Cinema by its nature acts as a makeshift time capsule, yet one genre that puts social change through the decades into the starkest relief is the romantic comedy. Each era of the rom-com explores the constantly shifting norms that American courtship and sexuality have gone through, and that exploration has only shifted faster ever since the sexual revolution of the late 60s and that era’s concurrent new permissiveness in the movies. Yet, as someone once said, the more things change, the more they stay the same, with the trappings and details of the genre changing with the times while the core emotions and themes seeming to hold steady. This is the best way to describe Mark, Mary & Some Other People, a rom-com that couldn’t be more 2021 in its chronicling of the titular couple and their experimentation with opening up their marriage, yet one that ends up at the same place as many “non-traditional” rom-coms have before. Whether that’s the ultimate thesis of the film or an unintentional byproduct is part of its Rorschach-blot-like quality.
Like every rom-com before it, Mark, Mary & Some Other People begins with a meet-cute: twenty-somethings Mark (Ben Rosenfield) and Mary (Hayley Law) happen upon each other in a Los Angeles liquor store, the two recalling their brief interactions while going to college together. An easy chemistry sparks up, and Mary makes Mark join her in the bathroom of a nearby smoothie place for “moral support” while she takes a pregnancy test. That’s the first but far from the last time the couple will seek to decimate traditional relationship boundaries, as the film speeds through their dating and eventual marriage (the ceremony itself performed at a same-day venue) into their difficult second chapter, where Mary begins to have FOMO regarding her single friends still being able to sew their wild oats. Soon enough, she’s bringing up the concept of ethical non-monogamy to Mark, who at first is viciously opposed to the idea but a short while later is drunkenly chatting up another girl at a Halloween party while Mary looks on. Once the couple put themselves on the same page with regards to the idea, laying out a rudimentary set of rules for their new open relationship, they embark on what at first seems like a consequence-free existence, hooking up with multiple partners and finding their own monogamous encounters even more fulfilling.
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Of course, nothing is consequence-free, and it’s at that point where both Mark and Mary’s relationship and the film itself begins to stumble. Writer-director Hannah Marks lends her movie an utterly charming tone, one which seems to falter once Mark and Mary have to face the realities they’ve attempted to ignore, both the biological as well as the emotional ones. Marks never makes things preachy, which may actually be part of the problem — it’s not clear how objective or subjective Mark, Mary & Some Other People wants to be, leaving it in an uneven limbo. Despite Mark’s paranoia, he’s not being made into the bad guy nor is Mary — the movie goes out of its way to point out the flaws in both sides of this relationship, and neither character’s perspective is either favored or pushed aside. While it’s refreshing to see a rom-com that refuses to take the usual easy way out and either vilify or diminish one member of the couple, the even-handedness of Mark, Mary & Some Other People leaves it unsatisfyingly bland. This isn’t a story of traditionalists fooling themselves and attempting to live as hedonists, a la one of the films’ spiritual predecessors, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). Where that movie satirizes its protagonists as they become wrapped up in a deeply misguided social movement that none of them are properly prepared to handle, Marks seems to want Mark and Mary to be unwitting victims of life rather than too foolish or flawed. In essence, the film has so much empathy for the both of them that their relationship issues are less bittersweet and more “it happens” shrug-worthy.
Perhaps another reason for Mark, Mary & Some Other People’s refusal to land on a point of view is how Marks gets caught up in the social politics of the day, not wanting to shame anyone’s sexual preferences. It’d be easy, of course, to make the film a warning against non-monogamy, which would be irresponsible to those out there who have long-standing, successful non-monogamous relationships. Anticipating this, Marks has Lea Thompson show up as a free spirited aunt, who gleefully relates her experiences with non-monogamy (putting it in the parlance of her generation, “swinging”), making the woman a beacon of hope for the couple. Sadly, Thompson is only present for one scene, and doesn’t return when the couple — not to mention the movie — would seemingly need her most. Marks also doesn’t seem to want to criticize Mark and Mary for their actions, save perhaps their obvious self-denial as the two discuss crossing boundaries that they are clearly uncomfortable with.
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Mark, Mary & Some Other People, then, seems to be a film about a relationship doomed from the start, a chronicle of people who both genuinely like and respect each other but who aren’t meant for each other, as so often happens in life. This would be easier to swallow if the film wasn’t as delightfully charming as it is — Marks gives the movie a breezy, witty tone that extends from the actors and their wonderful chemistry to quirky on-screen title cards and a smattering of clever match cut scene transitions. Mark, Mary & Some Other People ultimately has little to say on the big, unwieldy ethical topics it brings up, but it successfully paints a picture of how cluttered and confused dating continues to be, the same old problems manifesting in whole new ways. While its ambiguity of theme could be interpreted unfavorably — one could read the film as sex-negative, for instance — this is more a byproduct of Marks taking on topics that an entire generation is still currently struggling with, issues that a single film can’t hope to solve. While ultimately unfulfilling, Mark, Mary & Some Other People acts as an empathetic, honest snapshot of the current dating scene, one that will be looked back on as quaint someday even as the same issues crop up decades from now under a new guise.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.