I’m so upset. Not because The Other Zoey, one of 2023’s most recent romantic comedies, didn’t live up to my expectations. It did. It was sweet, it was sappy, it was cliché and it stretched the boundaries of reality as is befitting the rom-com genre. It’s also been a minute since a good romantic comedy has been released, and The Other Zoey managed to get an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s a solid film.
I’m actually upset because the film had so much potential. Like, real potential. With better writing, it could have surpassed my expectations. It could have been really good. Instead, it wallows in mediocrity. It tries to combine too many cliches and tropes into one cohesive narrative, when in reality it only needed to choose one or two and do them well. Honestly, every plot point is cliché.
In the film, Zoey Miller is a college student obsessed with the idea that romantic love is a myth perpetuated by consumerism and that relationships are based on compatibility (cliché number 1: she doesn’t believe in love). Zoey meets Zach, star soccer player on campus, but dismisses him, because she’s into computers and smart stuff while he’s an athlete (cliché number 2: she’s a nerd; he’s a jock). After this, Zoey meets Zach’s cousin, Miles, who is a more compatible graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (cliché number 3: love triangle).
Zach sustains a head injury and upon regaining consciousness, mistakes main character Zoey for his girlfriend, a side character coincidentally also named Zoey (cliché number 4: amnesia, à la While You Were Sleeping). Zoey decides not to correct this mistake to get closer to Miles (cliché number 5: horrendous decision-making). Zoey makes out with Miles in a hot tub (a nod to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before?), but then Zoey discovers Zach is secretly sensitive (cliché number 6: he’s not like other jocks). Zoey comes clean about her identity theft and wallows for the next twenty minutes of the movie before reuniting with Zach at a party (cliché number 7: grand reconciliation at a party, à la When Harry Met Sally).
About halfway through the movie, I started wondering whether I had missed the point. Maybe this film was purposely trying to do everything ever featured in a rom-com. Maybe it was a commentary on the rom-com genre. However, it seems more likely that the writers and the director, Sara Zandieh, got a little too carried away by their love for the genre’s tropes. It came across as too earnest to be a satire or commentary.
To me, the best part of this film was, by far, the casting and chemistry between Zoey and Zach. Zoey Miller was played by Josephine Langford, known for her role in the After franchise. Langford was convincing and earnest and did the best with Zoey’s limited character that she could. But Drew Starkey, who I’d only previously seen in Outer Banks, was the highlight of the film, so much so that it didn’t seem possible that this was his first romantic comedy. His performance was that good.
Zach as a character is not great. He doesn’t have any major flaws or notable character development. He’s pretty static. But Starkey managed to bring him to life in a way that felt organic, despite the handicap of a lackluster script. And, he accomplished this by doing the most important thing that the best romantic leads in rom-coms do: he showed his affection for Zoey in his subtle expressions and gestures that are obvious only to the audience and not necessarily to Zoey herself.
In The Other Zoey, Starkey does a particularly good job with this when Zach and Zoey are playing games inside while Zach recovers from his injury. When Zoey pulls out a tape measure in an attempt to calculate how far she should push a folded-up piece of paper across a table, Starkey has the best facial expressions. It’s adorable and a subtle window into the mind of an otherwise bland character.
Ultimately, other than a few flickering glimpses of cuteness, the film falls flat in the ways that count. If you’re looking for a fun, romantic flick to put on, and you don’t pay too much attention to the details, this could be a great choice. I do know for certain that if you’re looking for the next good romantic comedy, look elsewhere. That film is yet to come.