Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – boy gets girl, boy loses girl, girl meets another boy; boy tries to win the girl back. If you named six romantic comedies off the top of your head, at least half of them would have this plot. So at the very least, Literally, Right Before Aaron has company. I’d imagine that first-time writer/director Ryan Eggold would like to believe that his film subverts this time-tested formula, and in a way it does, but not in a way that feels cutting, or even intentional at times. Literally, Right Before Aaron plays like a greatest hits playlist of genre clichés, but it never quite nails down whether it’s lampooning those conventions or just leaning on them.
While the summation above could serve as an apt synopsis of Literally, Right Before Aaron, we’ll get more specific. The film opens on Adam, played by Justin Long, getting a call from Allison, his ex-girlfriend of eight years, played by Cobie Smulders. She’s getting married to the titular Aaron (Ryan Hansen), the guy she met after him, and she wants him to come to the wedding. Still heartbroken over the breakup, Adam agrees to go, struggling to decide whether this is an opportunity for him to get over Allison, or an opportunity to win her back. While there’s nothing remarkable about the plot – it follows the standard formula, ends in a wedding – classic comedy stuff, it’s a perfectly serviceable narrative to drape drama and shenanigans over. It’s a familiar recipe; it just needs spicing up.
Here’s where the film starts to lose it. Eggold never quite decides what kind of comedy Literally, Right Before Aaron is, creating a tonally dissonant film that never finds its footing. In a lot of ways, it’s a very standard romantic comedy. Eggold, certainly indulges in some of the genres most noxious shorthands, the ‘beautiful people having fun’ montage being a stand out. Let’s play a quick game. I’ll list three annoying ways movies like to show that characters are in love, and you pick the one that appears in Literally, Right Before Aaron.
A montage of them laughing and having fun at the beach. A montage of them laughing and taking Polaroid pictures of each other. A montage of them laughing and dancing in their apartment to vinyl records. If you guessed all three are in the movie, you’d be right.
Literally, Right Before Aaron is so steeped in the lexicon of romantic comedy; it forgets to build actual characters. The result is a film that’s built around characters that we can’t connect to and who have no real connection to each other. For a film that is ostensibly about the failed relationship between Adam and Allison, we know very little about their relationship, why it didn’t work, and why either of them would want to keep the other in their lives. The secondary characters kept sufficiently two dimensional to be used in whatever way the film needs them to be used at the moment. Even the titular Aaron is ill defined, oscillating between a pleasant, albeit privileged man, and an alpha dog asshole whenever the plot requires.
The one character we do get to know very well is Adam, and one thing we know quite clearly by the end of the film is that he is an asshole. Justin Long’s strong performance serves as the wrinkle that turns the film on its ear. Adam is, in many ways, the archetypal romantic lead – a sensitive dreamer who believes in love at first sight. But Eggold’s script is not at all interested in painting Adam in a positive light and Long performs him as a feckless, temperamental child. It’s such a pointedly negative performance that it singlehandedly almost turns the film into a critique of the genre. But with the rest of the film steering so hard into the rom-com spin, it feels more like the subversive nature of Justin Long’s performance is in spite of the film, as opposed to being in concert with it.
It’s ultimately very difficult to tell whether or not Ryan Eggold is attempting to make some kind of point with Literally, Right Before Aaron, which means if he is, it’s not a point well made. So what we’re left with is a very lopsided romantic comedy with a strong, strange, and profoundly unlikeable performance from Justin Long. Really, the scene-stealing Kristen Schaal, who seemingly can’t help but be one of the funniest people on the planet, delivers the only other performance of note. She plays Tallulah, a doll-making cousin of a friend who ends up being his date to the wedding. If you carved the scenes of Long and Schaal into a short film, I’d watch it in a second.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Literally, Right Before Aaron isn’t a particularly funny romantic comedy, nor is it particularly romantic. It’s an odd film with an agenda that never quite makes it to the table. On a surface level, it’s fairly standard rom-com fare with a fiercely unappealing leading man. Beyond that, the film is a mess of tonal shifts, flat jokes, and genre clichés. I’m not sure the film is attempting to be subversive, but if it is, it drips over itself. Much like its embarrassed and befuddled leading man, Literally, Right Before Aaron doesn’t have a firm grasp on what it’s meant to be doing.