The Pitch Perfect actress stars in an unoriginal rom-com anthology from brand-new streamer HBO Max.

By Kristen Baldwin
May 18, 2020 at 07:00 AM EDT
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Darby (Anna Kendrick) is a single young woman in New York City. She's got a low-paying job and a found family of roommates (Zoe Chao, Sasha Compère, Peter Vack) who coach and encourage her through the oft-unrewarding drudgery of dating. Will her next boyfriend be The One? Or will it take years for Darby to realize that the person she was looking for all along was… herself? Even without watching, you know the answers to these questions, but the new HBO Max comedy Love Life (premiering May 27) insists on asking them anyway.

Conceived as an anthology — each season will encompass one character's complete romantic history — Love Life begins in 2012, at a karaoke birthday party where Darby meets a witty Politico reporter named Augie (the immensely likable Jin Ha). The 30-minute premiere packs an entire relationship between the credits, as Darby and Augie go through all the stages of dating: hooking up, waiting for a return text, becoming a thing, attending a wedding together, and so on.

As a child of divorce, Darby's relationship history consists of "myriad misguided attempts at connection," or so says the narrator (Lesley Manville), whose posh British delivery is perhaps intended to add a whiff of academia to the proceedings. As a case study, though, Darby does not tell us anything new — in fact, creator Sam Boyd has given us a female protagonist who is not only very familiar, she seems to be living by a set of rules that are distressingly outdated. Whether Darby is dating an older man (Scoot McNairy), a manipulative layabout (Nick Thune), or an old high school crush (John Gallagher Jr.), all her bad decisions over the years are driven by what the narrator calls a "carefully constructed fantasy that getting married was some sort of proof, once and for all, that she was lovable."

Cut to Agent Cooper, somewhere: What year is this?

Love Life is at its best when it examines how Darby's non-romantic connections influence her approach to finding a significant other. A later episode centers on Darby's fraught relationship with her withholding, self-centered mother, Claudia (Hope Davis, brilliantly and brutally annoying). Strangely, Boyd and his writers didn't think Darby's father (James LeGros) — a recovering alcoholic now living happily with a new family — deserved the same treatment. Living With Yourself's Zoe Chao is a standout as Darby's best friend, Sara, a live-for-now party girl who is afraid to commit to her boyfriend, Jim (Mozart in the Jungle's charming Peter Vack). Unfortunately, it's easier to invest in Jim and Sara's relationship — a comfortable twentysomething love gliding quietly toward the forever abyss — than any of Darby's ill-suited entanglements.

Kendrick is a smart and savvy actress-singer-pitchwoman, and Darby fits her current screen image: the petite beauty who drops F-bombs and peppers her conversations with "dude" and has a smile as sharp as her wit. (She plays a similar type in Quibi's Dummy, but the titular sex doll, voiced by Search Party's Meredith Hagner, is the more interesting role.) One would think, in the peak-screen era of 2020, that television would have more to offer a talented, distinctive actress who earned a Tony nomination at age 12 and an Oscar nod at 24. (Up in the Air is streaming on Hulu, by the way.) But instead she gets Love Life, a show built on the carefully constructed fantasy that some stories never get old. Grade: B-

Love Life premieres May 27 on HBO Max.

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