“Rice cakes and peanut butter?” There’s a lot that’s just off about writer/director Sophie Brooks’ feature debut The Boy Downstairs. But two female friends concluding a teary moment by deciding to share a comforting snack of “rice cakes and peanut butter” becomes a frustrating metaphor for this whole endeavor. Bland, unsatisfying, and a waste of one really good element. In this case, Zosia Mamet is peanut butter.
In The Boy Downstairs, the Girls star ditches the rapid-fire prattle and sharp fashion of Shoshanna Shapiro, and gets lost among clunky dialogue and frumpy overalls and ugly sweaters. Here, she plays Diana, an aspiring writer returning to New York after studying in London. But—wouldn’t you know it—her plans to settle in and finish her novel are derailed when she discovers she’s accidentally moved into the same building as her ex-boyfriend Ben (Matthew Shear).
Brooks’s script hopscotches from present to past and back again, slowly, torturously unraveling exactly why this living scenario is so uncomfortable. Because she takes so, so long revealing the details of Diana and Ben’s romance and breakup, her protagonist is left stranded in a placid purgatory, as her audience isn’t sure what to do with her. Basically, who’s the bad guy in this breakup? Who is he to her and vice versa? What should we be rooting for? When The Boy Downstairs finally gets to that traumatizing breakup, the scene proves a wasted opportunity for something satisfying and delicious. It’s rice cakes and peanut butter.
The back and forth device doesn’t work, and neither does the dialogue. We’re meant to be charmed by Diana’s awkward sense of humor, like when she jokes about being on parole or says goodbye to her BFF (Diana Irvine) with “I’d dig you if you were a boy!” It’s not bad, just painfully mediocre. Watching Mamet try to bring charm into one thudding joke after another is like when your friend introduces you to her new beau, who sucks. She’s really excited about him, but man he is just a dud. And you can’t help but cringe in second-hand embarrassment.
Speaking of dud studs, the script does Shear no favors either. Brooks seems to assume that any white guy playing guitar is inherently hot or interesting. Looking like Seth Rogen’s honor roll student little brother, Shear is cute. But The Boy Downstairs can’t seem to shape Ben as a character, so he’s at best perplexing and at worst annoying. Beyond all this, Shear and Mamet share zero sexual chemistry. So this would-be romance fizzles instead of ignites. And when two not-so-clever, not-so-interesting, not-so-hot people fall in love in New York, that makes for a dull and grating rom-com.
The Boy Downstairs opens February 16th.