The mathematics of romance add up to something semi-likable, but definitely not lovable when it comes to Netflix’s latest rom-com “Love at First Sight.” Based on Jennifer E. Smith’s bestselling novel “The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight” and produced by the “To All the Boys” franchise team, the film fumbles in one key area: a disheartening lack of chemistry between lead stars Haley Lu Richardson and Ben Hardy.
The film opens with the always-charming Richardson at an airport (still waiting to board since the finale of “The White Lotus” Season 2?). We already know Richardson can expertly play aloof and eccentric with a spectacular flair after her Emmy-worthy turn in the HBO series, but as Hadley in “Love at First Sight,” Richardson seems as though she’s already been there, done that. Give her a better rom-com role!
Richardson is delightful, but does not seem to be so invested in the romance between Hadley and her fellow traveler Oliver (Ben Hardy). That missing piece makes their immediate (and titular) love-at-first-sight, sparks-flying, head-over-heels love story fell flat from the start.
The first thing we learn about Hadley: she’s perpetually late, which is why she also needs a phone charger ASAP after missing her flight to London on the busiest travel day of the year (December 20, according to the film). Thankfully, the ever-practical Oliver is ready and willing to lend her his.
A twist of fate (or rom-com contrivance) leads to Oliver sitting next to Hadley on their flight, and suddenly, the duo are in a game of 20 questions, discovering their odd similarities (they’re both grossed out by mayonnaise!) and lightly flirting. Hadley is traveling to London for her father’s (Rob Delaney) second wedding to a woman she’s never met; Oliver fabricates a story about his own parents to relate. Hadley jokes that Oliver’s name is really short for Oliver Twist, and divulges her love of Charles Dickens to her cute seatmate. She even packed the tome “Our Mutual Friend” that her dad gave her. How quaint!
Over the course of six hours, Hadley and Oliver hold hands, almost kiss, and don’t share contact information. When it came to Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” back in 1995, the sort of twist made sense: there were no cellphones or Instagram or LinkedIn pages to follow. (Plus, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s characters were actually mystified by their immediate connection; Hadley and Oliver are just…also there.)
Oliver is a stats student and, per the name of the novel the film is adapted from, the statistics of falling in love unexpectedly with a stranger forms the crux of the movie. It’s impossible, right? Or does fate, as embodied by Jameela Jamil’s endearing ensemble of nameless characters pushing Hadley to find Oliver, always find a way, math be damned?
Once Hadley and Oliver deplane at Heathrow, the film takes a turn for the snooze-y. Oliver’s subplot involving a theatre group is stale, and the clearly fraught relationship between Hadley and her father is isn’t compelling. The whole Brit falls for an American trope has been done to death, and “Love at First Sight” doesn’t bring anything new to the genre. While Richardson turns in the best performance of the film, even that’s not enough to push “Love at First Sight” to higher rom-com heights.
The film, directed by Vanessa Caswill, is a well-designed (the production design, oddly, takes inspiration from Wes Anderson, in the best way) distraction from the fact that Hardy and Richardson don’t have chemistry. With that stacked against it, there’s only a slim chance that “Love at First Sight” can deliver on its promise. If even two professional actors can’t fake it, what hope is there for the rest of us?
A Netflix release, “Love at First Sight” starts streaming on Friday, September 15.