Romcoms are a formulaic genre. There’s a guy, there’s a girl (or a guy and a guy, or a girl and a girl). You root for them to get together and live happily ever after. Then they get together and live happily ever after. You tune in for the how, but you know the end. Dave Franco’s Somebody I Used to Know on Amazon Prime doesn’t look that innovative. But in context, it’s a stunning departure. There’s a guy. There’s a girl. And you spend the whole movie rooting for them not to get together.
It’s possible this unusual approach will annoy some genre purists, and it’s true that watching the film has a frustrating uncertainty. But it works remarkably well both in fulfilling all the romcom tropes and in critiquing them. The result is a smart, idiosyncratic movie which celebrates the right people getting together, and, even more so, the wrong people staying apart.
Ally (co-writer Alison Brie) is a successful reality tv showrunner whose sexy and popular desert competition show has just been cancelled. Depressed and at loose ends, she heads back to her hometown to stay with her mom Libby (Julie Hagerty) and try to figure out her life. She runs into her ex Sean (Jay Ellis) and they spend a night hanging out in which they seem to have rekindled the spark.
Sean, though, failed to mention that he’s engaged; he’s marrying Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons) in just a few days. Ally is undeterred, and sets out to win Sean back for herself. In a typical romcom, Cassidy would be horrible, Ally would be the hero, and you’d be hoping that she could save Sean. That’s not what happens here. Cassidy’s great; she’s clearly very in love with Sean and tries to be kind to his visiting ex even as her fiancé contemplates cheating on her.
Ally is awful. She’s a needy, lying, whirling uptight ball of neuroses and deceit. Watching her insinuate herself into the wedding party is excruciating. Listening to her try to manipulate Cassidy is even worse. Sean’s bride-to-be is giving up her punk band to settle down in nowheresville with Sean. Cassidy’s conflicted and Ally plays on her indecision ruthlessly, using Cassidy’s sincere, brave confessions to try to destroy her.
Ally’s well-positioned to exploit Cassidy’s fears because they were once Ally’s fears. Sean wanted her to stay in town and be his homemaker. Ally left because she felt he was making her choose between him and her career as a director. The “somebody I used to know” of the title is Sean. But it’s also Cassidy, who makes Ally remember her earlier, better self.
At first Ally tells Cassidy that she has to pursue her music because she wants to break up her wedding. But then Ally starts to realize she means it; she really likes Cassidy, and doesn’t think she should have to give up her art, just as Ally shouldn’t have had to give up hers. The romance of the film slowly shifts from Ally/Sean to Ally/Cassidy—and the film acknowledges the possible sexual tenson there, too, since Cassidy is bisexual.
Usually there’s no point in trying to avoid spoilers in a romcom; you know the ending from the start. In this case, though, you’re kept guessing till close to the end. Who’s going to end up with Sean? Or is nobody going to end up with Sean?
The conclusion is more satisfying than in many romcoms not just because it’s a surprise, but because it acknowledges that two people getting together isn’t a happy ending if they’re the wrong two people. Romcoms sometimes try to force their relationships in depressing ways; no one can ever convince me that Julia Roberts is actually going to be happy with that jerk Richard Gere.
Somebody I Used to Know, though, lets the wrong person walk away until they’ve gotten themselves to a place where they’re ready for a relationship. I can’t think of another romcom that recognizes that being alone is sometimes the real happy-ever-after. Franco and Brie have taken a form that isn’t supposed to be varied and varied it. In the process, they’ve crafted a graceful, unexpected gem.