Anything But This
'Anyone But You' is instructive of how NOT to make a romantic comedy.
Did you guys know Valentine’s Day is coming up? I had no idea Valentine’s Day was coming up. I wonder why we’re not surrounded by constant reminders 24/7? So bizarre.
ANYWAY, in keeping with the spirit of the season, I decided to watch the recent romantic comedy Anyone But You. And, hey, I wasn’t lying to myself. I didn’t think I was gonna, like, love the movie or anything. But it’s been a surprise hit at the box office, and I like Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney and I like laughter and I don’t hate romance and the whole thing is 103 minutes with credits. How bad could it be?
To be clear, I didn’t hate Anyone But You because of its paint by numbers plotting, its myriad of fateful contrivances, a central conflict that hinges largely on a misunderstanding, supporting characters so broad that they come across as aliens trying to explain to other aliens what human beings are like, or any of the other inane crap which would be largely forgivable in an otherwise more-competent film.
I hated Anyone But You because it fumbles the very fundamentals of not just storytelling, but, specifically, storytelling within the genre of the romantic comedy.
I can’t talk about how crappy this movie is without spoiling large swaths of it, so stop reading here if you care what happens. Although, honestly, I don’t see how I can really spoil it - if you can’t see every story beat coming from ten lightyears away, congratulations on seeing a movie for the first time ever in your life, and I promise there are better ones that this.
Let’s begin by discussing what makes a romantic comedy work.
The best stories are about a protagonist who has to overcome insurmountable odds to get what they need; the best romantic comedies are stories in which those insurmountable odds are reflected in each other. Just as we root most passionately for the underdog facing the most severe uphill battle, so we root most passionately for the couple that seems least likely: a con artist and her mark, an uptight academic and a ditzy heiress, a respectable businessman and a sex worker, an anal-retentive neurotic and a freewheeling man-child, a movie star and a regular Joe Q. Public, a 40-year-old virgin and a grandmother, etc., etc. The contrast between these characters powers the conflict (they can’t get together because they’re so unalike!), provides the characters with their arcs (they each have to change in a certain particular way for the sake of love!), and therefore tells us what the whole story was about in the first place.
And because the contrast between these characters powers the conflict, and because this a comedy and conflict is expressed humorously, the contrast between these characters also fuels the humor. We laugh because of the ways these two characters have to navigate one another.
This is all a very long way of saying that what we do NOT want the romantic comedy to center around is two people who are mostly the same… especially if they’re also both incredibly bland.
Which brings us back to Anyone But You.
Directed by Will Gluck (Easy A) from a screenplay he co-wrote with Ilana Wolpert (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series), Anyone But You is about a law student, played by Sydney Sweeney, and a finance bruh, played by Glen Powell. They meet one day at a coffee shop when Glen Powell proves chivalry isn’t dead by pretending Sydney Sweeney is his wife so she can use the bathroom without buying anything (the checkout line is very long and Sydney Sweeney REALLY has to pee!). Sydney Sweeney goes into the bathroom to both urinate and call her sister for advice, because “it’s been awhile.” Then, while washing her hands, she has a mishap with the sink, thus making it appear as though she wet herself. Thinking quickly, she uses the world’s fastest hand-dryer to fix her pants, all while shouting to Glen Powell through a door in order to ensure him that everything is going swimmingly.
Alright, so let’s pause here for a second, because the inexcusable narrative shortcomings have already begun.
What do we know about these characters so far? I mean as people - what are those oh-so-important character adjectives? There’s no substantial contrast between these two: Glen Powell is kind and quick-witted, Sydney Sweeney is polite and klutzy. For Sydney Sweeney, one might be tempted to add “chaste” or “horny” to that list (depending on their own moral beliefs), based on that conversation with her sister… but that’s just the first of many, many, many, many, MANY instances of the movie telling us something it needed to show us.
And by the way, I’m not just nitpicking here - show-don’t-tell is a rule for a reason: as in life, action speaks louder than words, and we ultimately understand someone via their behavior. But we’ll circle back around to this later.
