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AUSTIN - Dan Mazer has built a career based on a very particular type of humor. As a writer/producer, he's been involved in "Da Ali G Show," "Borat," "Bruno," and "The Dictator," and he's helped define Sacha Baron Cohen's public persona in the process. Now with his first feature film as a writer/director, he's turned his attention to the Working Title romantic comedy formula, and "I Give It A Year" manages to parody the structure of those films while playing as an actual one at the same time. No easy feat, that, and I was surprised by how well Mazer manages the balancing act.
Josh (Rafe Spall) and Nat (Rose Byrne) meet, fall in love, and tie the knot all within seven months of meeting one another, and from the very start, their marriage seems like a bad fit. It would be easy to make one of them the bad guy in this film to make it clear whose fault things are, but Mazer instead paints both of them as decent people who simply might not be suited for each other. The weakest element in the film is a structure that involves both of them talking to a marriage counsellor played by the great Olivia Colman, and those scenes play like they're cut in from another movie. The actual day-to-day struggle between Josh and Nat is written well, and it's only gradually that Mazer starts to bring in Chloe (Anna Faris) and Guy (Simon Baker), who seem like far better-suited partners to Josh and Nat.
Again, the easy version of this would have one of the two spouses be eager to cheat, but that's not the way Mazer wants to structure things. Instead, the film is built so that eventually the audience should be rooting for the marriage to end. That is such a crazy idea to build into a romantic comedy that it seems like it would be impossible to pull off, especially for someone like me who feels strongly that it's hard to laugh at infidelity. I'm impressed by the way Mazer's script subverts pretty much everything you know about the genre, and the way he manages to make this feel like a Working Title romantic comedy even though he's breaking their rules with glee. I feel like even within the broader genre of "romantic comedy," Working Title has managed to build a very particular brand, and the template that Richard Curtis helped them perfect has served them very well. Making a movie like this which refutes much of what we've seen them do previously is a fun choice that pays off.
Rafe Spall is a bit of a chameleon, and watching him here, I didn't realize it was him. He gets to play a big comedy character here, and he does so expertly. Rose Byrne seems to have turned a corner with her work in "Bridesmaids," and there's a loose and funny quality to what she does here that I haven't really seen her bring to a role before. The film requires us to both accept that they would have been a couple in the first place and yet also understand why they shouldn't be a couple in the long term, and both Spall and Byrne find plenty of lovely small notes to play that really sell both ideas.
Likewise, Anna Faris and Simon Baker both play their parts perfectly. So often, the people in these movies who are designed to serve as temptation to the married couple or the romantic leads end up almost having to play villains. Here, we ultimately want both of the leads to be happy, so Mazer carefully calibrates everything, and Faris ends up being more appealing in this supporting role than she's been in a while. As with any actor, she's at the mercy of the material she's been given, and she shines here. Baker has to be the perfect guy, posh and handsome and wealthy, and yet he's still somehow got to seem human. There's an absurd scene midway through the film where he first tells Nat how he feels, and it goes so wrong that it's charming without totally undermining the character. I also really like the supporting turns by Stephen Merchant as Danny, the inappropriate friend who has no sense of what you can or can't say, and Minnie Driver and Jason Flemyng as a married couple who seem to thrive on open hostility.
It is a slight film, and if you have no patience for romantic comedies, this isn't enough of a departure to totally change your mind, but for people who watch "Love, Actually" every Christmas and who are still actively hoping for a third chapter in the "Bridget Jones" saga, "I Give It A Year" is a fresh and funny spin on the formula, and there are some huge laughs in it. I'm curious to see where Mazer's comic interests lead him in the future, and I hope this one gets a proper release here in the States.