Early on in No Stranger Than Love, something immediately seems off about the town inhabited by small-town schoolteacher Lucy Sherrington (Alison Brie). In a dynamic reminiscent of There’s Something About Mary, everyone in town seems to be in love with girl-next-door Lucy, and director Nick Wernham’s film — which marks his directorial feature debut — clearly establishes a whimsical, offbeat tone right from the start.
As it turns out, the squeaky-clean Lucy is on the verge of having an affair with fellow teacher (and married man) Clint Coburn (Colin Hanks). However, that rendezvous is cut short when a bottomless hole suddenly appears in Lucy’s living room, trapping Clint deep within the abyss. Making matters worse, a mysterious stranger (Justin Chatwin) arrives in town soon thereafter on a potentially dangerous mission to find Clint. Hilarity ensues, as Lucy must find a way to rescue Clint and keep both their reputations intact.
Ostensibly, No Stranger Than Love aspires to make a legitimate point about the societal pressures that hinder one’s own sense of self-identity, and the chaos that erupts — both internally and externally — when someone tries to tailor his or her life to please other people. Sadly, that message comes off incredibly heavy-handed in the film and is even explicitly illustrated in a particularly contrived speech that struggles to illustrate the “deep connection” between two characters. The script leans heavily on moments like this to justify its characters’ actions, and events are routinely played out unrealistically to further the plot.
When magical realism is done right — in stellar comedies like Groundhog Day, Liar Liar and Midnight in Paris — the fantastical elements are used to create a heightened reality that accentuates the main character’s defining characteristics, ultimately leading to some sort of personal epiphany. While that technically happens for Lucy in No Stranger Than Love, her arc is presented so superficially that it lacks any sense of emotional payoff. Moreover, Brie’s performance is too one-note to capture any emotional complexity, leaving the admittedly lovely actress looking confused and overly affected even in scenes that call for a bit more range.
The other characters don’t fare any better, unfortunately. While the film clearly hopes to establish a variety of broadly comedic side characters, none of them really make any lasting impact, and these obnoxious dolts appear to only be present to make Brie’s performance seem subtle in comparison. Chatwin — perhaps best known for his lead role in the much-reviled Dragonball: Evolution — conversely plays his character more on the bland side, presumably to differentiate himself from the townspeople. That doesn’t really work to the film’s advantage, and neither does a half-cooked romantic subplot between him and Brie.
Though No Stranger Than Love has little to make it noteworthy, it may perhaps be the best indication to date that Brie is best suited for ensemble pieces, such as her television work on series like Community and Mad Men. Here, the actress is reduced to the stock role of the harried nice girl beset with extraordinary circumstances, and though that’s kind of the point of the character of Lucy, Brie doesn’t go deep enough to carry the film. Rather, she spends much of its 90-minute runtime essentially giving the audience the side-eye with each dilemma she finds herself facing. In fact, the film likely would have benefited from a more self-aware take, allowing Brie to exercise the comic timing she’s demonstrated in previous roles.
The trouble with No Stranger Than Love is not that it lacks vision. To the contrary, there’s a clear objective driving the film’s primary narrative and some worthwhile social commentary behind its inception. Unfortunately, the execution here lacks any of the elegance and finesse required to sustain the ludicrous premise that puts the story into motion in the first place. Rather, it’s buried beneath subpar performances, pointless subplots and a parade of failed attempts at eliciting laughter. By the time the third act rolls around, the characters of No Stranger than Love — much like the viewers themselves — appear to be so over all of this. If you’re really invested in seeing a Hanks trapped in a massive hole in the floor, just look up underrated 1986 comedy The Money Pit instead.
Despite its worthwhile subtext, No Stranger Than Love fails in execution, dooming star Alison Brie with subpar material and a severely underwritten lead role.