So they go on a date and wind up at Glen Powell’s place, where they talk the night away and end up falling asleep together, fully clothed. We see this hours-long discussion mostly via montage, lest anyone making the movie have to do any actual work vis-à-vis telling us who these characters are. They’re both EXTREMELY attractive, so it makes perfect sense that they’d wanna schtup, except they abstain from sex and anyway, we’re meant to believe they’re forming some deeper bond and thus falling in love.
Except this connection is also conveyed via tell-don’t-show: Sydney Sweeney reveals that she’s not even sure she wants to be a lawyer, and then reveals that she hasn’t told anyone else that, and then Glen Powell reveals he has a dead mom, about whom his friend later says he never speaks. In other words, we’re told that these people feel so strongly about one another that they’re sharing their deepest secrets, but we don’t have any real sense of why they feel so strongly about one another in the first place. In fact, we don’t even know them well enough yet for their secrets to have any impact on us - we haven’t seen them keep these secrets from anyone else, so we cannot possibly feel that sharing those secrets is a big deal.
Moving on: in the morning, Sydney Sweeney wakes up before Glen Powell does, and sneaks out before he wakes up, as though they’d had a one night stand and she deliberately wants to avoid romantic entanglement.
Why does she do this? Because the movie needs to happen. Like, literally, the movie explicitly tells you there is no reason for her to behave this way: she’s on the phone with her sister and she tells her sister she snuck out and her sister is like “Why did you do that?” and she’s like “Why did I do that?” and she turns around to go back, thus enabling the mix-up that will generate 99% of the movie’s conflict.
See, by this point, Glen Powell has awoken and assumes he’s been ghosted. His roommate (I think? Maybe it’s just his friend. Whatever. Who gives a shit.) comes home and starts ribbing Glen Powell about Sydney Sweeney, and Glen Powell tries to protect his ego by saying something to the effect of “That ho ain’t shit” (I’m paraphrasing here). Tragically, Glen Powell does not see Sydney Sweeney has now re-entered his (conveniently unlocked) apartment and heard his rude comment, so she sneaks out again and that’s the end of that.
Except it isn’t, of course! It turns out that Sydney Sweeney’s sister is now dating Glen Powell’s roommate’s sister, so they have to see each other - and, unsurprisingly, they now hate one another’s guts. Soon the sisters are getting married and either because they’re total assholes or because someone figured out it would be cheaper to film there, they have a destination wedding in Australia… and Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell’s estranged exes are both at the wedding! Glen Powell isn’t over his ex, who is now dating some other dingus; Sydney Sweeney, meanwhile, dumped her ex, even though he seems to be perfect, and her parents (Dermot Mulroney and Rachel Griffiths) are trying to get them back together.
So Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell decide they’re going to pretend to be a couple - she in order to avoid being around the dude she left, he to try and make his ex jealous so she’ll take him back.
Classic set-up for a romcom, right? Except we’re only fifteen minutes into the movie, and the filmmakers have already cut themselves off at the knees. Their story is a comedy, but they can’t wring humor from two bland characters whose only significant disagreement could be resolved with one brief conversation (which is especially true because they both know why the other one is angry - he constantly makes references to her sneaking away and she constantly quotes the mean things he said about her - so they’re both already aware of the misunderstanding on some level… AND they each have mutual friends who should easily be able to figure out what actually happened!). So from where might they (attempt to) derive laughs?
From silly bullshit that has nothing to do with anything.
For example, there’s a scene, prominently featured in all the trailers, where they go on a hike with other members of the wedding party. At this point in the story, Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell feel that, because everyone how much they fight all the time, they have to work extra-hard to convince everyone they’re actually in love now. So while on this hike, they’re on a cliff overlooking a beautiful view, and Glen Powell puts his arm around Sydney Sweeney, and Sydney Sweeney nuzzles Glen Powell… and then, for some reason, they decide that won’t be enough to sell their fictional relationship, so Glen Powell puts his hand on her butt. This, they fear, is still not enough, so he starts patting her butt. But they fret this still not enough, so he basically starts playing bongos on her butt.
