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I get it. I know how hard it is to write modern romance. Audiences love them, but it's increasingly harder to find a plausible and compelling reason why the couple doesn’t just fall in love and go straight on to happily ever after. These days, it's very difficult to find a reason to keep them apart for 70 minutes or so that will keep us intrigued and ensure they are relatable yet aspirational enough to make it feel urgent. The reliable obstacles to romance that worked for so many years, often some lie or misunderstanding, or literal or symbolic societal strictures (Abie’s Irish Rose, about a Jewish man in love with a Catholic girl, had a record-setting Broadway run) are as out of date as racing to the airport to deliver a declaration of love when everyone has a cell phone.
Unfortunately, “Love at First Sight” can’t do better than a cell phone’s unreliable battery as the culprit, and its lackluster script never gives us enough reason to believe in the couple’s rightness for each other or care about how they get to the happy ending.
“This is not a story about love,” the narrator (Jameela Jamil) tells us. “It is a story about fate. And statistics.” I would argue the story is not about any of those things, though plenty of numbers are thrown at us, and one of the leading characters is a self-described “maths geek” (he’s British). And, per the title, there's a couple who find an immediate attraction when they meet at an airport. But banter and a few exchanged confidences do not equal love, no matter how many pop songs are on the soundtrack.
We first see Hadley (Haley Lu Richardson) racing through JFK Airport in New York to catch a plane to London. The narrator explains that December 20 is the worst day of the year there, with over 193,000 passengers arriving and departing, causing an average of 23-minute delays at check-in and a peak wait time of 117 minutes at security. It's not quite a “once upon a time” opening, but it explains why Hadley misses her plane by four minutes and has to wait for the next one when the only seat available is business class.
This gives her time to look for a place to charge her cell phone, and that's how she meets Oliver (Ben Hardy), who is studying, yes, statistics and data science at Yale. He gallantly offers her a charge, and she responds, “Sorry, I don’t share electronics until the third date.” He tells her his name, and she says, “Like Oliver Twist.” He wryly replies, “And they say Americans are uncultured.” Soon, they’re sharing some airport food and then racing to get on the plane, where he unexpectedly gets bumped up to business class—the very next seat to Hadley!—because his seatbelt is broken. This would be very unrealistic if we didn't see that none other than our narrator is somehow the flight attendant making it happen. They share a “cheesy rom-com” before bedtime. She says she will only watch if there’s a happy ending, and he says she's dangerous because he finds himself being honest with her. Except, as we will find out, he is not.
Still, we know they have a very strong romantic connection because the movie keeps telling us that. Yet when he gives her his phone number, where do you think it goes? Yes, into that very unreliable phone. So maybe his studies of statistics and probability are less than comprehensive, especially when you realize they didn't even exchange last names. The rest of the movie is about the two of them trying to find each other in one of the world’s biggest cities.
Now, about fate. The narrator nonsensically tells us, "Fate can only be fate if we decide that we want it to be.” I have no idea what that means, but I do know that the concept of fate does not include an omniscient, statistics-spouting narrator magically turning up over and over to guide our lovebirds to the next stage. There’s also a completely superfluous “rewind” of footage to introduce another perspective on the past and, wait for it, a makeover scene as our heroine, just off a transatlantic flight, gets into her bridesmaid attire.
The exceptionally talented Richardson does her best with a woefully underwritten character. Her complicated feelings about her father (a game Rob Delaney) marrying a woman she’s never met are just a plot contrivance. The same goes for Hardy, who also is allotted one over-arching characteristic: a belief in his ability, with enough data, to prevent surprises. Oliver has an even tougher challenge with his parents, played by Sally Phillips and Tom Taylor, with charming costumes from designer Kirsty Halliday for their bittersweet Shakespeare costume party. If a real-life Hadley and Oliver wanted a cheesy rom-com with a happy ending to watch on a plane, I hope they do better than "Love at First Sight."
Now playing on Netflix.
Haley Lu Richardson as Hadley Sullivan
Ben Hardy as Oliver
Rob Delaney as Andrew
Sally Phillips as Tess Jones
Jameela Jamil as Narrator (voice)
Dexter Fletcher as Val