Viewers complaining that a protagonist isn't “likable” usually mean something more like “the protagonist doesn't stir my empathy” — after all, audiences adore cozying up to scripted TV's fascinating creeps. Winning that empathy demands that writers, directors and actors lay bare their characters' selves, immersing us in their perspectives, engaging us in their struggles and disappointments. The title of writer-director Marc Meyers' How He Fell in Love seems to suggest just such an intimate examination of its hero's inner life, but 20 minutes with this impassive blank and I didn't just dislike the guy — I couldn't tell, moment to moment, what he was feeling or why I should care.
The film's a romance, of course, one more mopey than that title promises, but at its center is an accidental mystery: What is it that the filmmakers think we should feel for dour lead Travis (Matt McGorry), a 30ish one-hit-wonder rock musician who, in the first scene, chooses his ex's wedding day to rag on her about having broken up with him? Later, despite a job in advertising, a Lower East Side apartment, his own car in Manhattan, a song that plays on the radio and a surplus of love-life options, he muses, sadly, “I don't know what I have, actually.”
The rules of three-act screenwriting demand he grow up, but Meyers mires us in each moment of entitled cluelessness, playing none for laughs. Why is perfectly nice almost-girlfriend Monica (Britne Oldford) not good enough for him? Why does Ellen (Amy Hargreaves), a married yoga instructor, pick him to be the man she cheats with? Why does the film seem to think it's sad when Monica, who has been lied to for an hour of screentime, rejects Travis just before sex? Meyers allows takes to run long, staging naturalistic conversations on sidewalks and in apartments. The result is hit-or-miss: We may not know what the characters feel, but we're way up to speed on how many steps it takes them to walk to a bar.
The film's sexual frankness is welcome, as are its aspirations to naturalistic maturity. Meyers often sets up, in the extended shots, multiple striking compositions, but sometimes he flags — at one point, as the lovers speak their lines on opposite sides of the screen, we're left plenty of time to regard the thermostat at dead center. Hargreaves finds life in the margins, making a sketch into a distinctive character with a compelling, conflicted heart, and she gets a couple scenes of emotional heft when Travis is confronted by her husband (Mark Blum). McGorry, though, has been given so little to work with that it's impossible to blame him for not managing the same.