Spoiler warning: I am going to talk about the whole movie, up to and including the ending.
Someone Great is about as smart as a movie can be without converting that smartness into being even slightly good. Written and directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (creator and writer of feminist black comedy show Sweet/Vicious), the film is a Netflix kind-of-romcom from last April that follows NYC music journalist Jenny (Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin) in the 24 hours after her boyfriend Nate (Lakeith Stenfield of Sorry to Bother You) dumped her.
The film’s goals were summed up well by the Hollywood Reporter, which was quite possibly copying the press release when they described it as being about “loss, growing up and, above all, the everlasting bond of female friendships.” But, the curious thing about this film is that Jenny doesn’t do very much and almost nothing happens to her – or, to be more specific, almost nothing related to the premise and ideas of the movie happens to her. At around the 65-minute mark of this 90-minute movie, she bumps into the ex in a club. Immediately beforehand, in an obnoxiously artificial second-act low point, an argument broke out between her and her two friends, played by DeWanda Wise (She’s Gotta Have It) and Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfect). This argument is resolved for no particular reason 23 minutes later. I’ve just listed everything that happens to Jenny that has anything to do with anything. She spends the rest of the movie doing essentially nothing of consequence: drinking, crying, going to a club and dancing. So, while I agree with Monica Castillo that it’s a fun romp with sobering truths about the end of breakups and your twenties and with Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya that it’s raw and visceral, I think they could have stood to mention the near-total lack of forward motion. But, that the film is almost static isn’t a symptom of typical screenplay incompetence.
The film, after all, is about the aftermath of a breakup. Jenny spirals into herself. She drinks too much and obsessively ruminates. Truly, she is a mess. She’s stagnating. This is why the film lets the plot stagnate in turn. It’s oddly appropriate that most of the jokes don’t land. It makes Jenny’s attempt to engineer a genre-typical wild night of debauchery with friends seem stilted and pathetic. She’s saying goodbye not only to a relationship but to New York City, which she’s lived in for years. The NYC we see here unselfconsciously rolls around in the sort of obnoxious happy-clappy caricature of the city that actual NYC folks consistently complain about, but it also shows bi-lighting-heavy clubs and night-time urban spaces that reflect Jenny’s broiling emotional state.
This resembles French 20th-century philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the whatever-space (l’espace-quelconque), a setting in film that is emptied of all potential narrative symbolism or significance and that reflects its wandering, aimless protagonists. A whatever-space is often a wasteland created by war, industry, city planning, or some other way that capitalism creates wastelands. But, any space can be a whatever-space. The whatever-space is defined by the undirected movement to which it gives rise. Typically, whatever-spaces are associated with fancy-pants stuff like Italian neo-realism rather than Netflix romcoms.
A more typical example of the whatever-space, one which Deleuze wrote about, is 1952’s Umberto D. There’s a famous scene where a pregnant maid wakes up in the middle of the night and goes about her routine in the kitchen, still half-asleep. There are no time cuts as she carries out a few menial tasks. She looks out the window onto a dark courtyard, lifeless but for a cat. Then, she sits down, looks at her pregnant belly, and starts to cry. As Deleuze writes, it’s “as though all the misery in the world were going to be born.” Jenny’s stagnation in Someone Great feels different from this scene because there are jokes, albeit bad ones, and her meaningless actions are carried out with more energy. But, the underlying idea remains the same. Jenny is doing a bunch of stuff, but none of it matters. Nothing that matters is happening; nothing that matters has any potential to happen.
For much of its runtime, the film doesn’t let you in on its intentions. When a romcom starts by showing its main character distraught over a breakup, the audience expects it to be about the couple getting back together. That narrative convention can be seen everywhere from The Devil Wears Prada to To All the Boys I Loved Before. It’s even a designated plot section in Gwen Hayes’ romance writing guide Romancing the Beat. The most widely lauded success of Someone Great is that the couple doesn’t get back together in the end. In the last scene, Nate finds Jenny and promises to commit to the relationship and try again… and then she wakes up. This is what Elizabeth Sandifer terms narrative substitution, whereby a story that you thought was one kind of story turns out to have been a different story all along, usually rejecting the first story on ideological grounds. This is the case for Someone Great, which rejects the idea that every breakup is a second-act low point that ought to be resolved by happily getting back together. Sometimes, relationships just need to end.
But, I can’t go hog-wild and say that Someone Great should be taken seriously as a depiction of the whatever-space, much as I would love to. The reason for this is the same reason that the film doesn’t quite work: while nothing happens in the main plot with Jenny, quite a bit happens in two subplots with her two friends. Erin (Wise) has been having a casual relationship with another woman and fears getting serious. Blair (Snow) is gifted the funniest parts of the movie as she’s torn between her annoying loser boyfriend and the jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold that she’s struck up an affair with. Both subplots are pretty good; Erin’s is laudable for showing the coy first steps of lesbians in love while the two straight ladies go through breakups. The film could fairly be accused of knowing all too well how laudable this is, but that’s a bearable trade-off. The problem with these subplots is that it means this movie where nothing happens sporadically breaks out into being a movie where things happen, but only things of secondary importance. I don’t know if Robinson has read Deleuze, but it’s clear the film is aiming for Jenny’s story to be tender, ruminating, and accordingly light on incident. So, when it cuts away from that to show Erin or Blake getting up to something or other, there’s a palpable contradiction. It’s frustrating to feel at once that not enough is happening and that too much is happening. This can be understood as the film trying to craft a whatever-space but not totally emptying the space of narrative significance. Erin and Blair are still cheerfully playing by the rules of plot-driven Hollywood cinema, so the melancholic vibe of Jenny’s wandering is shot to bits.
The result is a mess and difficult to enjoy. But, it has more interesting ambitions than most of the recent deluge of nostalgic Netflix romcoms. It’s heartening to see that even efforts that feel phoned-in can resist being generic if they want to. Someone Great proves that sub-par fluff can still make a point about its genre and subvert your expectations. Although it isn’t deserving of your time, it does deserve a gold star for effort. All bad movies should aspire to be this interesting.
It does have a RuPaul cameo, though. So that’s obviously a black mark.