this woman she’s never met. Fake-out leads to make-out and soon “Hessa” are a couple again, much to the disappointment of Hardin’s ex-squeeze Molly (Inanna Sarkis)m who spends the rest of the movie delivering side-eye so noxious one imagines it dripping off her lashes and burning through the carpets of the floor beneath. To be honest, her bile is relatable: Many of us will spend most of the film’s runtime wishing to see — indeed actively fantasizing about — something actually bad happening to these two chemistry-free personality vacuums to give them something to really mope about. Sadly, even a briefly promising car crash turns out not only to be non-lethal, but so innocuous that everyone forgets about it two scenes later.
Hardin’s Tortured Past causes him alcoholism and nightmares, and is to do with his father (Rob Estes), whom he confronts at the party his mom drags him to. “The last time I saw your father was 10 years ago,” she pleads, and we can understand her consternation because the last time we saw his father he was Peter Gallagher. Clearly both he and Jennifer Beals, who played Hardin’s stepmom in “After” managed to extricate themselves from further involvement in this thankless enterprise. Unkind of them not to pass on their agents’ numbers to poor Selma Blair, who is back on hand as Tessa’s overbearingly shrewish mother.
In DP Larry Reibman’s placid, glossy images, artfully framed for minimal erogenous zone yet maximal Victoria’s Secret branding, Tessa and Hardin get it on, call it off, call it back on and go to hot yoga, according to no logic except the mood of the pop song currently playing. Upbeat electropop? All good! Sufjan Stevens? Uh-oh, guess they’d better break up, due to some patently idiotic misunderstanding that would be cleared up in five seconds if these two weren’t so completely witless. Seriously, in now 214 minutes of this benighted franchise, neither has managed one single even marginally amusing comment.
Case in point: Tessa sashays off to play beer pong at a party (in need of complication, the screenwriters dig deep and come up with… beer pong) while Hardin stays put, limply double-entendre-ing “I like to watch.” “I bet you do!” trills Tessa. Cue Hardin goggling at this devastating riposte, later confiding in voiceover “I found my Elizabeth Bennet!” This unearned Austen reference is likely meant to convey the Personal Growth he has undergone since the English Lit class in the first film when he sneered “Elizabeth Bennet needs to chill!” while wearing a Ramones T-shirt. But all it really does is remind us that post “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades,” this placeholder installment in a projected four-movie series is merely the latest, and definitely the worst, of all the terrible franchise movies revolving around the truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a dark secret and/or leather jacket must be in want of a prim, virginal nonentity to save him from himself. Bleurgh.