Writer-director Jonah Feingold’s “At Midnight” sadly isn’t so much concerned with reinvention as it is with following a formula set by its cinematic forbearers. This spin on “Notting Hill” and “Roman Holiday” (the latter is channeled and referenced throughout) shows a silver screen superstar and a hotel employee falling in love and giving their lives the push they need to achieve their dreams. Although it’s tempting not to mess with perfection, innovation through tweaks to the narrative and characters would’ve changed this Paramount Plus feature from expected to extraordinary.
Sophie (Monica Barbaro) is used to saving the world on screen, starring in a blockbuster superhero franchise. Ironically, she can’t manage to save herself in real life, and gets little recognition from anyone but her beloved, beleaguered manager Chris (Casey Thomas Brown) and her sassy, unemployed best friend Rachel (Catherine Cohen). Adam (Anders Holm), Sophie’s arrogant boyfriend and co-star of five years, definitely doesn’t respect her and their relationship as she catches him cheating. On poor advice from their shared cutthroat agent Margot (Whitney Cummings), Sophie decides to feign a romance with Adam until their latest superhero film wraps to avoid scorn in the press. She just has to make it through a six-week shoot in Mexico.
Meanwhile, at the posh beach hotel where Sophie will be staying in Playa Mujeres, junior manager Alejandro (Diego Boneta) values not having any distractions like relationships, preferring one-night stands to longterm loves. He’s focused on getting into the hotel’s training program in New York City, hoping to eventually open up a boutique hotel of his own. However, his plans pivot after meeting Sophie. The affable actress gets him to open up his heart to her. The pair fall for each other on swoon-worthy dates during the midnight hours, but are in constant danger of getting caught, jeopardizing their career plans and budding romance.
Feingold and fellow screenwriters Porta and Hinojos demonstrate a healthy sense of humor, lightly lampooning vapid Hollywood types and the suffocating, sexist ecosystem that employs them. There’s a decent dose of cynicism to chase its slight satirical bent. The genre’s formulaic beats are, for the most part, hit with a modicum of savvy smarts. The couple’s shenanigans-laden meet-cute, their ensuing flirtations and last-minute resolution are satisfying enough to overcome a tumultuous end to the second act, which concludes with a ham-handled conflict that splinters the pair.
Yet a few of its gags detract from the picture’s potential longevity, which the filmmakers seem to be seeking in this throwback tribute to classic rom-coms. Many of the insider jokes that tumble out of Chris’ mouth are too timely to stand the test of time. Sophie makes a crack about the raging discourse involving Martin Scorsese’s stance on Marvel movies. Humor aside, an even greater letdown is that for a film that sets up its heroine’s journey as empowering, Sophie’s defining trait is her relationships with men. While she ultimately (and predictably) chooses love over a career strategy, she spends the movie jumping from one dude to another rather than opting for independence, which she seeks throughout much of the film.
While parts of the narrative and character conceits are a bit rough, Feingold and company demonstrate an assured sense of visual dexterity. Transitions between scenes are artfully conceived and crafted, from the spinning record that dissolves into a bowl of limes to the iris effect that evokes old Hollywood romanticism. Chuy Chávez’s cinematography, particularly during the duo’s dates, is warm and welcoming, bathing his subjects in emotion, color, nostalgia and grace. Ifigenia Martínez Urdaneta’s costume designs for Sophie combine classic with a contemporary flair, as fabric patterns and styles recall Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe in “Roman Holiday” and “Sabrina.”
Boneta and Barbaro’s chemistry adds a simmering, sultry sway to the material’s rhythms, gifting it with an uplifting buoyancy. They’re magnetic together, driving our rooting interest for the couple. Barbaro digs deep into character facets, giving us glimpses of an unmaterialized inner life. It’s a delicate, nuanced performance. Boneta’s work is filled with vulnerability and charm. Cohen is a revelation. Her comedic timing is on point, making a lasting impression in every one of her scenes.
Though many who click play searching for brief escapism from the confines of their couches might not demand much from this cinematic mashup, it would’ve been nice to see the filmmakers not solely remake, but refashion overplayed sentiments about love, ambivalence, duty and identity for the modern era. And, while a few of its lighthearted notions are genuinely timeless, its underlying commentary feels a tad regressive.