“Dating & New York” has a natural feel for its Manhattan milieu and the various ways in which cell phones and dating apps have reconfigured courtship dynamics. Unfortunately, those are the only fresh components of this otherwise routine romantic comedy, which despite a number of self-conscious touches that suggest an innovative approach to familiar material, winds up playing a rote lovey-dovey game. Winning chemistry between its stars may help it make inroads with millennial audiences when it debuts in theaters and on VOD on Sept. 10 (following its online premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival), but most will likely find their own iPhones a more engaging viewing option.
On a dating app called “Meet Cute,” Milo (Jaboukie Young-White, soon to be seen in Mike Mills’ “C’mon, C’mon”) and Wendy (Francesca Reale) hit it off, sleep together and then go their separate ways, only to reconnect after their respective best friends, Hank (Brian Muller) and Jessie (Catherine Cohen), fall for each other. Rather than attempt a traditional union, however, Wendy successfully proposes to Milo that they sign a literal “Best Friends with Benefits” contract in which they both agree to the usual ground rules about having routine sex minus the love. When Hank and Jessie hear about this arrangement, Milo and Wendy are compelled to immediately push back against the idea that they’re setting themselves up for a well-worn movie-ish plot that culminates with one of them “catching feelings” by Act Three.
Having acknowledged its template and promised to subvert it, writer-director Jonah Feingold’s film proceeds to merely follow its premise through in the least imaginative manner possible, replete with a happy-reunion climax set at a wedding. While following a typical rom-com pattern isn’t inherently unpleasant, the movie’s wink-wink insinuations that it’s going to take things in a novel direction, followed by its embrace of the very clichés it’s poked fun at, makes it feel disingenuous and stale. From a narrative point of view, it’s a case of a film establishing expectations and then deliberately failing to meet them.
Nonetheless, there’s still some modest charm to “Dating & New York,” at least in its early going, thanks to the rapport shared by Reale and Young-White, both of whom handle Feingold’s rat-a-tat-tat dialogue with an ease that suggests they personally know a thing or two about sarcastically navigating our current always-online age. The two embody Wendy and Milo as charismatically wayward young adults, aided by a script that understands, and revels in, the new rules and structures that govern 21st-century dating life, be it ghosting, passive-aggressive posting (or as Wendy puts it, “targeted offensive orbiting”) or how and when to text a would-be paramour or recent ex. There’s an authenticity to these elements that bolsters Wendy and Milo’s initial time together, making it feel like an honest snapshot of twentysomethings figuring out their amorous futures through the filter of a handheld device.
A little of such screen-centric material goes a long way, however, which “Dating & New York” doesn’t realize, often pushing its action into a gratingly cutesy realm. Though bouncily scored by Grant Fonda and brightly shot by Maria Rusche in and around multiple New York City parks and cafes, the film’s energy flags as it repeatedly indulges in tech-related drama that’s destined to end in by-the-books fashion. Not helping matters is narration (from “Entourage” vet Jerry Ferrara, as Milo’s doorman) and a few jokey fantasy interludes (such as Wendy leaving a date to field relationship questions at a makeshift press conference) that strain so hard to generate humor and sentimentality by calling attention to the proceedings’ artificiality that they make one want to log off.