Pastiche Triumvirate:
Netflix’s When We First Met
Alex Hall, 07-17-2018

John Primac / Netflix
Ari Sandel’s When We First Met—a 2018 Netflix comedy film starring Adam Devine of Workaholics fame—is equal parts Bedazzled (2000), Groundhog Day (1993), and Big (1988). Although this may sound a bit disjointed, Sandel seems to have found a way to utilize the work of Harold Ramis and Penny Marshall in a way that pays homage without making fun, equaling a pastiche of three narrative frames that come from some modern and cult classics alike, all in a sometimes hilarious, sometimes groan-worthy package.

The viewer meets Devine’s character, Noah, as he recounts having met Avery (Alexandra Dadarrio), the girl of his dreams, at a Halloween party. He had excitedly accompanied her back to her house with the impression that he was about to sleep with her, but ended up in the dreaded “friend zone.” Three years later, Avery is engaged to someone else, and Noah has become a depressive alcoholic, unable to extinguish the torch he carries for her. After drunkenly lamenting his situation to his best friend in the piano bar where he performs nightly, Noah stumbles into a vintage photo booth that turns out to be a magical time machine, which sends him back to the morning of the Halloween party, affording him the opportunity for a do-over with Avery, but each attempt backfires spectacularly (and sometimes hilariously), and he eventually discovers that it may be her quirky photographer friend Carrie (Shelley Hennig) that he belongs with after all, especially once he figures out that she has influenced the things he liked about Avery in the first place.

While the viewer would rightly expect this kind of hokey, run-of-the-mill, rom-com ending, Carrie’s setup as the true object of Noah’s affection is not very well executed. What’s more, Noah will forever be a flawed individual because he carries with him the memory of each alternate history in the time loop, including one in which he slept with Avery. The potential guilt of this encounter—considering his newfound love for Carrie—will still be there, even though it didn’t actually happen in his current timeline, which naturally poses problems—and which the film never addresses. Still, When We First Met does hearken back to the aforementioned Marshall and Ramis films in an endearing way that makes it worth watching.

In the Ramis remake of Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled, Bredan Fraser’s character makes a Faustian deal with the devil to be more intelligent, rich, sensitive, etc. in order to win the affections of his crush, but each time the devil grants his request, the whole thing fails and he has to start over. Noah, in When We First Met, experiences the same problem, but it is not because the Devil is trying to thwart his efforts. In Ramis’ Groundhog Day, meanwhile, the main character keeps waking up on the morning of Groundhog Day, no matter what he does—even if he jumps off a cliff to certain death. While the time loop isn’t necessarily the same narrative frame for Noah in When We First Met, he does use the time machine to send him back to the day of the Halloween party each time his efforts fail, so that the film does feel a lot like Groundhog Day. Speaking of the time machine, it bears a striking resemblance—figuratively—to the Zoltar machine in Marshall’s Big, in which a twelve-year-old boy becomes the grown up version of himself by making a wish that the machine apparently grants. Noah even loses track of the machine in one timeline, which is exactly what happens to the character in Big. Nevertheless, Sandel does not seem to be directly referencing these films, equalling a pastiche of the three relatively uncommon narrative frames.

Sandel is relatively new to directing feature films, having only directed 2015’s The DUFF before When We First Met, but he is currently filming a new Goosebumps film and has been announced as the director of a Monster High film as well. While When We First Met lacks a lot of depth, it is funny, and it will make viewers want to go back and watch Big, Groundhog Day, and Bedazzled, which contributes to the intertextuality that has come to characterize so much contemporary film and popular culture more generally. So, while “worth the watch” may not be high praise, it does apply to When We First Met.

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