Romance is complicated, cathartic and messy, regardless of age or circumstance. But such uncomfortable realities are swept beneath the rug in John Carney’s rigorously whimsical new Amazon series. Modern Love is adapted from a New York Times column (it also spawned a hit podcast) and is as much a valentine to a fantasia vision of Manhattan as it is a dissection of the human heart. Central Park twinkles, Midtown glimmers, the streets are paved with quirky over-achievers in statement berets. It’s pre-problematic Woody Allen by way of early Sex and the City and The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section – a milieu that Modern Love is more than happy to hitch itself to
Carney, who produced the series and directed four of the eight standalone episodes, struck the schlock jackpot with his busker-meets-cleaning lady musical Once in 2007. He later caused a stir when admitting to The Independent that he regretted working with “supermodel” Keira Knightley because she lacked the “honesty and self analysis” he needed from her in 2013’s Begin Again. Carney subsequently apologised and clearly hasn’t gone off A-listers, as Modern Love is stuffed with them.
Anne Hathaway plays a bipolar lawyer whose romantic life is a rollercoaster pitch from infatuation at first sight to self-loathing and loneliness. Andrew Scott, aka Father Flirty from Fleabag, flexes his American accent as one half of a gay couple trying to adopt. Catherine Keener and Dev Patel vibe off one another in a two-hander about love lost and why sometimes it’s better to run towards your past than flee it.
Carney has an eye for the transcendental in the everyday and is at his best directing Cristin Milioti (How I Met Your Mother, Black Mirror’s “USS Callister”) in “When the Doorman is Your Main Man”. Maggie (Milioti) is an unlucky-in-love uptown apartment dweller whose doorman (Laurentiu Possa) – that New York totem so utterly alien this side of the pond – is the self-appointed ultimate arbiter of the suitability of her dates. It’s a deeply creepy premise: all the more so because, as with the rest of the source material, it is based on a true story.
But Carney is quick to locate a feel-good pulse and spins a beguiling tale about human decency and how it’s always worth chasing the rainbow because, eventually, you’ll reach the promised land on the other side. The world can seem awfully dark and frightening nowadays. Modern Love is here to tell us that now and then it’s fine to sink into a scented bath of unabashed optimism, which is what this opening instalment delivers.
The problem is that the marzipan runs thick through Carney’s veins. Snaffled too quickly, these 30 minute or so mini-dramas, may result in queasiness. That’s despite the selfless striving of, in particular, Hathaway. She gives her everything as the director frames her character’s battle with bipolar disorder as a La La Land-like revue in “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am”. When she’s on top of the world, it seems to her that New York is one big musical – a conceit that feels trowelled on but which the earnest Hathaway sells.
Still, it’s a relief when, with episode four, the more cynical Sharon Horgan swoops in as writer and director. In “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive”, Tina Fey and John Slattery are a bickering married couple who learn to accept and even love one another’s faults over a weekly game of tennis. Horgan disposes with Carney’s fairytale New York filter: her sardonicism functions as an essential palate cleanser amid the feel-good froth. Sometimes you need the bitter to go down with the sweet.
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