The Good Guy

Every once in a while I think you should step outside your comfort zone and try something new. An indie romance about a love triangle between young New Yorkers easily falls into this category for me (unless one leg of the triangle has superpowers, or is an alien, or maybe a serial killer, or a super-powered alien serial killer). Nevertheless, The Good Guy proved to be a somewhat pleasant surprise. And as far as I'm concerned, any surprise in an indie romance about a love triangle between young New Yorkers that isn't "Oh God, it's even worse than I imagined" is a good thing. In the opening scene of The Good Guy, we meet Tommy (Scott Porter), an ambitious Wall Street up-and-comer with GQ good looks and charm to spare. Unfortunately, we don't meet him at his best. Instead he's standing on a stoop in the rain, begging an unseen girl via intercom to please just give him cab money to get home because he lost his wallet. We see that the girl, Beth (Alexis Bledel), is upstairs with a shirtless someone-who-isn't-Tommy. Eventually Beth relents, coming downstairs and passing Tommy a handful of cash and a curt "I feel sorry for you." Then she closes the door in his face. As Tommy walks forlornly back to his cab, we flash back to a time when Tommy and Beth were a happy couple, still in the unsure early stages of their relationship but seemingly a good match. Running parallel to the story of their romance is the introduction of Daniel (Bryan Greenberg), a shy coworker that Tommy takes under his wing in an effort to remake him in his own image. From there, The Good Guy becomes an exercise in figuring out how events lead that night with Tommy standing alone out in the rain.

One of the biggest problems with onscreen romances, especially those falling into the dreaded "rom-com" ghetto, is that they rarely deviate from formula. Guy meets girl in cute, endearing fashion. Often they dislike each other at first, but soon they grow fond for each other in spite of themselves. Soon things are going swimmingly, then a horrible misunderstanding at the bottom of the second act imperils their newfound love. Then one or the other of them apologizes and they reconcile, usually after a race across town/the country/the world involving some form of mass transit. Cue smoochies and roll credits. The formula is the formula because it's neat and tidy and makes for easily digested, disposable entertainment that's perfect for killing a few hours between dinner and hopefully getting invited back up to his/her place. What it doesn't make for, however, is good storytelling. Sure, there's some truth the notion that there are no new stories, but that just means that the greatest commodity any story can offer me is to take me by surprise. The Good Guy took me by surprise by daring to present a fairly standard love-triangle story, but to do so in an inventive way that plays with structure and filmmaking conceits like voiceover narration, and for that, I must give credit where credit is due.

Opening with a dramatic scene that poses questions, then flashing back to see how the characters arrived at that point, is a well-used cinematic tool. Tarantino has done it. J.J. Abrams and company did it damn near every week on Alias. And now writer/director Julio DePietro has done it here. Fortunately, that notion is just one tool in a film whose entire mission is to make you question and reevaluate your first impressions, and to use your familiarity with the tropes of romantic stories against you. Upon first viewing, Tommy is a sad, sympathetic character, and we can't help but wonder why Beth done him wrong and who she's fooling around with upstairs. By the time we see the other side -- literally -- of that scene at the end of the movie, those preconceptions have been turned on their head. Some of this reversal is done simply through the slow reveal of character, but DePietro also uses Tommy's voiceover -- often the go-to gizmo of the lazy screenwriter -- against the viewer by digging into the time-honored tradition of the unreliable narrator. The script also does some interesting things involving Beth's book club, and the ways this story mirrors their choice of reading material. None of this is groundbreaking stuff, but collectively it elevates what could have been an easily dismissed indie romance into something more interesting.

Unfortunately, the structural sleight-of-hand is by far the most interesting thing about The Good Guy. While all involved do a solid job in their roles, none of these characters would be terribly interesting outside the context of us trying to figure out what's really going on. As Tommy's true nature is revealed, he actually becomes less interesting and more cookie-cutter, descending into all the "Wall Street hotshot" personality clichés he initially avoids. Alexis Bledel's Beth could easily be Rory Gilmore a few years outside of Star's Hollow. Which I'm sure is why she was cast, which doesn't bode well for her in the "breaking type-casting" department. Greenberg's Daniel falls into the pitfall of nice guys everywhere -- he certainly is nice, but he's also boring as hell. For all the surprises that the movie's structure provides, these characters surprise not at all.

The Good Guy was not what I expected, and I respect it for that. If you're a fan of indie romances, you'll find a decent enough one here, bolstered by some clever screenwriting that gives you more to think about that merely "Will they or won't they?" I can't see many people feeling the need to return to this film again and again, but it's worth a rental and certainly has more to offer than any comparable Hollywood offerings starring Matthew McConaughey and/or Kate Hudson. The disc's only special feature (trailers don't count) is an audio commentary with writer/director Julio DePietro and lead actress Alexis Bledel. Not much, but given that this is a small indie production, it earns points for including even that, since many comparable films make it to home video in with the barest of bones. DePietro is engaging enough and manages to avoid falling into the trap of many multi-hyphenate creative types in that he doesn't talk about his film as if it's the greatest thing since the cutting utensils that provided the possibility of sliced bread. He's proud of the flick, but not boastful, free with praise and insight about his cast and crew and sporting a good sense of humor about the whole process. In addition to discussing the film's writing and production, he also talks about his time spent in the corporate world informed the film's characters, setting, and its themes of whether it's possible to excel there without sacrificing your soul or integrity.

Bledel comes off much like the characters she plays: cute and a little shy, overall the commentary is a fairly laid back chat between two people who, while not sharing the easy comfort of long-time friends, at least never suffer through awkward pauses. If you enjoy the film and want to know more, the commentary is an easy enough listen, but it's definitely not must-hear material.