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Netflix subverts its own rom-com formula

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Ryan Hansen and Iliza Shlesinger in Good On Paper

Ryan Hansen and Iliza Shlesinger in Good On Paper
Photo: Netflix

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Halfway through Good On Paper, someone describes a behavioral quirk of cuttlefish. Less attractive males will sometimes pretend to be females in order to trick their alpha rivals into leaving them alone, thus giving them a chance to mate. These crafty cuttlefish essentially hide their cutthroat intentions behind a cuddlier exterior, which is a pretty good metaphor for what the movie itself is trying to do, too. Good On Paper’s glossy poster and cheerful first 30 minutes would seem to put it fully in the camp of sunny Netflix rom-coms like Set It Up and Always Be My Maybe. Befitting the classic romantic template, endearingly messy stand-up comedian Andrea Singer (Iliza Shlesinger) shares an airport meet-cute with handsome if dweeby hedge fund manager Dennis Kelly (Ryan Hansen). Back in L.A., they strike up a close friendship that has shades of When Harry Met Sally. Yet as their bond moves from platonic to amorous, it slowly becomes clear that something strange is at play. Cracks begin to show in Dennis’ picture-perfect description of his own life, and it’s up to Andrea to figure out whether she’s just doubting a good thing.

Teasing out the specifics of what exactly is going on with overly confident Yalie Dennis is the ostensible fun of the film, although the fact that it opens with a title card that reads “This is a mostly true story based on a lie” gives some hints as to where this is all headed. Real-life comedian Shlesinger wrote the script based on her own stranger-than-fiction dating experience. (The film was produced by Universal but wound up at Netflix, which has also released Shlesinger’s five comedy specials and her sketch show.) Good On Paper opens with bits of Andrea’s stand-up that paint an ominous portrait of how often women are taught to sacrifice their intuition in the face of male persistence. The film is well aware that for straight women, dating often involves dangers greater than just the potential for heartbreak. The intriguing set-up promises Nora Ephron by way of Alfred Hitchcock. The problem is the movie just doesn’t quite know what to do with its premise.

Good On Paper can’t decide if it wants to be a broad comedic caper, a grounded character study about love and life in L.A., or a blackly comic thriller like A Simple Favor. In its best moments, the film builds up a sense of suspense and surprise that’s intriguingly unusual for a project that bills itself as a romantic comedy. Yet even at a fleet 9e minutes, it struggles to sustain that tone. First-time feature director Kimmy Gatewood can’t quite pull off the tricky task of telegraphing that something is up with Dennis without making Andrea seem like an idiot for continuing to trust him. And while Hansen’s initial characterization of Dennis as a sort of half-nerd, half-bro, charming-condescending enigma is rife with comedic potential—particularly for a scene-stealer from Party Down and Veronica Mars—the film never lets his performance kick into high-gear, comedically or dramatically. Instead of translating a real-life experience into something enjoyably madcap, Good On Paper more often than not feels like a friend recounting every detail of a story that’s less interesting than they think it is.

Keeping things watchable is the likable cast, particularly Margaret Cho and Rebecca Rittenhouse as two women who become allies in Andrea’s investigation into Dennis’ life. But a third act swerve to transform the story into one of female empowerment and friendship feels unearned. In trying to both score laughs and impart a moral, Good On Paper doesn’t really manage to do either; it’s not funny enough to work as a straight comedy and not human enough to work as a dramedy. Still, the sheer audacity of what it’s trying to do within the romantic comedy genre counts for something. Good On Paper essentially delivers a “hold my beer” escalation to the anti-rom-com subversions of movies like My Best Friend’s Wedding and (500) Days Of Summer. It’s a shame it doesn’t quite have the elegance to pull off the con.