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Anna Kendrick Sells Love Life in Ways Both Likable and Familiar

The Pitch Perfect star's new HBO Max launch series cements her status as the queen of streaming start-ups.
  • Anna Kendrick in Love Life. (HBO Max)
    Anna Kendrick in Love Life. (HBO Max)

    Are you looking to launch a new streaming platform? Honestly, given the sheer number of streaming platforms in the marketplace, you might be. If you are, you should know that the only way to launch a new streaming platform is to do it with an Anna Kendrick-starring project. The Pitch Perfect star was there the day Disney+ launched, headlining the whimsical holiday comedy Noelle. Then she helped launch the experimental platform Quibi last month, starring in the sex-doll comedy Dummy. Did either of these projects light the world on fire? Well, no. But it still says something that Kendrick is the go-to actress for new platforms looking to endear themselves to viewers. Whether she's singing a capella, starring in musicals like Into the Woods and The Last Five Years, or mumblecore indies like Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas, or taking part in high camp projects like A Simple Favor, Kendrick draws you in with her simple likability.

    It's kind of shocking that Kendrick hasn't made more outright romantic comedies, because it seems like that's what she was born to do. To wit, HBO Max is launching its own streaming platform with the ten-episode first season of Love Life, with Kendrick in the starring role. Designed as an anthology series, the idea behind Love Life is that each season will follow the trajectory of one character's romantic history over the course of ten episodes. For Season 1 — which drop its first three episodes today, and will release a new episode every week thereafter — we're focusing on Kendrick as Darby Carter, a twentysomething aspiring art curator in New York City whose romantic life is full of the stops and starts that most of ours are (or have been). Darby's story isn't being sold as remarkable, just relatable, and your mileage will likely vary on just how true that is, but there is undoubtedly an aspect to Kendrick's vibe that invites you to relate to her, to the way she sparks to certain partners and flirts and banters and alternately pays attention to and ignores her self-preservation instincts. It's the kind of role that has been waiting for Anna Kendrick all this time, and the series almost lives up to her performance.

    Love Life embraces its episodic nature, with each installment more or less focusing on one romantic encounter in Darby's life. There's the Politico reporter who is sweet and cute and a good flirt and seems like a great match, but it's episode one, so we know the relationship is doomed. There's Darby's former boss (played by Halt and Catch Fire's Scoot McNairy), there's the sous-chef/urban beekeeper with the sexy beard, there's the one-night stand who turns out to be both more and less than he seemed. Each of these interludes is a bit hamstrung by the show's premise, because we know they have an expiration date. But the writing and especially the performances find little ways to surprise us or offer insight or imbue a bright flash of recognition in the audience anyway. Kendrick is fantastic as Darby, who isn't the moony, some-day-my-prince-will-come romantic that the show's premise might suggest. It's tough to compliment an actress for playing a character as completely balanced and realistic without veering into boring, but that's exactly what Kendrick is doing here, and it makes it easy to get on board for the ride of her romantic life.

    If there's a flaw to Love Life it's that it's a bit too comfortable sitting in the pocket of the kinds of modern-love stories we've been steeped in for the last decade or so. A lot of the story arcs feel like glossy versions of what we might have seen on Girls, with Kendrick a far less prickly version of any of those four women. So much of Darby's life feels just a shade more comfortable than it should be, which in stressful times might be a relief to anyone who doesn't want their TV shows making them anxious, but it does allow the series to occasionally feel disinterested in its protagonist. At around the midpoint of the season, the series begins to take little excursions away from Darby's storylines. We take a break for a flashback episode, or one focused on her mother (Hope Davis) or her best friend Sarah (Zoe Chao), whose own ongoing relationship with her boyfriend (Peter Vack) is the show's lone ongoing subplot of note. It's not that these episodes are bad -- the performances by Davis and especially Chao make them more than worth the time -- but it does come across as the show wandering off of its path when it finds more interesting things to care about.

    Still, it's hard to deny Love Life's easy likability, from Kendrick's performance, to its generosity of spirit when it comes to the various romances (you rarely if ever feel the heavy hand of the show pushing you to hate or love anyone), to its judiciously applied whimsy (Oscar nominee Lesley Manville provides a lilting voice-over narration). Whether the series ends in the way it seems to be telegraphing or not (critics were sent eight of the season's ten episodes) will probably determine a lot about how successful Love Life is. Romantic comedies are all about sticking the landing. Either way, though, it's well worth watching Kendrick operating in her most fitting milieu.

    The first three episodes of Love Life are now streaming on HBO Max. New episodes will drop weekly through July.

    We've set up a new area for discussion of Love Life in our forums. Join us there!

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Love Life, HBO Max, Anna Kendrick