Three and a half years ago, I wrote a blog post titled “What’s Your Plan, Anna Kendrick?” based on the news that she’d been tapped to star in a Christmas comedy called Nicole, about Santa Claus’s daughter, who takes over the family business. At the time, it seemed like the Oscar-nominated star of Pitch Perfect had gotten a little bit off track, which bummed me out because I really like Anna Kendrick. By that point she’d been a fixture in American cinema for about 10 years, and while I can’t claim to have consumed all of her work, I do know I’ve enjoyed every performance I’ve seen.
Near as I can tell, this is a pretty mainstream opinion. Everyone likes Anna Kendrick. So while I didn’t exactly expect her to follow up 2009’s Up in the Air with a new Oscar-nominated performance every year, I was ready to settle in for a 20-year period in which every few months we’d have an enjoyable new Anna Kendrick comedy, punctuated periodically by a lights-out dramatic supporting role to remind everyone she’s still got serious acting chops. Maybe she wouldn’t be our generation’s Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep, but rather the Millennial Madeline Kahn, or a sort of female Ben Stiller. It’s tough to pin down a comparison because she has such range.
That, however, just hasn’t happened. Nicole got renamed to Noelle, then punted from theatrical release to Disney+, where it has a forgettable 53 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “The always charming Anna Kendrick does her best,” reads the Critics Consensus, “but Noelle’s progressive take on a timeless tale is unfortunately subdued.”
Which is kind of the story of the past three years. (Not to be confused with The Last Five Years.) She and Blake Lively put on a Hagler-Hearns level showdown in 2018’s A Simple Favor, but nothing else stands out. And this spring, Kendrick has unleashed a double-barreled streaming effort on the American populace. First is Dummy, a series of shorts about a woman who befriends a sex doll. (I haven’t seen it, but it’s on Quibi, so neither have you.) Second is Love Life, which premieres along with the rest of HBO Max on Wednesday and traces the, well, love life of an up-and-coming millennial in New York.
Love Life carries the stylistic trappings of prestige cable dramedy, and the imprimatur of executive producer Paul Feig, who directed Kendrick in A Simple Favor. It’s well acted, with a supporting cast that includes John Gallagher Jr., Hope Davis, Zoe Chao, and Scoot McNairy. (It’s against federal law to make a semi-indie series without involving Scoot McNairy.) And if we’ve learned anything from the runaway success of Hulu’s Normal People, it’s that the public is champing at the bit to watch attractive young people grow up and fall in love over the course of a limited series.
Here’s the problem: Love Life is not very good. Watching Kendrick in it is like watching Allen Iverson on the turn-of-the-century Sixers: a small, dynamic, eminently lovable performer trying like hell to carry an enterprise built on obsolete ideas.
Love Life is built on well-traveled territory—there is no shortage of shows about 20-somethings who confuse romantic attachment with personal fulfillment, and only through attempting to find the former do they realize they’re worthy of the latter. And for good reason, since that premise has historically led to some outstanding television. But that genre is crowded enough now that its tropes are too familiar. So in order to stand out, a great show about horny but self-loathing young people has to either come up with a great gimmick (How I Met Your Mother, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), subvert the tropes somehow (the aforementioned Normal People, or the collected works of Phoebe Waller-Bridge), or execute those familiar beats with exceptional style and competency (Lovesick). Love Life is constructed in such a rote fashion that I originally assumed that it, like A Simple Favor, was mocking the genre. But it’s not funny enough to be parody, or even creative enough to be called pastiche.
Having Lesley Manville narrate the show creates expectations of some kind of fanciful fourth-wall-breaking, the likes of which made Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Man Seeking Woman stand out. Instead, the narration only serves to tell viewers what’s happening rather than letting them grow to know, understand, and love the characters gradually and organically. Kendrick’s Darby meets and dates several men over the course of the series, one of whom seems kind and romantic at first but evolves into a toxic loser in mind-bendingly predictable fashion, down to a breakup monologue that might as well have been a list of the top five Google results for “What your emotionally abusive boyfriend might say to get you not to break up with him.”
It’s a shame, because it’s easy to see how the idea behind Love Life could have turned into something that resonated with audiences and taken Kendrick back to where she was around 2012. Instead, she finds herself as the face of two brand-new streaming services and a series of children’s movies and TV projects. If A Simple Favor is her most critically successful artistic venture since Pitch Perfect, it’s possible that no. 2 on that list is her series of Hilton hotel commercials. That old Kendrick spark is still there in every performance, but it’s usually in service of some forgettable project.
So maybe what’s changed is merely the surroundings; her early successes, from Rocket Science to Up in the Air to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to Drinking Buddies, were characterized by an earnest and endearing weirdness—even and perhaps especially Pitch Perfect, in which she essentially played the straight man. I wouldn’t dare sacrifice a dollar to the Anna Kendrick Cliché Jar by characterizing her performances as “quirky” or “spunky,” but the films themselves sure were.
That’s a tough bit of lightning to capture in a bottle. Consider how different (or at least how much shorter) the McConaissance would’ve been if Mud had been a forgettable arthouse flop and True Detective Season 1 had been more like True Detective Season 2. And that’s a roll of the cosmic dice not too far off from the one that ended with Matthew McConaughey winning an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. Certainly, if Love Life had actually done what it said on the packaging, we’d be well on our way to something similar for Kendrick. (The Re-Anna-mation? We’ll work on it.)
Instead, here we are again, talking about a good performance wasted in service of a mediocre end product. Another project that doesn’t get the most out of such a popular, talented actress. Whether the move is to return to unencumbered indie films, like McConaughey did, or to find a King Kong–level guest spot on an established premium cable drama, I do not know. But Kendrick obviously still has talent, and options. Maybe three and a half years from now we’ll have better news to discuss.