The meet-cute has been a staple of romantic dramas and comedies in television and film for decades. More than a chance encounter, the meet-cute is used to communicate to the audience that two characters will fall in love. It can be traced back to classics like It Happened One Night (1934) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940) to modern-day favorites — When Harry Met Sally, 500 Days of Summer and Love Jones. And while this cinematic trope appeals to the inner romantic in all of us, what if we were to relive that auspicious moment repeatedly? With the romantic dramedy Meet Cute, director Alex Lehmann (with a screenplay by Noga Pnueli) takes a stab at deconstructing this narrative device with a sci-fi twist.
Kaley Cuoco plays Sheila, a New York City millennial who's on the hunt for her soulmate. The film opens with Sheila having drinks at a bar alone, while working up the courage to approach Gary (Pete Davidson). An observant bartender tells Sheila, “You’ve been looking at him like you’ve been waiting for him your whole life,” and encourages her to make a move. What ensues certainly qualifies as a meet-cute — flirtatious banter, finishing each other sentences, and ordering the same drink. Sheila and Gary have the textbook first date, but we soon learn all of that “chemistry” is by design.
With the aid of a tanning bed in the back of a nail salon, Sheila can travel back 24 hours in time, meeting Gary for the first time at the same bar. With every trip back, she uses the knowledge she’s gleaned from their previous first dates, leading Gary to believe that they share an authentic connection.
Sheila’s use of time travel starts off cute and quirky, allowing for some comic moments, but as she repeats the pattern, we start to see the cracks. For Sheila, replicating the perfect first date serves as a sort of buffer to prevent any true intimacy with Gary. By controlling her interactions with him, there’s no chance of being disillusioned by reality. As Sheila tells Gary towards the end of one of their countless dates, “this is the cleaner way.” But in doing so, Sheila creates a hell of her own making. The passage of time, so to speak, starts to wear her down. Familiarity breeds contempt, and the quirks she once found endearing in Gary start to annoy her and Sheila sets out to “fix” him to make him more compatible.
What makes Meet Cute compelling is that as we follow Sheila’s journey, we become less invested in Sheila and Gary’s love story and more in Sheila’s motivations for wanting to stay in this time loop. Cuoco is effective in portraying Sheila’s loneliness and desperation; her focus on Gary serves as a distraction from dealing with her own unhappiness. With each time jump, Sheila becomes more disconnected from herself, and her attempts to fix Gary to recreate the perfect first date speak more to an emotional dissonance. During one of their many dates Sheila proclaims, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for you,” but her declaration of love comes across as hollow and lacking conviction. And who can blame her? The average single viewer will relate to Sheila’s weariness, and the seemingly endless wash, rinse, and repeat of dating.
June, the nail salon owner who introduces Sheila to the time machine, begins to worry about her constant trips back to the past. When Sheila shares her plan to “fix” Gary, June warns her “when you erase the pain, you erase the person.” Sheila also gets advice from Amit, the kindly waiter from the Indian restaurant where they have dinner, who tells her “You can’t change people, the world doesn’t work that way.”
Meet Cute does a serviceable job of exploring the human need for connection and how we process the concept of fate and destiny, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. Sheila has convinced herself that going past the first date and building something real with Gary would require emotional labor she isn’t capable of and yet she seems oblivious to the herculean effort she puts into curating these meet cutes and worse, how it negatively impacts them both.
While Meet Cute makes some valid arguments for accepting who we are — warts and all — sadly, the third act falls apart by resorting to the usual rom-com cliches. Certain traumas go so far and so deep that they can’t be fixed with a romantic connection. Towards the first half of the movie, we are privy to an act of self-destruction Sheila must do in order to maintain the time continuum. While it’s played for laughs, it speaks to Sheila’s self-loathing and whether she sees a place for herself in the world. That’s not a question Gary can answer or fix, a fact that the movie addresses. Which is what makes it so frustrating that in the final act, the screenplay seems afraid of its own nihilistic conclusion and makes a 180 to make it more palatable to the audience.
Meet Cute is a fun watch, and Cuoco and Davidson are witty and charming together. While you root for them to be together, you’ll soon question whether they are right for each other. The film is most effective when it pokes fun at the absurdity of dating and the frustrations that come with it. Unfortunately, it squanders the opportunity to tell a different kind of story in the romantic comedy genre.
Meet Cute premieres on Peacock Wednesday September 21, 2022.
Rebecca Theodore-Vachon is a tv and film critic whose work has been featured in Harpers Bazaar, Shondaland Magazine and Indiewire. Follow her on Twitter at FilmFatale_NYC.
TOPICS: Meet Cute, Peacock, Kaley Cuoco, Pete Davidson