The star-driven studio romantic comedy is dead. So absolutely dead. The entire target audience for such projects now have Netflix accounts, where there are hundreds of hours of such meet-cute material at one’s browsing disposal. Amazon are counting on the surviving importance of that ‘star driven’ element — while Netflix’s original movies may utilise stars of the Instagram variety, this 8-episode season of Modern Love has on its poster such faces as Oscar winner Anne Hathaway, as well as Tina Fey, Catherine Keener, John Slattery and Dev Patel. Do the rom-com audience that, we assume, still exists in their homes, still care at all about whether what they’re watching is an Anne Hathaway vehicle rather than — say — a Zoey Deutch one?
Well, here’s hoping, because Hathaway gives perhaps the most surprising and informed performance we’ve seen from her in the episode “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am”, as a woman-seeking-man who’s slowly revealed to have bipolar disorder. Written and directed by showrunner John Carney, it’s a smart and empathetic portrait of uncontrollable mood swings in the context of trying to negotiate a romantic encounter. It’s hard to imagine anyone making Hathaway their first choice for such a part (although she fits right into the episode’s opening La La Land/Streisand-pastiche song-and-dance sequences — Carney finally getting payback for when “Audition” stole “Drive It Like You Stole It”’s spot on the Oscar shortlist) in 2019, but she’s perfect, her stage school smiling starts to make narrative sense when contrasted with dark spells in bed. It’s a more sensitive version of what Jennifer Lawrence did in Silver Linings Playbook.
That episode is great. Everything that surrounds it is a little lesser, but Modern Love provides a charming taste of how simple, broad-strokes romantic comedy structures can exist in short form. Cristin Miloti headlines a Woody Allen-esque routine about a meddling doorman. Patel and Keener are a tech CEO and journalist debating the nature of “finding the one” — featuring a mighty chunk plagiarised from Before Sunset, and when Andy Garcia shows up, a little bit of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again too. Fey and Slattery’s is perhaps the dullest episode of all — those actors rarely stray outside their comfort zone and this half hour could easily have fit into Amazon’s previous failure The Romanoffs.
Second best to the Hathaway episode is “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” starring Julia Garner and Shea Whigham as a young assistant and the older man she starts to idolise as a surrogate father. Whigham rarely gets this much to do — and what an absolutely charming romantic interest he is capable of being. Then there’s “Hers Was A World Of One” which repurposes Fleabag’s sexy priest Andrew Scott as half of a gay couple adopting Olivia Cooke’s baby. It has a cameo from maybe the worst person a film can have a cameo from. Unfortunate, because Scott and Cooke are sensational talents.
Modern Love doesn't quite cohere as an 8-part anything, but with a second season on the way it’s clear this is intended just as a format for storytelling in a minor key. There’s very little to complain about; it’s a roundly warm and likeable endeavour. Other, that is, than the ghastly theme song that runs over all 8 title sequences. For the man who oversaw both “Falling Slowly” and “Drive It Like You Stole It”, amongst a handful of decent original tracks in what’s probably his best film, Begin Again, I don’t know how Carney thought that song was fit for use. Jam that “Skip Credits” button as hard as you can.