‘Long Story Short’ Review: Time Isn’t on Rafe Spall’s Side in Middle-Ground Rom-Com Hybrid

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A hapless romantic learns about the dangers of procrastination while attempting to save his crumbling marriage in “Long Story Short,” Australian actor Josh Lawson’s harmless, heart-filled follow-up to his 2014 directorial debut, “The Little Death.” Though the high-concept relationship movie frequently trips over its own well-meaning sentiments, the sweet, earnest performances and sharp technical craftsmanship deliver a blissful feeling when the material comes up short.

Teddy (Rafe Spall) is perpetually late to everything important. His poor time-management skills have led him to arrive at a New Year’s Eve party in the final seconds of the countdown to midnight, only to swoop in and lay a big smooch on … Leanne (Zahra Newman), a total stranger he mistakes for his flighty girlfriend, Becka (Dena Kaplan). Making matters worse, he goes into anaphylactic shock right after their kiss because she’d been eating almonds. Haphazard though their introduction may have been, the couple hit it off, getting engaged after a perfect four-year courtship. He assumes he can coast along for another few years before walking down the aisle. Wrong.

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Things take a drastic turn for Teddy when he’s approached by a mysterious stranger (Noni Hazlehurst) in a cemetery, who bestows upon him a gift – one he’ll get after he marries Leanne. The wedding ceremony and reception go off without a hitch, but the bride and groom’s first night as husband and wife hits a snag: Teddy falls asleep and wakes up one year later. It doesn’t stop there. His life begins to move at a rapid pace, fast-forwarding a year into the future every 20 minutes or so, and each time he witnesses his marriage decaying. He comes to the slow realization that he can no longer procrastinate if he wants to win back the woman he loves.

Not quite as intuitive as similar fantastical devices in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” or Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the time-skips raise certain logistical questions the movie leaves unexplained. Still, the resulting misunderstandings and shenanigans serve up droll hilarity or heartfelt poignancy, sometimes finding a satisfactory balance of both.

Lawson makes a rookie mistake, however, by revealing this film’s obvious mystery box too early — a sealed tin can with a note indicating it should not be opened for 10 years — sabotaging how the cycle might end. The narrative is so intently focused on how Teddy will dig himself out of his stifling situation that Lawson forgets to illustrate the reasons why he’s stuck there in the first place.

Obviously, the character needs to adopt a new outlook on life and will predictably be seizing the day by film’s end, though Lawson doesn’t bother addressing the root of why Teddy drags his heels making decisions. Also, any career-minded individuals with financial stability get the Hallmark Movie treatment, shamed as workaholics. The movie interlaces both the “Live to work, not work to live” and “YOLO” mottoes, alternately mocking and embracing that annoying internet colloquialism.

A performer who gives himself a supporting role, Lawson shows a gift for directing actors. He and his troupe capably modulate tonal fluctuations with a casual ease. Spall is an assured performer and a skilled leading man. He illuminates hidden facets within his character, giving the role a special snap, sparkle and sheen. Newman is an equally magnetic and charismatic presence, her work infused with grace and open-hearted vulnerability. Supporting players are given impactful moments to shine as well. Standup comedian Ronny Chieng, who plays Teddy’s best friend Sam, brings sincerity and heart with his very limited screen time.

Aesthetics also earn high marks. Lawson resists overly stylizing things through extraneous camera movements or other flashy techniques to push the narrative’s broadly comedic overtones. He demonstrates dexterity in visualizing the passage of time as the image pixilates and turns granular, like sand flowing through an hour glass, cohering in another space in time. Composer Chiara Costanza’s touching, tender work complements the movie’s magical realism without overwhelming the performances.

While this feature falters in delivering earned, meaningful resonance and intriguing ruminations on the fleeting nature of time, and instead gives us puddle-deep platitudes that grace wall plaques found in HomeGoods stores, at least Lawson’s made his time count on this middling effort. And that feels totally on-point to his film’s overarching message.

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