In order for a romantic comedy to stand out among the pack these days, it needs to have more than a strong cast. Not every romantic comedy needs some gimmick to hook its audience, but it never hurts to appear to have a new approach. Writer/director Michael K. Feinstein’s approach is to channel the charm of When Harry Met Sally… through the eye of the digital generation in The Browsing Effect. Romance is timeless, yet there’s no denying that the path to get there is not paved through apps and websites which lean more toward gratuity than long-term coupling.
Five friends are each in a different state of relationships. Lawrence (Larry Powell) proclaims himself a happy single, yet cyber-stalks Marco (Angel Andres Garret) every chance he gets. Ben (Josh Margolin) and Rachel (Nikki Soohoo) ended their five-year relationship a few months ago, leading to many dates for Rachel and anguish for Ben. Melissa (Megan Guinan) and James (Drew Fonteiro) just moved into an apartment as they prepare for life after James’s Ph.D. program ends. Things really begin to change after James proposes, prompting Melissa to question Rachel about all of her sexual exploits which are made easier through the use of dating app Timber. Feeling a strange sense of jealousy about Rachel’s fun, Melissa prompts James to create Timber profiles together, thinking it’d be something they can do to make fun of all the lonely singles, but as insecurities rise and doubts creep in, a rift forms which technology can’t fix.
Despite bookending, as well as interspersing, his film with an homage to When Harry via character interviews, Feinstein’s film is decidedly different. Rather than being a film focused on a specific twosome, Browsing’s ensemble cast bears the responsibility of carrying the events of the film forward. In some cases, this is a brilliant move as each subgroup possesses a different flavor, enabling Browsing to shift in tone and approach in an organic way. The Melissa/James grouping creates the foundation from which the others revolve, so their story is presented in a more grounded way. They are the “old married couple” of the group, devout to each other to a fault. Feinstein uses that to explore how two people can fall out of love and into assumption and complacency. From the outside, the Ben/Rachel story appears to be a contrast to Melissa/James as another long-term couple, but for whom it didn’t work out. As Browsing moves forward, it becomes more clear how deeply the similarities go between the two couples. As for Lawrence’s journey, as the lone single, his story is smaller and often more ancillary, with the bulk of his story taking place within everyone else’s. While more content could potentially be mined from a love-struck character, given the escapades going on with the other characters, his story would likely grind the flow to a halt. This is a particular shame because it moves a homosexual character back into a supportive role, when it didn’t necessarily have to be.
That said, there’s a great deal of fun within Browsing, most of which comes from the Ben/Rachel storyline. Before the audience meets the actual characters, they see Melissa and James discuss their separation while Melissa looks at one of Rachel’s profiles with a photo of the now-separated couple. After Melissa finishes a line of dialogue, the still image seamlessly turns to a video in which each part of the couple shares how miserable they are despite looking happy. This serves not only to set-up the now-defunct couple and that Browsing doesn’t mind bending reality, but begins some of the more subtle aspects questioning the role of digital media present throughout the film. Later, when Rachel is in bed with new boyfriend Dustin (Josh Weber), they share secrets about their desires as kids. Next thing you know, the younger selves appear in the bedroom and start talking with their adult counterparts. Rather than seeming strange or reality-warping, it’s a hilarious and rather touching way to convey the process of getting to know someone. Where others scenes show characters making fun of the horrible way online commenting tends to get crude quickly, this particular scene showcases the rewarding aspect of communicating in person. This particular aspect is explored further, and with greater hilarity, in the Ben-focused portion. It’s not because he’s socially-awkward or because he’s still hung-up on his ex (which he is), but because the interview-style interjections really become more interesting here and less of a way to insert character-directed commentary toward the audience. As Ben learns the ins-and-outs of online dating, he walks us through the frequently comical mishaps which occur: the online-compatible but IRL-not date, the oversharer date, the let’s-just-hook-up date, and more along the online dating conveyor belt of angst. Where his story takes the best turn is when he stops jumping from date to date after meeting Gabriela (Gabriela Lopez), a pre-law student who helps Ben learn how to communicate.
It’s worth mentioning that while the Ben storyline is the most engaging of the narrative threads, largely due to Margolin’s comedic delivery and the editing by Jack Horkings and Jack Stewart, the arrival of Gabriela puts it over the top. Lopez is the surprise performer in a cast of engaging actors. While not all of the scenes fully work in Browsing due to a sense of line-reading over performance, the scenes including Lopez are elevated due to her efforts being constantly engaging and authentic and Margolin’s ability to easily keep up. The other area where Browsing succeeds works best when kept subtle: it’s not the digital age which kills relationships, but the lack of communication. In each of the relationships depicted on screen, the rises and falls come down to one thing and one thing only: stop playing games and be honest with the other person. Relationships are hard, even the ones which seem to have it all, and if you don’t work at them, even the best ones will form cracks. Even when Feinstein’s story tries to be more heavy-handed with its assertion that digital dating kills relationships, the understated message comes through: it doesn’t matter if the characters meet online or in-person, the relationships that succeed are the ones in which the partners engage each other as people instead of as props or ideals. This key element makes The Browsing Effect worth the watch.
Available on VOD and digital April 9th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.