Let me preface this by saying that I’m a big fan of writer/director James C. Strouse. Two of his previous films, The Incredible Jessica James and People Places Things, both featuring Jessica Williams, are wonderful blends of humor and heart about the way that love can sneak up on you when least expected. His latest, the wildly absurd, Celine Dion worship spectacle Love Again sorta follows the same idea. Um, love definitely comes out of nowhere, that’s for sure. It’s a film so bizarre in so many ways that you almost want to like it for being so strange, and for giving us the undeniably stunning sight of Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Sam Heughan in a game of pick-up basketball.
Love Again is based on German film Texts for You (SMS für Dich, which sounds like a Diane Arbus porno), and isn’t a typical rom-com at all. Yes, there’s plenty of lame humor, a meet cute, and all of the supporting character stereotypes (mouthy gay co-worker, supportive but overly-aggressive sibling, angry boss) we come to expect, but this film is really about overcoming grief and learning to love again. Heughan plays Rob Burns, a shockingly ripped music critic (Ummm, have you met critics? We’re doughy.) who rocks obnoxiously large and red headphones all day. He’s been dumped a week before a planned wedding, and now he’s in a rut at work. So what’s his boss do? Decides to put Rob on a gig interviewing Celine Dion (in her acting debut), who is in town for a huge concert. The idea is that Rob will get his mojo back by writing about the one woman whose lyrics most vividly express what it means to be in love. His boss is a fan, let’s just say. Clearly, the producers of this movie were, too. Pretty sure Celine wrote her own dialogue.
Unfortunately, the funniest moment in Love Again happens right at the beginning, when Chopra’s character Mira Ray witnesses her perfect boyfriend’s death in a freak accident. He might’v been hit by Celine Dion’s tour bus. We really don’t know. The camera, positioned dead center on Mira’s wide, smiling face, captures her slow realization and turn to anguish as the sounds of wreckage overpower the cheerful soundtrack. From there, Mira is unable to move on with her life. An author of popular children’s books, her grief is no place for her plucky caterpillar heroine, and so her publisher warns that it’s time to write something kid-friendly or give up that cash advance. Thanks to the sage advice of a guy who makes really great cheeseburgers, Mira starts texting her feelings to her ex-boyfriend’s old cell phone number. What she doesn’t know, is those texts are actually going to Rob’s new work phone. The weird lightning storm suggests some sort of supernatural connection. But really, the phone service probably just gave the number away because…well, that’s what happens when people die.
So Rob keeps reading Mira’s texts and becomes obsessed with finding out who she is. He stalks her while she’s out on a date with…well, I’ll leave that surprise cameo for those who embark on this dangerous mission. Rob, upon discovering Mira’s passion for the opera Orpheus & Eurydice, attends EVERY SINGLE SHOWING OF IT until he finds her. Creep much, homie? She’s pretty tough to miss. She’s the only one wearing canary yellow. Of course, they meet and hit it off instantly. He’s “interesting”, Mira texts to her dead beau. Rob reads it. He’s quite pleased with himself. It’s all quite weird and kinda gross.
So where does Celine Dion fit into all of this? Well, she contributed a bunch of new songs for this movie. And if you love “It’s All Coming back To Me Now” you’ll get more than your fill of it. Rob is profiling her for work but, being the snotty music critic that he is, he doesn’t actually think much of her music. He’s a dismissive, arrogant prick at the press conference, getting called out as a child by Dion herself. And yet, she sorta takes him under her wing. In the interview, she breaks him down emotionally and soon he is telling her about the text situation. Dion tells him to pursue the matter, becoming the Yoda to his misguided romantic efforts. The oddest part about it is how the script uses Dion’s real-life tragedy, that of the death of her manager/husband René Angélil, and the singer’s struggle to get past it. As long as Dion was okay with it, no harm no foul, but it does come across as trite and manipulative in an otherwise frivolous little movie.
The incalcuable beauty of Chopra and Heughan also creates another surreal vortex. In an early scene, Mira’s ex teases that he fears she is out of his league. We believe him. She most definitely is. But even later, when she crosses paths with Heughan’s Rob, even the undeniably gorgeous Outlander star seems like a minor leaguer aiming for the majors. It’s not just that Chopra is stunning; she most certainly is, but she has a glamorous presence that is unmistakable even when she’s playing down-to-earth and approachable. Chopra and Heughan actually aren’t bad here at all. There’s a lot to like about Rob and Mira’s budding relationship that feels natural. She asks ridiculous questions (“Would you rather own ten cats or have a parrot on your shoulder 22 hours a day?), and he’s a willing participant, prone to giving answers that would sound smart in a Planet Fitness. They both have an addiction to sneakers. When the great lie between them is finally revealed, Rob goes to some extraordinary, unprofessional, fireable lengths to win Mira back. Of course there are no consequences. This is a happy story. It’s cute and one-dimensional, like Dion’s music.
Don’t shoot the messenger, okay? The power of Dion’s voice lends more gravitas than the lyrics actually demand, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Love Again is a movie made for people who are already open to Dion’s story of resilience following tragedy, and the idea that love can be found on the other side of grief. Strouse goes to wildly contrived lengths to deliver this power ballad of a love story, and it’s one that maybe only Celine Dion fans will be able to hear.
Love Again is in theaters now.