Josh Lawson’s Long Story Short starts off with a moment that played a lot differently in the classic heyday of romantic comedies than it does now. Teddy (Rafe Spall) is picking through the crowd at a New Year’s Eve party as the countdown has started, and just before the clocks strikes midnight, he dives for the face of what appears to be nothing other than the nearest woman, and gives her a full-on, extended smooch. When she recoils with confusion and f-bombs, it’s not surprising to a 21st century audience; after all, we’re a lot more educated than we once were on wanted vs. unwanted contact. What may have been a great pickup move in the 1980s is a bit rapey now.
As it turns out, Teddy mistook this woman for his girlfriend, a possible lie granted the certainty of truth when said girlfriend shows up wearing the same dress and hairstyle. (And he gets a decidedly unwanted result from it, as he accidentally ingests the remnants of peanut in this stranger’s mouth and goes into anaphylactic shock.) What this actually tells us about Teddy is not that he’s rapey, but that he’s a bit of a goofball who a) isn’t attuned to the small details, and b) is always running late for something, either by accident, or because he can’t commit to the moments that end up defining a person’s life.
From these standard romcom beginnings comes a profound consideration of how we spend our lives, and in particular, how we waste them not observing details or feeling ready for what’s to come. Long Story Short could have just been a throwaway bit of escapism in our COVID times that hearkens back to more simplistic social morays and courtship rituals, but instead it’s a high-concept contemplation of our life choices, with plenty of laughs to make the medicine go down.
Because the meet cute is a core part of any romantic comedy, the stranger and Teddy end up falling for each other and begin a period of dating that plays out over the opening credits. (She’s Leanne, by the way, played by Australian Zahra Newman.) It’s a pretty extended period as Teddy has only just proposed to her five years later. While visiting Teddy’s father’s grave in a beautiful seaside cemetery (surprised that such a place exists given the value of seaside real estate), the pair meet a mysterious woman (Noni Hazlehurst) who cajoles Teddy into setting the date for the wedding a fortnight hence. She also gives him a mysterious wedding gift, an aluminium can with a rattling noise, that he’s told not to open for ten years.
Ten years might come more quickly than he expects. On the morning after their wedding, Teddy asks Leanne how she feels being a married woman. She finds it an odd question, as for her, the wedding was a year ago. Teddy has magically fast-forwarded to his first anniversary – which he has, unsurprisingly, forgotten – and also discovers that Leanne’s belly is swollen from an 18-week-old foetus. Comedy ensues, but so does horror. This phenomenon soon repeats itself, and forgetting wedding anniversaries is starting to become the least of Teddy’s worries. Unbeknownst to him, he’s become an inattentive husband and father who’s been buried in his work, in addition to having his mental framework reset at alarmingly frequent intervals.
One reason the concept works so well is that Spall is a truly gifted comedian. There’s a lot of stammering and stuttering and initial confusion spilling over into hysterical panic, and Spall is equal to all of it. He’s in that reliable comic scenario where he’s trapped in a reality only he can perceive, and any attempt to bring anyone else into it will surely brand him as a lunatic. He tries with his best friend Sam, the also extremely talented Australian comic Ronny Chieng, but even Sam sees any attempt to explain as the ravings of a madman. At least he’s not going to potentially divorce Teddy for going off the deep end.
In addition to the more conventional project of urging us not to let our lives pass us by, Long Story Short serves a secondary function of examining memory loss. One of the most disorienting aspects of Teddy’s situation is that he’s not suddenly possessed with an infusion of knowledge, Matrix-style, about how he’s supposed to have spent the past year. He’s always trying to get up to speed, and feeling desperately lost, like a person would if they were, indeed, losing their ability to make new memories. Wasting your time also kind of means looking back on your life and not remembering what happened.
Lawson’s script keeps the balance between the funny and the not-so-funny. Newman plays off Spall with considerable charm and charisma, and is kind of an heroically tolerant spouse for suffering through her husband’s repeated failures to acknowledge their anniversary. But even she has her limits. Each new scene between them presents a new comic scenario – now he’s got glasses, now he’s got a ridiculous beard – but the consistent thing about both Newman and the script is that from her end, this is a believable progression of her perspective toward a husband who is steadily failing her. And these incremental losses, experienced by Teddy as massive tectonic shifts, are not funny for either him or us.
These lessons have been delivered to us in hundreds of other movies, but the goal of most movies, particularly romantic comedies, is to package those lessons in new and interesting ways that make them feel like fresh insights. Long Story Short nails it in that regard. A game cast is a big help, but this type of thing comes from the top down. Lawson has given us things to think about, things to laugh about, and even a few moments that might bring a tear to your eye. He’s also brought it all in at 90 minutes, keeping a potentially long story decidedly short and sweet.