THE IDEA OF YOU – Review by Loren King

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There are many reasons why a formulaic May/December romance like The Idea of You might end up as nothing more than an eye roll of a cliche-ridden film. That it not only works but is surprisingly fresh and touching is due to the textured lead performance by Anne Hathaway who brings such an appealing mix of self-awareness and vulnerability to 40 year-old divorced mom and Los Angeles art gallery owner Solène that it feels revelatory.

It’s heartening to see the versatile and skilled Hathaway in a role that, however fanciful, gives her the chance to show off sex appeal, humor, heartache and well earned wisdom laced with sauciness. It gives unexpected heft to The Idea of You, turning a steamy, star crossed love story a la Notting Hill into something richer. If not quite at the level of Emma Thompson’s brilliant Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Hathaway manages a modern romance with a mature woman at its center who feels grounded in reality. Albeit, it’s a rom-com reality in which she hooks up with the 24 year-old British lead singer Hayes (Nicholas Galitzine) of a world famous boy band. Hathaway makes you root for Solène and makes it completely plausible that a sensitive hunk like Hayes would fall for her.

Based on the 2017 hit novel by Robinne Lee, The Idea of You is a sexy fantasy in which Hayes was the stand-in for Harry Styles, the British superstar and former frontman of One Direction who becomes enchanted with a 40 year-old ordinary mom. In the book, he was younger as was Solène’s daughter Izzy, a fan of the singer. These factors have been wisely altered in the movie. Now Izzy (Ella Rubin) had a crush not on Hayes but another member of the boy band August Moon and Hayes is a more palatable 24 years old. The 16 year age difference is less eyebrow-raising and more ripe for material about sexism and social hypocrisy when it comes to women dating younger men.

Director Michael Showalter and writer Jennifer Westfeldt know their way around adding sizzle and heft to rom-com tropes — he with The Big Sick; she with Kissing Jessica Stein. The winning formula here blends familiar rom com — the meeting, the connection, the friction and the falling out — with unexpected moments that make the film seem fresh and new. Solène’s story is far less the cliche about a sex-starved mid-life crisis in which the character might be a punch line and much more about a smart and charming woman’s evolving sense of herself and willingness to take risks.

So much depends on the two leads and here both are rom-com perfect. The script allows both Solène and Hayes moments of soul sharing about their pasts which give the intimacy and the falling-in-love montages some romantic bite. It also delivers sharp commentary on the trappings of fame. Hayes has lived in the fishbowl of public scrutiny all of his adult life but when their relationship hits the tabloids, Solène’s world is upended. Called a cougar and much worse by online trolls, the sexist judgement is enough to make her question what she’s doing with Hayes, despite their real feelings for one another. Thanks to a smart script and tender performances, The Idea of You is both surprisingly substantial and genuinely romantic.

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Loren King

Loren King's features and film reviews appear regularly in the Boston Globe, Boston Spirit magazine and the Provincetown Banner. She writes Scene Here, a localfilm column, in the Boston Sunday Globe. A member of the Boston Society of Film Critics since 2002, she served as its president for five years.