It’s easy to imagine Kaley Cuoco and Pete Davidson starring in romantic comedies from another era. Specifically, the mid-to-late 2000s—though they likely would have been sequestered in decidedly different takes on the genre. Cuoco would slot in somewhere between Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Aniston on the scale of relatable, sometimes put-upon strivers, while Davidson would be in a Judd Apatow or Apatow-adjacent production, from before Apatow became more interested in the autobiographical-dramedy overtones that informed his actual Davidson collaboration, The King of Staten Island. Instead, they are appropriately unmoored from the normal constraints of linear time and thrust together in Meet Cute, which aspires to depict a romance both smaller and more cosmically vast than your typical streaming timekiller.
The smaller part comes from the two-hander set-up, very much the opposite of the contrivance described by the movie’s title. Sheila (Kaley Cuoco) approaches Gary (Pete Davidson) in a bar, makes conversation and they fall into sync almost suspiciously quickly. Sheila soon reveals, to Gary’s affectionate and intrigued disbelief, that they’ve met before. She’s a time-traveler, who has used a local nail salon’s time machine to jump back 24 hours and spend some more time on what was a spectacular, unexpected first date. Meeting Gary pulled her away from a personal abyss, so she wants to keep living in those first-blush moments for as long as possible.
More specifics of these time-travel mechanics are not explained right away, and over the course of the evening, Sheila’s story keeps changing, every new detail accompanied by a preface of “I’m gonna come clean with you.” But this isn’t a Certified Copy puzzler, or a sci-fi version of a low-key Richard Linklater picture, though Sheila and Gary’s initial extended walk-and-talk does resemble a sort of Before Timejump. As the magical New York evening draws to a close, Meet Cute does move forward (backward?) from the not-couple’s first-but-not-first date. Time travel and its attendant complications are real, if not mapped out with any particular exactitude. I’m still not sure how or if the movie solves, un-solves and/or resolves the time-travel duplication that seems to result from Sheila traveling back to the same time and place, over and over. (Meanwhile, the movie fails to use time travel as an explanation for how Sheila and Gary are able to traverse the East Village, somewhere in Queens, a late-night ferry, Chinatown and the Brooklyn Promenade in a single evening, and still have time for so much chatting.)
Though it doesn’t remain strictly confined to its initial twelve hours, Meet Cute is something of a stealth time-loop movie. Specifically, it’s a poor man’s Palm Springs, using the charm of comedy stars and the wistfulness of lonely souls to masquerade as a movie about (sigh) personal trauma and (gulp) suicide ideation. Unfortunately, the movie is really not up to depicting the latter; Sheila’s despair is communicated in the same glibly irreverent screenwriter language as the rest of the movie’s dialogue. You’ll know it when you hear it: That near-ubiquitous imitation of a “funny” unflappable person with an endless supply of faux-outrageous quips that lack genuine observation or any discernible punchline (“nothing good ever came of a girl named Amber” is just one of the lines that seems designed to make the audience say, oh, that’s classic Sheila!). It’s the kind of screenwriting that supplies its characters with oddly old-fashioned names and then has them comment upon what oddly old-fashioned names they share.
This self-conscious cuteness can work if it’s genuinely clever, or if the performers know how to toss it off and keep going without calling too much attention. Cuoco, though, hits most of her lines hard, possibly a remnant of her work in sitcoms and voiceover; she’s giving an Aniston performance, pausing for laughter and appreciation. Davidson has a better sense of when to sidle his way into this canned banter, even if he’s not exactly believable as a character who cares if he drops his phone. They make an appealingly odd pairing, until it becomes clear that they’re less attracted opposites than a pair of genuine mismatched performance styles.
Yet when it settles down, relaxing into those Linklater-ish vibes and the lovely, heightened colors of New York City at night—finally, a lush visual tribute to those Indian restaurants on Second Avenue in Manhattan!—Meet Cute does vibrate with a low-key romantic hum, somewhere between quiet thrill and quieter desperation. This is where director Alex Lehmann excels, having explored similar duets through a bittersweet romantic reunion in Blue Jay and the last days of a deep friendship in Paddleton. It’s also a zone where the movie is too antsy to stick around—and as it drifts further afield, the zanier forays into the repercussions of time-travel (as well as attempts to “fix” a romantic partner) feel overwrought rather than whimsical. Meet Cute has more on its mind than so many mid-2000s rom-coms, and sure looks a hell of a lot better, so it’s all the more crushing when so much of it turns out to be just as gratingly plastic.
Director: Alex Lehmann
Writer: Noga Pnueli
Starring: Kaley Cuoco, Pete Davidson, Deborah S. Craig
Release Date: September 20, 2022 (Peacock)
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.