'Love, Guaranteed' Is Netflix's Flimsy Version of a Hallmark Movie Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

Starring Rachael Leigh Cook, Damon Wayans Jr., Caitlin Howden, Heather Graham
'Love, Guaranteed' Is Netflix's Flimsy Version of a Hallmark Movie Directed by Mark Steven Johnson
"The glory of the rom-com, whether littered with grand set pieces or the scratching reality of pain and boredom, is that it gives strangers' voices to our deepest desire, which is to know and be known, and then, to make that thirst funny," wrote Eva Wiseman for The Guardian. And that's just it, isn't it? In exemplars of this genre, this is exactly what works and why we care — because we're really thinking about ourselves.

As such, mainstream romantic comedies are a bit paint-by-numbers and a bit fill-in-the-blank (with yourself). We know the general sequence of things because we've seen it before: two comely leads meet, don't like each other until they do, dance around attraction until they can't, and have to overcome some kind of obstacle before they get together and live happily ever after. Rom-coms are light because by definition, they can't really be heavy; rom-coms are formulaic because the formula has stood the test of time; and rom-coms never really disappoint because there's nothing much at stake.

In a way, then, crafting a good rom-com isn't about avoiding the clichés and tropes of the genre — it's about embracing them and navigating around them at the same time. It's probably easier to make a dour drama than a great rom-com, but it's even easier to make a mediocre rom-com.

In Netflix's Love, Guaranteed, Rachael Leigh Cook plays Susan, a thirtysomething Seattle lawyer with a penchant for defending the little guy — even when the little guy can't pay. Susan spends so much time doing the "right" thing her business is failing and her personal life is non-existent. Still, she can always find time in her busy schedule to work some more, and boy howdy is that made clear right from the outset. Her pregnant sister, Melanie (an excellent Caitlin Howden, of Vancouver's beloved improv troupe the Sunday Service), lives next door with her husband and son (perhaps only to highlight Susan's lack of either), but a few minutes into the film, Susan bails on them because she's behind on emails. Later, when Susan is upset about a silly photo of her drunk on her birthday, one of her assistants says, "It was the only picture we could find where you weren't working." You get it.

Nick (Damon Wayans Jr.) is Susan's new client: an ex-ballplayer looking to sue a dating site called Love, Guaranteed, because he's been on almost 1,000 dates and he hasn't found love, which is guaranteed in the site's fine print. Susan initially thinks Nick's claim is stupid and baseless, but his money spends, and Love, Guaranteed is a billion-dollar business run by a somewhat funny Gwyneth Paltrow joke played by Heather Graham, so she takes the case. (Who on Earth put these actors together? This is Mad Libs casting.)

We know Susan and Nick because we've seen them before. She's the beautiful, sexless workaholic with a fridge full of takeout who occasionally gazes out the window wistfully with a glass of wine. Nick is the handsome and charming adult boy who may be too handsome and charming for his own good (think Wayans Jr.'s Coach from New Girl dialled down to about a six). Besides, there has to be something broken in him if he's single, right? Susan secretly yearns for connection and Nick has far more depth than a first glance would suggest, but we know that before they do. And, because rom-coms are a team sport, they both have their advisors: Susan has Melanie and her two stock character comic relief office assistants/paralegals: dapper, fabulous Roberto (Sean Amsing) and quippy busybody Denise (Lisa Durupt, channeling Judy Greer). Nick has Jerome (Alvin Sanders), a father figure-type dispensing Polonius-style advice about just going for it, or whatever.

Like in most rom-coms, there are a few stories happening simultaneously, including the lawsuit, the corporate dating site's bad guy turn, Nick and Susan warming to each other (and their inevitable "is there something here?"), Melanie's pregnancy, and Susan's struggle to balance the personal with the professional. As such, there are a ton of storylines that have to get wrapped up before the end credits. Pacing-wise, this is done okay at first and then, for some reason, all at once.

There are things to like about Love, Guaranteed, even if it's basically a Hallmark movie not on the Hallmark Channel. As a performer, Wayans Jr. really only has one gear, but it's a great gear, and so he's fun to watch. So too are the supporting players. But still, this thing is just too meh to deserve more plaudits than this. The lawsuit plot is absurd, and it sets up the central conflict and a pivotal courthouse scene, which is even more absurd. And, though many rom-com plots are insane and/or inane (movie stars don't fall in love with charming British booksellers and nobody needs to be persuaded to fall in love with Sandra Bullock), there's something even the most forgiving viewer can't ignore here.

"Written well and watched rebelliously, [the rom-com] not only teaches us the basics of love, but the power of connection," argued Wiseman. Unfortunately, Love, Guaranteed isn't written well, and offers us perilously few opportunities to find actual meaning. This is, at best, something to have on in the background as you stare out the window wistfully, with a glass of very cheap wine, before drunk texting your ex. (Netflix)