SXSW ’13 Review: Dan Mazer’s “I Give It a Year” Gives Rom-Coms a Raucously Funny Rewrite

It’s hard to believe, but the last time the British production company Working Title had released a romantic comedy, it was for the Ryan Reynolds starrer “Definitely, Maybe” in 2008, a seemingly indifferent end for the proud tradition of heartwarming hits they released between the ’90s and early 2000s which included “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually.”

Despite the time that’s passed, to see the Working Title production logo in front of Dan Mazer’s “I Give It a Year” is a bit like the planting of a flag, an announcement of the soft lighting and the gentle intrigue of “will they, won’t they?” to come. Yet while the movie bears all the markers of the genre, it’s the anarchy Mazer creates inside of it that makes it such a subversive delight. For the longtime collaborator of Sacha Baron Cohen, it’s as if he’s played the ultimate prank on the romcom using the full resources of the people who make them seriously while making it just as satisfying.

Nothing would lead you to think there was anything unusual going on when you first see Nat (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall) indulge in a whirlwind romance during the opening credits, the picture perfect couple stealing kisses in alleyways with their eyes fixed on each other at parties. We don’t know anything about them but the fact that they’re in love, and soon we discover that’s the only thing they know about each other as well. Perhaps if Nat knew Josh used his writing “career” as a license to watch “One Tree Hill” marathons while she brings in the rent with a job in advertising, they wouldn’t have rushed into things. It’s not long before both are considering divorce, accelerated by the arrival of Guy, a dashing new client (Simon Baker) in Nat’s life and the reappearance of Chloe, an old flame in Josh’s (Anna Faris).

None of them appear to be burdened by the need to be likeable, with the possible exception of Chloe, who beyond her profession of being an aid worker is the only one who doesn’t come off as the typically smug or falsely insecure type that usually populates such a film. But the fact that all of them have seemingly become conscious that they’re stuck in a bad romantic comedy, their awkward attempts at trying to escape at any given moment is what makes “I Give It a Year” so unexpectedly hilarious.

While the story may seem a little disjointed as a result, every sequence milks every laugh it can from the typical tropes such as romantic gestures gone awry, as when Guy finds out Nat’s married after turning a business meeting into a florid first date complete with doves, and meeting the parents, where the Nat and Josh’s gift to her parents of a digital picture frame preloaded with photos from their honeymoon proves not to be fully thought through.

The cast is game for anything, with Stephen Merchant and Minnie Driver onhand for the usually thankless sidekick roles of Josh’s best mate and Nat’s disapproving sister, respectively, and scoring every time they appear because they’re playing extreme versions of the part. (Mazer’s first-rate ability to pen incisive one-liners doesn’t hurt.) But the central foursome does the reverse, playing to type while tweaking the formula just enough to tilt things off balance. In this regard, Byrne is particularly great, once again showing off the same arsenal of expressions that she deployed in “Bridesmaids” to take the smallest of glances and extend an already elaborate gag that much further. Given Mazer’s track record, there’s no limit to where things will go and as a first-time director, it would seem that would be true of his burgeoning film career as well.

“I Give It a Year” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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