One of the pleasures of reviewing movies is going into a film completely cold, with no idea what it is. Such was the case for me when I put on “No Stranger Than Love,” about which I knew only that it starred Alison Brie and looked like some sort of romantic comedy. My preconceptions seemed to be confirmed in the film’s opening moments, a cutesy series of scenes introducing us to Lucy (Brie), an art teacher in a small town. Every male Lucy knows is in love with her—her principal, one of her students, even her garbagemen—but Lucy politely rebuffs them all, preferring to spend the night at home, alone. Until she gets a call from Clint (Colin Hanks), the football coach. He’s married, but they’re contemplating an affair. Then, about ten or fifteen minutes into the film, they strip down to their skivvies, and, just as they’re about to make whoopie, the ground opens up beneath Clint and he falls into a bottomless pit where he is suspended in complete darkness for most of the rest of the movie.
And that, friends, is what “No Stranger Than Love” is about, a guy who falls into a hole and can’t get out. There are subplots, sure—particularly a romance between Lucy and Rydell (Justin Chatwin), a mysterious loner looking for Clint—but, mostly, this is a movie about a woman dealing with a guy in a hole in her living room. (I can’t stress this point enough.) This sounds like the premise of some absurd comedy sketch—I kept thinking of the bit in David Wain’s “The Ten” where Adam Brody becomes permanently implanted in the ground after a skydiving incident—but as a full-length movie, it’s pretty bizarre.
What’s weird about “No Stranger Than Love,” though, is that it never exactly plays this premise as comedy. Instead, it’s treated as a metaphysical fable, complete with a cloyingly whimsical score and overreaching ruminations on the ineffability of life, love, and art. There are jokes, but for a movie about a guy trapped in a formless void, it’s a pretty sober affair.
It is at least nicely directed, with first-time director Nick Wernham demonstrating a clear command of the visuals that’s often lacking in these mid-budget indies (so many of which are shot with total indifference). And, really, the whole thing is fairly watchable, if not exactly captivating. This is mostly thanks to its oddball premise and Brie, who is always a delight. She particularly shines in this sort of role, where a sunny exterior belies inner turmoil. And it’s quite possible she brings some firsthand experience to the role of a woman who receives constant unwelcome affirmations of love. She is also, I must point out, in her underwear for a good seven-minute stretch at one point, which is no doubt a selling point for Brieheads and the Mr. Skin crowd but also seems fairly hypocritical in light of a third-act monologue about unwanted objectification, though. (Or maybe the film is implicating the viewer on this point—if so, I plead guilty!)
The makers of “No Stranger Than Love” clearly want to ask the big questions, but they never overcome the fact that this is basically 90 minutes of people talking about how to get Colin Hanks out of the hole. And that’s kind of a good thing. For all its grand thematic gestures, this film will ultimately stand as a monument to its own goofy premise. Twenty years from now, when Colin Hanks and Alison Brie run into each other at the inevitable “Mad Men” reunion gala, they can share a laugh and toast to the time they made that movie about the dude stuck in a hole.
Opening in theaters and on VOD Friday, June 17.