At this point, they should be concerned that anyone watching will think they’re total weirdos… but they’re morons, so instead they think this is STILL NOT ENOUGH. So Sydney Sweeney puts her hand down the back of Glen Powell’s bathing trunks, and Glen Powell puts his hand down the back of Sydney Sweeney’s yoga pants.
Alas, they soon realize that everyone else on the hike is now distracted by a koala in a tree a few yards away and isn’t seeing their dramatic PDA regardless… but before Sydney Sweeney can remove her hands from Glen Powell’s ass, she feels a mole.
But it’s not a mole - it’s a spider (which makes you wonder if Sydney Sweeney knows what a mole is)! Glen Powell flips out and, concerned he might have other spiders than have snuck into his clothes, strips down completely naked and flings his trunks and shirt off the cliff, screaming like a banshee all the while (which, somehow, his friends twenty feet away don’t hear).
He then bends over and makes Sydney Sweeney inspect him for other spiders (she doesn’t find any).
Now, just when you think you can’t possibly handle any more of this gut-busting humorousness that is 100% relatable and organically born out of the situation in which the characters the find themselves, the real kicker comes: Sydney Sweeney gives Glen Powell her yoga pants to wear so he doesn’t have continue the hike naked. It’s funny because they look dumb!!!
I highlight this sequence because it’s exemplary of every comedic beat that occurs during the course of the film. It’s born of circumstance and idiocy, not character and conflict. (I guess you could try to argue that Glen Powell throwing his clothing away is character, except is it, really? It’s not as though the movie has previously established that he’s prone to overreaction.) And the end result of the scene neither brings the characters closer together nor pushes them further apart. Never mind that you could still follow the plot if you went to the bathroom during this scene - it has no effect whatsoever on our understanding of the these two or their travails.
Again, lest you think I’m being a real stick in the mud, let’s compare this with some funny scenes from famous romantic comedies where the storytellers knew what they were doing. Note how in each of these scenes, a) all the humor derives from the conflict, and the conflict derives from who the characters are at their most essential level, and b) the conflict within the scene mirrors the larger conflict around which the story revolves.
The difference is crystal clear, isn’t it? On the one hand, you have romantic comedies with characters and themes that get us invested in them, and on the other hand, you have a romantic comedy that has no personalities for the audience to cling to, and can thus never actually be romantic or funny.
Just when it seems like Anyone But You could not possibly get any worse, the movie makes another huge misstep: an hour in, it has Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell come clean to one another about what really happened the morning after their incredible initial date. Now there’s absolutely no reason for them to dislike one another - again, their characters aren’t different enough for their actual personalities to be a source of tension.
But the basic structure of a romantic comedy calls for the couple to split up for awhile about three-fourths of the way through, so that they can finally have a big dramatic reconciliation at the conclusion! Why are these two gonna split up now that they each know they really liked each other all along?
Uh… what if Sydney Sweeney tells Glen Powell that she’s dropped out of law school but her family doesn’t know, and then Glen Powell casually shares this information with his friend, and then the friend tells the parents?
Thematically speaking, what in the sweet mother of fuck does Glen Powell not knowing how to keep a secret have to do with anything that has happened thus far? Is this movie about how loose lips sink ships?
It’s a completely manufactured conflict shoved in to drive these two apart at the moment the filmmakers know they’re supposed be driven apart. Like most of what happens in this movie, it doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, though. It’s just the storyteller waving their arms around and screaming, hoping you won’t notice that they’re not really telling you very much a story.
Like an ouroboros, Anyone But You’s problems feed on themselves: the thin characters mean the humor has to come from ridiculous situations that have nothing to do with character, and the characters, in turn, cannot grow and change as a result of the events they experience. Disregard that this means the story isn’t about anything (since the ways in which the protagonist(s) change or don’t change tell us the meaning of the story) - it means Anyone But You can’t even meet the barebones standard of being entertaining.