Despite a slightly silly premise and a script that plays it fast and loose with increasingly ridiculous scenarios, director Brian Crano‘s sincere and funny “Permission” manages to charm and impress thanks to the largely committed and above-average cast of Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens. A comedy/drama hybrid that strongly resembles the underrated “Sleeping With Other People” in tone, “Permission” skillfully tackles this popular dram-com mixture while adding a relatively fresh spin on the genre.
Will (Stevens) and Anna (Hall) are under the shared impression that they couldn’t be happier. Ten years into a committed relationship, Will finds himself moments away from proposing as his closest friend innocently (but drunkenly) makes the fatal error of pointing out that they’ve never been with anyone else. Despite the happy exterior, the cracks in their relationship’s stability show themselves at the start of the film through stale sex, tired motivations and Anna’s lack of fulfillment, making it so their next step isn’t so implausible. With the bug of anxiety accidentally planted, and suddenly worried they missed out on some big life experiences, the couple decides to open their relationship up sexually while staying romantically committed to one another. As is the case with these films about monogamy, things don’t go quite as smoothly might’ve hoped, and it’s to Crano’s credit that “Permission” manages to turn the most obvious beats on their head.
Without trying to reinvent the structure of the romantic comedy and operating on a slight and fast-paced script, “Permission” still manages to subvert expectations by placing Hall in the role most commonly occupied by a male character. It’s Anna who is the most intrigued by exploring her sexuality and sleeping with other men, while Will becomes increasingly dedicated to his partnership with Anna. The “dramedy” works so well because it deftly succeeds on selling the viewer on several elements of Will and Anna’s evolving relationship. We buy them as a couple, we root for them even as the chasm between them grows, and it supports Anna in her personal/sexual journey whether that destination includes Will or not. A good romantic comedy is one where we care about the characters and their lives beyond their romantic entanglements, and this is a major area where the film succeeds.
The ideas of monogamy have been oft-explored in cinema — through the rom-com in particular — with most films of the same ilk drawing the conclusion that it’s the physical act of sex that makes or breaks a couple. Where “Permission” strays from the path of its predecessors is in acknowledging that sex is only part of the equation of intimacy, and a couple’s issues can run much deeper than the physical.
None of this, however, would’ve worked without the mightily talented cast “Permission” managed to get on board. Hall, so often cast in somewhat serious roles, still holds onto her signature poise in a role that’s relatively against type. While she doesn’t carry the same comedic weight as Stevens, she’s allowed to cut loose in a manner prior roles haven’t allowed. She particularly shines in scenes cast against François Arnaud, the first person she sleeps with post-Will. And Stevens continues to prove that he’s one of the most interesting and versatile actors working today. “Permission” even suggests that he would work in a full-blown comedy, committing to the embarrassing and absurd situations he finds himself in with a refreshing lack of vanity.
Supporting cast members Morgan Spector and David Joseph Craig round out a worthy ensemble as they ride along the film in their own parallel narrative about what it means to be in a partnership where one wants to have a child and the other doesn’t, and how a couple can move forward from something so life-altering. It’s in their scenes where the film slips away from its more comedic edges into something more sensitive. And while their storyline engages, it also gives the movie a tonal whiplash as their story feels as if it’s taken from an entirely different movie compared to the slightly breezier one that Will and Anna inhabit.
Where the film critically stumbles is in an ending so abrupt, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking it’s an error. An open ellipsis at the end of a movie instead of a nice wrap-up is often refreshing, but that “dot dot dot” also must satisfy the viewer. And it’s almost as if Crano couldn’t bother with writing a proper conclusion. Instead, he leaves all the characters and their futures in the air, leaving the audience to wonder frustratingly what comes next. Clearly affectionate of his characters, it’s a shame Crano didn’t believe these characters didn’t deserve more closure. Despite a few hiccups in the set-up of the main plot and the contrived way we reach the catalyst to the story, “Permission” is a delightfully entertaining film, embracing the talented cast and their chemistry in a film that commits to the genre cocktail of drama, romance and broad comedy. More than anything, “Permission” manages to successfully convey that adulthood is messy, and sometimes finding yourself and who you are independently is more than playing house. [B]