'Permission': On the Town

(USA, 96 min.)
Written and directed by Brian Crano
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dan Stevens, Morgan Spector, David Joseph Craig, François Arnaud, Gina Gershon, Jason Sudeikis
Dan Stevens Rebecca Hall
Dan Stevens and Rebecca Hall in Permission
Pacific Northwest Pictures
There’s a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode somewhere to which Anna (Rebecca Hall) and Will (Dan Stevens) could have been referred. That episode sees Cheryl give Larry an odd birthday present in the form of her permission to sleep with another woman. Anyone with a subscription to HBO could draw from Larry’s experience and tell Anna and/or Will a four-word relationship survival guide: just don’t do it.

The couple to be wanders down an awkward road of life choices when their friend Reese (Morgan Spector) shakes their perfectly content and boring relationship by asking if they really want to spend the rest of their lives sleeping with one person. The monogamous pair has quick routine sex, like do-it-while-Netflix-buffers sex, despite being only 30ish and they’ve never known anyone intimately beyond one another. They’re building a life and house together—Will’s even bought rings for the door key and Anna’s finger—yet they decide to pursue Reese’s question as the ultimate test of their love. There’s more at stake, however, since spending the night with new people also asks Anna and Will how much they’re willing to settle in life. Curbing their enthusiasm might not be enough.

Writer/director Brian Crano invites audiences to wrestle with this messy scenario as Anna and Will score partners quickly without so much as logging on to Ashley Madison. (A bit too quickly, for people who’ve been out of the dating scene for years.) Anna picks up Dane (Canadian actor François Arnaud), a hunky musician. Dane offers some practical compatibility to Anna’s ongoing dissertation on music in addition to giving her multiple orgasms. Will hooks up with Lydia (Gina Gershon), a mature nympho who waltzes into his furniture and compliments his wood. He lets makes her feel young while she lets him unleash his inhibitions. A few nights later, they mind their confidence in the relationship banged out of shape by new sights, smells, sizes, and experiences.

Their experiment arouses questions in Reese and his partner Hale (David Joseph Craig), who disagree on the terms of a fulfilling relationship and lifestyle. This storyline of Permission is actually the stronger of the two despite playing a secondary role. While both couples ask relevant questions with which all relationships inevitably grasp, the narrative with Reese and Hale arises more naturally and plausibly than Anna and Will’s sexcapade. Hale meets another man (Jason Sudeikis) who leaves him questioning his desire to be a father and the audience second-guessing the relationship that made Anna and Will’s look limp.

Anna and Will’s awkward predicament, on the other hand, mostly conflates sex with love, and while that’s a major aspect of any relationship, it’s not all of it. Permission doesn’t provide any insight to the dissatisfactions that Anna and Will feel outside of the bedroom; moreover, the early scenes don’t invest the audience in their relationship from the outset. The stakes between Reese and Hale are riper since Permission presents a seemingly happy and strong relationship that it shakes through ordinary questions and doubts that anyone can encounter while approaching middle age. The film also doesn’t treat Dane or Lydia all that fairly, either, which makes Anna and Will’s experiment feel cruel even if Permission asks questions with more maturity and honesty than most rom coms do.

Permission nevertheless buoys the messy situation with a strong ensemble cast that keeps the characters likable and credible even if the events they experience are not. Hall and Stevens are earnestly girl-next-door/boy-next-door as they wrestle with ideas of happily ever after with the former being cautiously optimistic about life and the latter competently boring. Arnaud and Gershon give performances that shine with a genuine lust for life and as their characters inspire viewers to savour unpredictability and new experiences. These two light up the screen with sparks that are palpably missing from Anna and Will’s love life. Spector and Craig, finally, give viewers a relationship to test and consider as the most dynamic characters of the film who offer the ultimate trial of the life one wants to lead.

The film admirably considers relationships on a diverse spectrum with its sex-positive sextet and doesn’t settle on any easy formula for happiness that romantic comedies tend to favour. Bathed in bright pink lights across New York’s lively scene of singles embracing the nightlife in search for love, Permission presents a range of questions that ask what one wants in life: the comfortable Hollywood romance or something real with its challenges, consequences, and satisfying uncertainty. There aren’t easy answers and the film is better for it.

Permission opens in select cities on Friday, February 9.