Agenerally adhered to rule of romantic comedy is that the hero — the lovestruck schlemiel chasing the girl of his dreams — should be likable. The audience should like him, his wacky roommate should like him, ultimately the girl should like him. The problem with “A Case of You” is that not even the movie itself likes him. At one point, the hero says to the girl, “What do you see in me?” — and viewers may sprain their necks nodding in agreement.
Justin Long has no one but himself to blame: He co-wrote the archly self-conscious script (with Keir O’Donnell, who plays Wacky Roommate) and he stars as Sam Newman, a mopey Brooklyn writer in love with the barista next door. Her name is Birdy (Evan Rachel Wood) and she’s — surprise — a free spirit. Sam is so insecure that he stalks her on Facebook and gives himself a personality makeover based on her posts and favorite books. You’ve heard of a love story. This is a “Like” story, and it is cringe-y in the extreme.
Long is best known as the vaguely smarmy Apple guy in the Mac ads of a few years back, and there’s an image here of Sam cradling his Mac laptop as he sleeps. Unwittingly or not, “A Case of You” testifies to a generation undone when it comes to dealing with life unmediated. In order to impress Birdy, Sam tries judo, rock-climbing, ballroom dancing, playing guitar, and reading “Leaves of Grass.” Eventually he has to reveal the real Sam, but the script can’t come up with anything, or anybody, interesting. It retreats to rom-com cliché: the race to the dance competition followed by the public declaration of love.
Director Kat Coiro leans on postdated signifiers of hipness — Williamsburg, coffeeshops, open mike nights, dance circles in the woods — thereby bleeding them of whatever remaining cachet they possess. “A Case of You” is stocked with well-known performers in supporting roles, each of them a game eccentric, but all that Sam Rockwell (as a burned-out guitar teacher), Brendan Fraser (as Birdy’s ex), Vince Vaughn (as Sam’s agent), and Peter Dinklage (as the coffeeshop’s prissypants owner) do is point up the hero’s singular charmlessness.
Wood’s good, though — she makes Birdy more than the sum of her quirks and convinces you that her character might exist outside of a studio pitch meeting. The performance is so effortless and easy to like, in fact, that everyone in front of and behind the camera appears to go over to Birdy’s side. Sam has been fictionalizing their romance into the Great American Novel he’s been aching to write — what we see of it onscreen is banal and terribly written — and his agent waxes enthusiastic over a literary work that makes its own hero out to be a spineless jerk.
That takes some nerve, actually: filmmakers trying to disguise their own ineptitude as a sprightly meta-moment. “A Case of You” would wave a white flag of surrender at this point if the audience hadn’t already long abandoned ship.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.