Caragh Medlicott explores A Guide to Second Date Sex, the big screen adaptation of Rachel Hirons successful play which despite capable performances, lacks the humour and charm of its source material.
A Guide to Second Date Sex is a film jam-packed with oddities. Not least of all is its title; a somewhat ironic riff on the kind of advice column you’d find in an old, dog-eared edition of Cosmopolitan. It seems tongue in cheek, the point being that there is no guide to succinctly navigating the clumsy intimacy of a second date. It would work as a satirical title if the film didn’t end up succumbing to so many of the rom-com 101 stereotypes it tries to duck. The film is based on the successful play by writer-director Rachel Hirons and was adapted for the big screen by Hirons herself. The results, sadly, are lukewarm – any successes achieved theatrically are reduced to rare glimmers of diamond in what is mostly rough.
Ryan (George MacKay) and Laura (Alexandra Roach) meet while on the happy side of tipsy at a club. Hazy with booze and inhibition free they hit it off… well, supposedly. This successful first date becomes the idealised pinnacle which the second date must strive for. A premise that would work better if the lofty ideals of the first date were touched with even the smallest dose of chemistry. For the most part, their first meeting features a series of club scenes with Ryan making jokes that don’t land, and Laura drunkenly rambling about her dead rabbit.
The film’s pacing collapses under the weight of its cinematic format. The first 40 minutes are arduous, they ramp up to the second date with cuts back and forth between Laura being told by her mum to ‘cover up’ and Ryan being told by his friend to ‘get it on’. As a person not unfamiliar with moments of social awkwardness, I have to say I have never experienced anything as exaggeratedly painful as the start of Ryan and Laura’s second date. It feels less like the shy, sometimes bumbling interaction of two adults feeling nervous and more like some surreal stuttering of two robots forced to debut their take on a human relationship. MacKay and Roach are two gifted actors, they do what they can to enliven unnatural and unamusing lines.
One of A Guide to Second Date Sex’s biggest problems is its refusal to do anything truly different. It’s a typical boy-meets-girl story. It’s brimming with cringe-worthy British sit-com humour (think The Inbetweeners and IT Crowd), yet it lacks the time necessary to build up the in-joke familiarity that’s foundational to this type of comedy.
The whole film is filled with a performative melodrama, it’s clear this humour would work better in the theatre. It’s a hard thing to explain, but there’s something in the community of watching a play (like watching live stand up) – it adds another dynamic to the comedy, an energy, and of course, a laughter track. There’s more room for both the odd and the obvious. I can imagine that Laura’s continual aerobic hiking-up of her spray-on skinny jeans and Ryan’s apparent taste for Pickachu porn would come off better on stage. But on the screen, they respectively feel too mundane and too ridiculous.
This becomes a recurring problem with Hirons regularly sacrificing believability for jokes not good enough to justify the stretch. Moments like Ryan’s mixing of port and Irn-Bru spring to mind, or his vanishing housemate who suddenly appears in corners soaking his feet. This carousel of bizarre moments can’t decide if they want to be “relatable” like Bridget Jones or surreal like The Mighty Boosh.
Characters, in the sit-com vein, turn into types; the laddish best friend, the nameless Houdini housemate, the villainous cheating ex-girlfriend. Ryan and, most notably, Laura, are the best of them, but they are far from wholly there. Themes which might once have played out as dorky-but-cute, today just read as creepy (such as the reveal that Ryan has been non-stop texting his ex-girlfriend every day for months).
It’s impossible to find the characters charming when they buy into such ridiculous concepts – like throwing your bracelet at a man to monitor his reaction and see ‘how he really feels’, or, canceling dinner plans and refusing to take your date out simply because your wooly-brained housemate told you to do so.
The film only picks up when the disastrous first part of the date enables an honest conversation, and even that is only because Ryan learns to speak in whole sentences. Laura, we learn, had to move from London back to Wales after her long-term partner turned out to be gay (though he first comes out as bi, only to later reveal he was gay – which in the media is often the only possible outcome for bi men). After her break up, Laura moved back to her mum’s. Thus, Ryan finds out she has Megabus-ed from Wales to make the second date. A bizarre and not quite believable fact which is paired with a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Megabus operates.
This heartfelt outpouring is quickly followed by the unexpected appearance of Ryan’s drunk and hysterical ex-girlfriend who, of course, suddenly wants him back. With Laura for comparison, Ryan quickly realises he doesn’t love his two-dimensional, wholly unbelievable ex-girlfriend, but is instead very much set on Laura. With a small, predictable twist to boot – the film is propelled towards its inevitable happy ending.
A Guide to Second Date Sex doesn’t always miss the mark, there are occasional points of relatability to be found (like when Ryan artfully arranges a disarrayed bedroom to project a desirable image). The problem is these moments are few and far between. This film showcases exactly why successful British comedy pairs wince-inducing chuckles with big laughs; without them, the viewer is simply subjecting themselves to pain without the comic relief.
Rom-coms don’t have to be sizzling with passion or ab-cramping with humour. But the audience does at least need to root for the couple at stake. And Ryan (with the social skills of a garden gnome and severe case of nice guy syndrome) plus Laura (sweet, if not a little humourless) do not have any of the makings of Harry and Sally material.
A Guide to Second Date Sex is available to watch on Amazon Prime in the UK.
Caragh Medlicott is a columnist and associate editor of Wales Arts Review