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Review: Love is a complicated thing in James Sweeney’s sweet, smart and funny ‘Straight Up’

Katie Findlay and James Sweeney in the movie ‘Straight Up’
Katie Findlay and James Sweeney in the movie “Straight Up.”
(Strand Releasing)

Live-action movies (for adults, that is) don’t come more adorable than “Straight Up,” a sweet, funny and thoroughly winning romantic comedy that’s a kind of a bi-curious take on “When Harry Met Sally” for the Millennial crowd — or anyone else looking for some brainy, banter-rific fun.

Writer-director-star James Sweeney has crafted a sharp and, to its credit, not always politically correct cinematic cocktail that, despite how screwball its story may sound, is more about the search for one’s soulmate — whatever their gender — than any sort of serious treatise on sexual fluidity. Still, it may take some viewers awhile to get on board with the film’s askew, slightly fairy tale-ish approach to homoflexibility, so please be patient.

Sweeney plays Los Angeles software coder and professional housesitter Todd, an obsessive-compulsive motormouth with an aversion to bodily fluids, human orifices and open-necked shirts. He thinks he may or may not be gay (he is) but decides, in his own neurotically half-baked way, that being open to dating women could seriously increase his chances of finding love — so why not give it a whirl?

There are many reasons why not, which Todd’s cynical best friends — the gorgeous, amusingly self-absorbed Meg (Dana Drori) and the sexy, out and proud Ryder (James Scully) — are all too eager to point out. (“Girls aren’t gay blind anymore,” Meg tells Todd. “This isn’t the ’60s.”) Even Todd’s equitable psychotherapist (Tracie Thoms) is dubious about his hypothetical interest in the opposite sex.

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But all bets are off when Todd meets the equally bright and hyper-articulate Rory (Katie Findlay), a struggling, perhaps less-than-committed actress who can yack with him about everything from “Gilmore Girls” minutiae to Alanis Morissette lyrics (are they really “ironic”?). It’s a match made in pop culture heaven.

Todd and Rory are both lonely and looking for a romantic connection — or at least a strong emotional bond — and become fast friends. And, like a more cerebral “Will & Grace,” but with potential benefits, they’re soon ensconced in their version of domestic bliss: cooking Mongolian, watching documentaries and giving each other chaste back rubs.

Sex between them, however, proves mostly a nonstarter and they soon agree they can do without it — but can’t do without each other. Todd and Rory may be self-deluded in their own unique ways. But, like so many folks, that is more to avoid hurt and to stay locked into what passes for a comfort zone than because they completely buy what they’re selling.

Inevitably, several key, well-played moments signal “trouble ahead” for Todd and Rory’s romantic experiment. First, there’s an iconic-movie-couples costume party, in which our leads come dressed as Brick and Maggie from 1958’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” only to be repeatedly reminded that Paul Newman’s crutch-bearing hunk was considered gay — and aren’t Todd and Rory deliciously self-aware? (No, the thematic parallel allegedly escaped them.) Next, a dinner they share with Todd’s enthusiastic, if peculiar, parents (Randall Park, Betsy Brandt) is followed by a tellingly bittersweet coda. Finally, a provocative game of Truth or Dare gives Rory serious pause.

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The film, niftily shot by Greg Cotten in classic Hollywood 4:3 aspect ratio (there’s also an effective use of split screen and other framing techniques), doesn’t play out in easy or predictable ways — Todd and Rory are not easy or predictable characters. But you do get the sense by the story’s tantalizing conclusion that maybe there is a path to happiness if you can just think outside the box.

Sweeney and Findlay, who’s a real find, are head-spinningly good here, juggling their torrents of dialogue with aplomb. Drori, Scully and Joshua Diaz, as Meg’s underwear model boyfriend, Zane, also provide deft comic support.

In addition, the clean, symmetrical lines of Tye Whipple’s clever production design perfectly reflect the super-tidy Todd’s need for balance and control in a world that can be disturbingly short on both.

‘Straight Up’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Playing: AMC Sunset 5, West Hollywood


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