Around 15 seconds into A Case of You, the new film from Kat Coiro, I felt an intense urge to strangle Sam, the character played by Justin Long, who also co-wrote the film. Sam wants to be a writer — a Serious Writer, we can tell even before he tells us — and writes a series of increasingly asinine sentences about the arrival of winter in Brooklyn, presumably meant to be the beginning of a Great American Novel. He deletes them all, agonized by his creative impotence, while a moody indie rock song plays in the background. Oh, no, I thought. It’s a Sad Young Literary Man.
I wish I could say that I stopped wanting to strangle Sam at any point during the movie, but alas, that would be a lie. I knew there was no hope for him, or for the film, when he broke through his writer’s block as a result of becoming enamored of Birdie (Evan Rachel Wood), a cute young woman who works in his regular coffee shop. For every Sad Young Literary Man, after all, must have a muse, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who enables his solipsistic literary brilliance (inevitably presented not as solipsistic or narcissistic but as insightful and profound). Like all Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Birdie is little more than a collection of quirks — she likes Joan Baez and Andrew Wyeth! She takes ballroom dance classes with a bunch of senior citizens! She draws caricatures of people in Prospect Park and has no goals or aspirations because she’s just so happy living in the moment!
The film literalizes this wearyingly familiar narrative by presenting Birdie as a Facebook profile page. Sam manages to track her down online after she’s fired from her job at the coffee shop and becomes obsessed with all the details of her personality that he can glean from her profile. Predictably, he attempts to refashion himself into the sort of man she would want to date by taking on all of her interests and preferences himself. (This was around the point when my teeth began grinding together.) We’re meant to understand that Sam’s strategy is doomed to failure, but that if only he would just be himself, of course Birdie would like him. Long is certainly charming, so perhaps she would, but that is really neither here nor there: more important is the fact that the movie, while acknowledging Sam’s wrongheadedness, never challenges the assumption that he really does deserve to get the girl in the end, because he’s just such a nice guy.
May the movie gods deliver us from nice guy protagonists! Being a nice guy does not mean you deserve to “get the girl,” nor does it make you automatically sympathetic, interesting, or engaging. In fact, it usually has the opposite effect. How profoundly boring is Sam, how utterly nondescript: he could be substituted in for the lead character in any number of similar films and nobody would notice the change.
The problem with movies like this is that they tend to ask their audiences to believe things about their characters that are not especially in evidence within the text of the film itself. We are asked to assume that Sam and Birdie belong together simply because they are the main characters in a romantic comedy, not because we really know them; there is not enough to either of them for us to know at all. Sam falls prey to the standard old trap of the fictional genius. Writing a fictional genius is difficult if you are not a genius yourself, and the snippets of Sam’s prose to which we are subjected are so far from genius it is embarrassing: suspension of disbelief only goes so far.
Making a character a writer or an artist is often simply a lazy shorthand for saying that they are interesting or deep, but simply assigning a character a creative profession does not convey depth. Being a writer is not just a profession: it reflects a particular kind of engagement with the world, at once detached and deeply emotional, that rarely comes across in the movies, and is certainly absent here. In this film, as in so many others, creativity does not come from within the soul but from without — specifically, from a woman “inspiring” a man. The idea of women as muses and men as artists is an ancient stereotype, and its longevity has only rendered it more frustrating. While Sam tries to write a “serious” book, Birdie draws disposable cartoons; she is without ambition while he aspires to conquer the literary world. Women feel, the movie seems to be saying; men think, and do.
Near the end of the movie, Sam’s agent — an amusing Vince Vaughn — breaks down the book he’s written about his relationship with Birdie, interpreting it as a story sympathetic to the female character, much to Sam’s chagrin. The movie clearly believes it’s exonerating itself with this sequence, in much the same way that (500) Days of Summer presumes to excuse the paper-thin quality of Summer (Zooey Deschanel) as a commentary on the misguided perspective of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who never manages to see her for who she really is.
That is a far better movie than this, in large part because it is much more perceptive about Tom’s flaws, and because he doesn’t get the girl: simply being a nice guy is not enough for him to “get” Summer because Summer doesn’t ultimately want him. But even so, there is something a little disheartening about the movie’s tendency to transition into montage or voiceover whenever she is about to have a moment of character development. Similarly, no matter how many jokes A Case of You might make at Sam’s expense, it still gives him what he wants. There is a fine line between critiquing a trope or stereotype and conforming to it, and though this film is clearly trying to do the former, it never comes close to succeeding.