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When Larry Met Mary is the new romantic comedy by actor-turned-director Wen Zhang. It revolves around the lives of two childhood sweethearts, Larry (played by Bao Bei’er), and Mary (played by Song Jia). Bao Bei’er is the hopelessly devoted Larry, who has spent his entire adult life trying to please Song Jia’s cooler-than-thou Mary, whose penchant for anyone but Larry is what keeps them apart.

Bei’er’s memorable turn as Larry kept this film on its feet. Bei’er’s adeptness at physical humour shines, in particular his gag-worthy facial expressions. His earnest and humble portrayal of Larry’s love for Mary is perhaps the only stable theme that runs throughout the movie, giving it some much needed continuity. Meanwhile, Song Jia is positively unremarkable as Mary to Bei’er’s Larry. She alternates between phases of stoic beauty and tomboyishness, both of which missed the mark. Song Jia’s attempts to assume Mary’s cool façade were simply wooden, while her camaraderie with Larry came off as brash and testy. Such inconsistencies made Mary an opaque and unlikable character, one that was unable to complement Larry to any great effect.

In many ways this film’s plot wears thin – it attempts to embody the classic ‘boy meets girl’ movie, as well as the ‘childhood sweetheart’ movie, in addition to the ‘unrequited love’ movie, all rolled up into 2 hours.  Wen Zhang, the film’s newbie director, does little to keep it from straining at the seams. In a bizarre attempt to cover all the bases, the film skips back and forth frenetically between childhood, young adulthood and the present without notice. The result is an unreliable narrative that unreels disparate scenes left and right, leaving the audience to clutch at the pieces.

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Zhang puts to bed all hopes of a storyline that eventually falls into place, by omitting the most basic details from Larry and Mary’s lives. For example, no mention was made of what Larry did for a living, yet strangely enough we know that his best friend Zhao Ben (played by Zhu Yawen) is a television drama writer. The same can be said for Mary and her best friend Hui Hui (played by Jiao Junyan). Zhang continues his strange penchant for developing the supporting characters over the leads, flying all four of them to Barcelona for Hui Hui and Ben’s wedding, while declining to give the lead romance those same climactic moments. Even in the dying moments of the film where it’s now or never for the lead pair, the film cuts to black, leaving the audience quite literally in the dark. A bonus credits scene cleared up this ambiguity somewhat, but the cringe-worthiness of the scene overshadowed any relief one might have felt by a mile – how good can a scene be where both leads are wearing some very bad old age makeup?

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Despite the obvious deficiencies this film faces, Zhang manages to inject (in very brief doses) quirky spins on the romantic comedy. One such moment occurs when Mary gives Larry a rubber band after finding out he wets the bed. The somewhat lewd intonation of the rubber band making sure the pee doesn’t escape blended well with the unblemished innocence of childhood, resulting in a well-executed tongue in cheek moment. Another moment I enjoyed was that of Larry eating rice cakes outside Mary’s window because she can’t fall asleep without hearing that noise. Such a small act revealed more about the dynamic relationship between Mary and Larry that the film fails either to confirm or deny.

It isn’t often that a film can be improved by sticking to the formula, (as the tons of formulaic Hollywood blockbusters will testify to) but When Larry Met Mary is one of them. It’s unclear whether the actor turned director Zhang is simply unfamiliar with the basics of the filmmaking craft, or doesn’t know how a love story works (he was the centre of a cheating scandal in 2014). Either way, he should probably stick to his day job.