An elementary school classroom may seem an odd place to launch a romantic comedy that soon finds its protagonists coupling with abandon in a slew of quasi-public spaces. But in the rom-com “Hooking Up” — available digitally and on demand — that’s precisely where magazine writer Darla emerges from, having had an afterschool special with a stranger on a teeny desk.
Then again, a school proves perhaps too apt a location. There’s a rudimentary feel to “Hooking Up,” which stars Brittany Snow and Sam Richardson as a twosome who embark on a road trip with benefits. Genres often provide refuge to first-time feature filmmakers. Director Nico Raineau and co-writer Lauren Schacher hug the familiar beats of the form while rubbing up against its conventions with some naughty, sometimes endearing tweaks.
That school turns out to be a busy one. There’s a sex addiction group in one room and a cancer survivors’ gathering in another. Although we don’t meet any of its attendees, there’s an AA meeting on the second floor. Yes, “Hooking Up” is about addiction, crisis management, personal growth. In the hallway, Darla (Snow) runs into Bailey. Sam Richardson (“Veep”) portrays the gentle bear of a guy. Facing the possibility of a second surgery for testicular cancer, he’s headed to the survivors’ meeting. Need we say where Darla’s headed? Though her drop in is solely in the name of research, of course.
Post-surgery and a bit sex shy, Bailey works at an Atlanta gym, but what he really loves is drawing. Darla writes a racy column for a city lifestyle magazine but what she really loves, well, she has no clue. All her fast, furious, me-on-top sex may be efficient, but it isn’t exactly enduring. And it finally gets her axed from her job.
After getting to know each other, the pair agree to hit the highways and byways with a map Darla was given in the meeting. She marked her less-than-edifying hook-ups with red Xs — lots of them. In revisiting the sites with the same sex partner, she tells Bailey, she can work through her Step Eight amends. It strikes Bailey as a bit far-fetched, but a last hurrah before a surgery that will likely change his sex life appeals. Certainly his mild shadowing of his ex-fiancée isn’t getting him anywhere. Consider it a road-trip with benefits.
Each harbors an ulterior motive for this journey of recovery. She’s going to blog their adventure, in order to get back in the good graces of lifestyle magazine boss Tanya. (Jordana Brewster has spikey fun with the devil-wears-couture editor.) With the little side trip Bailey finesses to Dallas — his and Liz’s childhood home — he intends to make his ex jealous. What could go wrong?
They embrace their adventure with frisky, sometimes amusingly clumsy vigor. But we know that if you play this hard, someone’s bound to get hurt. Will it be Darla? Bailey? Both?
One of the comedy’s nicer gestures is that Bailey’s ex, Liz (YouTube phenom Anna Akana), is never played as a nasty rival. They were high school sweethearts and Liz is accurate: Bailey clings. There doesn’t need to be a baddie for things to be off in a relationship.
While the casting is pleasantly multi-racial, the writing isn’t savvy with that gesture. When Bailey prowls around a house in semi-rural Arkansas in the dead of night to see if he and Darla can knock off another X, it was hard not to fear for the safety of this burly black man. Darla doesn’t; the movie doesn’t. So props to Vivica A. Fox, who portrays Bailey’s status-conscious mom for the “What tha?!” gaze she lasers at her son’s choice of paramour from across the dinner table. The Links sisterhood would applaud.
Snow is the star here. She delivers a character who is fierce but adrift, take-no-prisoners but shackled to something in her past. A visit to her own mother (Amy Pietz) offers insight into her predilections.
In spite of its tweaks to gender roles, the duo’s sexcapades and Snow’s spirited performance, “Hooking Up” doesn’t offer much by way of surprise, which doesn’t mean that as the odd, amiable couple head toward their personal reckonings, you won’t find yourself rooting for them. Separately and together.