Chris Evans and Michelle Monaghan bond over some product-placed water in "Playing It Cool."

Back when Chris Evans was starring in inconsequential fare like the Fantastic Four films and The Nanny Diaries, I dismissed him as some lightweight pretty boy. In fact, for longer than I care to admit, I regularly confused him with Chris Pratt. I was too quick to judge; now you don’t have to look much further than Snowpiercer to see that he has serious game as an actor. His latest film is a romantic comedy called Playing It Cool, and it unfortunately recalls the bad old Evans, the one who led me to shrug him off in the first place.

He plays the movie’s nameless hero, a Hollywood screenwriter who’s hired by a disgusting producer (played by Evans’ fellow Avenger, Anthony Mackie) to rewrite a romantic comedy script on his desk. Our man accepts the assignment, but then finds himself creatively blocked because he’s never been in love, as if a real Hollywood writer would let something like that stop him. A solution seems to present itself when he meets and falls for a similarly nameless woman (Michelle Monaghan) who already has a boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd).

Pinpointing the problem is easy: Director Justin Reardon and writers Chris Shafer and Paul Vicknair are hyperaware of the formulas of romantic comedies. As a result, they contort themselves and their movie out of shape trying to do something different. When the hero imagines his heart as a cigarette-smoking doppelganger dressed like a 1940s private eye who’s shadowing him, that’s when I looked at the ceiling and said out loud, “Oh, spare me!” (I was watching the movie in my home, so I didn’t disturb anyone.) Unhappily, there’s tons more flat-footed whimsy where that comes from. The main character mocks the script he’s working on for having a gay best friend character even though he himself has a gay best friend (Topher Grace). He and his fellow writers commiserate on their career troubles by randomly hanging out at a gun range. At one point, the actors attached to the script, Matthew Morrison and Ashley Tisdale (playing themselves), materialize in the writer’s apartment to torture him into finishing his work. The main couple appear in myriad fantasy sequences, including one where they’re the heroes of a Korean soap opera, the only flight of fancy that’s weird enough to actually work.

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To top it all off, the guy is a world-class self-absorbed jerk toward both his love and a fellow writer (Aubrey Plaza) whom he occasionally hooks up with, and the movie never fully calls him out on it. Our lead actors can’t do anything to counteract the rot at the heart of this movie, and I’m mystified by how the filmmakers attracted so much high-profile talent (Martin Starr, Luke Wilson, and Patrick Warburton all appear as well) to something so terrible. Far from playing it cool, the filmmakers are trying way too hard to look cool, and so they achieve the opposite.

[box_info]Playing It Cool
Starring Chris Evans and Michelle Monaghan. Directed by Justin Reardon. Written by Chris Shafer and Paul Vicknair. Rated R.[/box_info]