In No Stranger Than Love, Alison Brie plays Lucy, a woman who seems to be a crush object for every dude she encounters in her daily life. Her hometown isn’t an internet comment section but rather the picturesque community of Spot Valley, where she teaches high-school art. When inhabitants of Spot Valley aren’t looking at Brie with lust or sad-eyed love, several of them talk about poetry—certainly more often than the average oddball residents of small towns in movies, and probably more than the average actual person, too. But when it comes time for a character to actually evoke a specific poem that exists, rather than one scribbled out or recited in a love-mad burst of inspiration, the best he can come up with is “Casey At The Bat.” Either the filmmakers don’t know much actual poetry, or they don’t think their poetry-minded characters are smart enough to read.
Maybe the latter is supposed to be a whimsical joke. Deadpan whimsy seems to be the film’s aim when Lucy is about to consummate a long-simmering potential affair with married fellow teacher Clint (Colin Hanks), and after confessing his undying love, Clint suddenly drops into what looks like one of those portable holes from old Looney Tunes shorts. This hole has appeared in Lucy’s living room, and Clint hovers somewhere down there, unseen but alive, calling up to Lucy to strategize about his rescue. The rest of the movie is kind of, sort of about her attempt to help Clint without drawing attention to their attempted indiscretion. The mission becomes complicated when she meets Rydell (Justin Chatwin), a mysterious stranger who has rolled into town looking for Clint. His presence, and Clint’s sudden descent into an unknowable limbo, throws Lucy’s muddled love life into sharp, uncomfortable relief.
Brie, it must be said, is believable as the small-town girl every yutz wishes was his girlfriend. But this movie translates her romantic ennui into many scenes where she repeats words with a “huh?” inflection in her voice and widens her worried eyes. Her confusion is repetitive but understandable: Writer Steve Adams and director Nick Wernham don’t make it clear whether Spot Valley’s residents are supposed to be utter dopes or quirky, lovable goofballs. The movie seems to try erring on the side of the latter, but all of the side characters seem like such pathetic rubes that it frequently reverts to the former. What comes through more clearly is a parable about harassment of women; Lucy politely smiles through all manners of unwanted male attention, much of it passive-aggressive but still vexing.
This is a secondary concern, though, especially for a movie that makes sure to strip Brie to her underwear for a solid seven or eight minutes early on. The low-key harassment serves as a series of small obstacles that bedevil Lucy while she alternates between trying to solve and run away from her otherworldly problem. At its best, No Stranger Than Love, with its cheerfully odd story hook, feels a little like an episode of some lost TV anthology series. At its worst, it passes the 42-minute mark and keeps going long enough for Adams to make some embarrassing attempts at lyricism. Chatwin, who maintains a relaxed charm for much of the movie, gets a monologue that plays like a parody of dramatic backstory-revealing monologues, but which the movie’s score, at least, seems to treat with deadly seriousness.
Then, even weirder, Chatwin’s character is cast aside for the story’s climax, sidelined by a movie so dead set against becoming a romantic comedy that it ignores the most charming of its component parts. To that end, first-time director Wernham shows off a few well-choreographed camera movements throughout the film, but the technical competence is overshadowed by all the straining to grapple with the meanings of love. No Stranger Than Love offers an accidental lesson: Attempts to write poetry ought to be preceded by attempts to read it and, preferably, understand it.