THE STORY – Coping with the loss of her fiance, Mira Ray sends a series of romantic texts to his old cellphone number, not realizing it was reassigned to journalist Rob Burns. Rob becomes captivated by the honesty of her words in the beautifully constructed texts. When he’s assigned to write a profile of superstar Celine Dion, he enlists her help to figure out how to meet Mira in person — and win her heart.
THE CAST – Priyanka Chopra, Sam Heughan & Celine Dion
THE TEAM – James C. Strouse (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
The premise of “Love Again” feels a bit like a fever dream: Children’s book author/illustrator Mira (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) is devastated after the death of her fiancée John (Arinzé Kene), so much so that she keeps texting him as a way of processing and moving forward. But her texts are going to the new work phone of music critic Rob (Sam Heughan), who believes he has found a kindred spirit. He goes to the opera to meet the mystery woman, and the two start to fall in love with each other in real life, too… thanks, in part, to Céline Dion teaching Rob a thing or two about love while he’s supposed to be profiling her for his newspaper.
Nothing about “Love Again” is all that surprising, except perhaps for the fact that it’s not an original property designed around Dion’s music (one can only assume it’s not called “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” solely because that would be too long a title), but rather a 2016 German film (“SMS für Dich,” or “Text For You”) based on a novel by Sofie Cramer. This is surprising because Dion’s significant supporting role is not only unprecedented for the multiplatinum recording artist but is also the film’s biggest, best, and most successful hook. Dion is an utter delight in the film, perfectly playing a heightened version of herself who dresses down reporters for their ill-conceived questions, dispenses life lessons based on her own experiences, and stops everything in order to help two people find love. It’s not necessarily the best performance in the film, but it is the one that seems to be most representative of the film’s desired tone. Unfortunately, writer-director James C. Strouse can’t keep that tone consistent all the way through.
Mostly, the problems seem to lie in Strouse’s screenplay. The story is a neat little twist on the well-worn “The Shop Around The Corner” plotline, except that in this version, the two eventual lovers aren’t co-workers who despise each other but complete strangers. That kills a lot of the tension and opportunities for humor in the central romance, especially since Mira seems immediately drawn to Rob without even the tiniest hint of dislike. While the screenplay allows for some touching emotional moments for Mira as she tries to overcome John’s death, this throws off the balance between the more dramatic and more comedic moments. “Love Again” has moments of self-awareness about the rom-com tropes that litter its narrative, mostly centered around the standout supporting cast (Dion, of course, but also Sofia Barclay as Mira’s spunky sister, Russell Tovey as Rob’s adorable gay workmate, Lydia West as one of Rob’s other co-workers who becomes invested in Rob’s pursuit of the mystery texter, and Celia Imrie in a hilarious cameo as Mira’s publisher), but the main plotline is all romantic seriousness, pushing the comedy to the sidelines. There are lots of chuckles to be had along the way (Rob and Mira’s first meeting at the opera contains a trick so effective that I almost applauded Strouse’s chutzpah), but given Dion’s almost innately campy presence, one can’t help but feel like the film is a missed opportunity to wade into all-out ridiculousness that would have been more consistently entertaining than this.
While the film may not fully meet the mark on the comedy side of the equation, the romance pretty much works, albeit mostly in theory. In order to make it work, Strouse pulls from a lot of romantic comedy influences, all of which have become so iconic that they read as romantic just on their own, no matter the context (there are references to “You’ve Got Mail,” “How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days”, “Never Been Kissed,” and countless others), infusing the film with a warmth that marks it as a love letter to its genre. Chopra Jonas and Heughan are good actors and have good chemistry, but they really work as a couple more because of their own immense individual charisma than their chemistry as a couple – you want to see them get together because they’re the beautiful leads of a Hollywood rom-com, not because they feel particularly perfect for each other. Even the always-contrived personality traits that draw the central couple together feel tenuous here: They both like sneakers! They both put fries on top of their burgers! They’re both Knicks fans (even though there is absolutely nothing that suggests this is even remotely true for Mira except for her saying so to Rob)! Even when Rob explains why he loves basketball so much, the things he mentions being inspired by – seeing how well the athletes work as a team vs. as individuals, the fact that anyone from anywhere can play – are things that apply to many sports. There’s a lack of specificity to the film that keeps nagging at you even when it’s enjoyable, even down to the fact that it supposedly takes place in Manhattan, but nothing outside of the establishing shots of the city itself looks even remotely like it.
Even with all its problems, though, “Love Again” remains an enjoyable film. It’s almost unfair to Chopra Jonas and Heughan to be asked to lead the film when international superstar diva Céline Dion is giving a performance that would steal the film from much larger stars than they, but they do an admirable job of making Mira and Rob feel like real, three-dimensional people instead of the cardboard-cutouts they are on the page. While the film doesn’t offer the non-stop campfest some people might feel they have been promised, it does have enough self-consciously ridiculous moments to stay entertaining even when it looks somewhat cheap and slapdash. It’s not a great film, but fans of romantic comedies will leave with their spirits lifted and love in their hearts.