Mainstream romantic comedies are a rare breed these days. Good ones, with real relationship stakes and sexual tension of the kind that once starred the likes of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, are even rarer. That’s why one has to at least respect the effort when something like the amiable but imperfect “Book of Love” comes along with a time-honored “sex sells” principle, defying a sex-starved cinematic landscape oversaturated by sterile superheroes and icy franchises even if it doesn’t quite deliver the goods.
Indeed, Analeine Cal y Mayor’s balmy little charmer couldn’t be more welcome during the February chill despite its occasional clumsiness in plotting and deficit in its leads’ chemistry. Rest assured that this opposites-attract romp of modest pleasures (launching on Amazon Prime today) still leaves the sweet aftertaste of a mini romantic getaway, one you might as well indulge in from the comfort of your living room.
The aforesaid “sex sells” premise is quite literally at the heart of “Book of Love,” which follows the uptight London novelist Henry (Sam Claflin, with appealing mystique) as he struggles with the embarrassingly unsuccessful launch of his first novel. The book is such a raging failure that bookstores have a ridiculous “Buy 1, Get 3 Free” deal on it — oh, the shame! Realistically speaking though, how could the novel sell when it’s billed as a romance, and yet lacks any shred of eroticism? It would be one thing if the corduroy-clad and stiff-upper-lipped Henry was quieter about his work’s utter celibacy. But taking a strange sense of pride in his characters’ sexlessness, he instead single-handedly sabotages any potential curiosity by repeating the quote, “Chastity is having the body in the soul’s keeping,” as often as he can.
So you can only imagine his surprise when his marketing-minded publisher informs Henry that the book is a record-breaking best-seller in Mexico. Before we can even ask when or why the novel ever got translated into Spanish, he finds himself on the next flight out for an overseas promotion. Enter the savvy local Maria Rodríguez (an attractively no-nonsense Verónica Echegui), asked to accompany and translate for Henry throughout his Mexico stay, after somehow also fulfilling the task of translating his book … with some hefty artistic liberties, to put it mildly. In fact, it’s thanks to Maria’s generous alterations — adding plenty of sex, diverse sexual orientations, ample saucy language and a hilariously erotic jacket, among them — that the book has become a “50 Shades”-type hit. How is that for a meet-cute?
A hardworking mother and restaurant worker by day, a talented aspiring writer by night, Maria first tries to keep her modifications from Henry, who conveniently doesn’t speak a word of Spanish. But after a couple of awkwardly funny panels with ooh-and-aah-ing ladies throwing panties at Henry, Maria owns up to making the salacious changes to his dull book, and all hell breaks loose. Well, not exactly. Being the calm and composed English gentleman that he is, Henry takes this “Bullets Over Broadway”-style scheme extremely well, all things considered. So in front of a rapidly growing fan club of colorful romance addicts, the two continue their tour with Maria’s grandfather, adorable young son and annoying musician ex who grows increasingly jealous of the duo’s partnership.
Not all of these side characters work, with the ex especially becoming a distracting afterthought. But through comfortably predictable story beats, vibrant costuming and sunny cinematography, “Book of Love” still pleasantly charges forward like a guilty-pleasure page-turner, resisting the temptation to resort to cheaply offensive clichés about Maria’s Mexican identity. In other words, it’s refreshing that you won’t walk away from the film thinking of her as a feisty or fiery stereotype with little depth. (On the other hand, yes, the very textbook-British Henry could use some serious loosening up.) Instead, “Book of Love” gives us a full-fledged character in Maria, a practical woman well aware of her talents and worth. That’s why the time we invest in the saga of Maria and Henry — who eventually get paired up to co-author a brand-new book — proves to be an enjoyable one on a journey of equals, with Maria even having a leg up.
Sadly, neither Cal y Mayor nor co-writer David Quantick are especially gifted in snappy screwball dialogue, giving us exchanges that will draw more polite smiles than genuine belly laughs. But despite their curiously shy reluctance to lean into something a shade sexier (isn’t that the whole point Maria is making?), their labor is still a worthy one, confronting the inane and often misogynistic notion that romance is slight, and melodramatic eroticism is lowbrow art. (Wait until you hear Maria’s well-argued defense of telenovelas as legitimate entertainment.) In its own small way, “Book of Love” is here to celebrate these forms, and you can’t help but feel moved by the dedication.