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Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney’s chemistry can’t save Anyone But You

Poweeney deserves a better rom-com.

Powell and Sweeney stare look into each other’s eyes, faces close, as they are both dressed in formal wear and standing on a beach.
Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney in Anyone But You, a movie about Bostonians falling in love in Australia.
Sony Pictures
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The most compelling reason to sit through all 104 minutes of Anyone But You is closure. I’m not referring to finishing the uneven movie, but the opportunity to finally witness the “are they or aren’t they?” chemistry between the movie’s extremely good-looking blonde leads Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney.

During filming earlier this year, Powell and Sweeney (a pairing I had affectionately dubbed “Poweeney”) seemed closer than typical co-stars. They posted each other on Instagram. In those posts, they smiled at each other in a way that one does not usually smile at coworkers (genuine, earnest, happy). They had nicknames for each other. They hugged and went to zoos, where they may have hugged some more. After the internet took notice, Powell and his girlfriend at the time, Gigi Paris, broke up.

Powell and Sweeney’s off-screen relationship sparked the fantasy that something romantic happened while shooting Anyone But You; that two actors who spent an entire movie acting like they were in love actually fell in love. Was there something in the script? Was it shooting in beautiful Australia for weeks at a time? Could it all be real?

When the trailer for Anyone But You came out this excitement … cooled some. But now, with the film’s release, the final piece of the puzzle is here. Each scene becomes an opportunity to search for hints of that off-screen chemistry, a flicker that these two did in fact like-like each other. Every touch, every gaze, every interaction could be something more than acting. By the end, I found myself believing more in the myth of Poweeney than in the film itself.

The movie is bad, but the chemistry: It’s good.

For whatever reason, Anyone But You begins its story in the allegedly romantic city of Boston where two extremely attractive people — resting bedroom eyes Bea (Sweeney) and bright-in-the-irises Ben (Powell) — meet in a coffee shop in a way clumsy enough to endear them to each other, and, hopefully, the audience to both. She desperately needs to pee and will explode if she has to wait in line, attempting to throw Massachusetts state bathroom law at the barista. He’s at the front of the queue and throws her a lifesaver by pretending she’s his wife. She’s grateful. He’s charmed. He smiles. She’s charmed.

Powell and Sweeney stand soaking wet on a buoy in the middle of the water at night with the Sydney Opera House in the background.
Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney should be in every movie together until the end of time.
Brook Rushton/Sony Pictures

“Are you going to ask me out now?” Bea asks, her face softening into a hopeful pout. Powell’s Ben, equipped with a face full of pleasing angles from nose to chin, grins and they’re off.

What we don’t quite know yet is that the characters’ names, convoluted plot, and the series of misunderstandings and misinterpretations to come are all nods to Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s comedy about the mess of courtship and feeble human feelings. But the movie starts this wacky homage at a slow boil, and never fully commits. Going full Shakespeare would set an impossibly high bar — and there wouldn’t be a lot of logic in shoving a suspected-female-impurity plotline into a movie that revolves around a lesbian wedding.

Instead, Anyone But You aims for something halfway between adaptation and reference. Halfway between rom-com and raunch comedy, the film never really figures out its tone. After that meet cute, Bea and Ben spend the day together, which turns into night, eventually falling asleep in each other’s arms. They also don’t have sex which, in rom-com lore, signifies that this connection is something deeper than physical. Also, I guess, that Bostonian love is sometimes chaste and beautiful.

The main actors are a winning combination but something is … off. Bea is a hopeless romantic, someone who says she’s been thinking about marriage since she was a little kid, back when she was making wedding dresses out of toilet paper. Sweeney made a name for herself playing icier, meaner characters, i.e., Cassie in Euphoria and the ultra-cynical Olivia Mossbacher in White Lotus. Here, her delivery — a bit of a mumble, a blush of uptalk — hasn’t changed from her previous roles, so it feels like she’s playing it all with a bit of a wink. She’s impossible to look away from on-screen — a star — but she’s not quite believable as a naive rom-com hero.

Powell, however, is solidly in his wheelhouse as a smarmy finance bro. Ben feels like a continuation of Powell’s turn as Hangman in Top Gun: Maverick, where the actor cocked his head and smirked off with the whole movie. He knows how to hit just the right amount of wryness; how to push back against his (impressive) physicality to make the character just likable enough that you hate yourself for doing so. The movie’s best jokes are ones Powell makes at his own expense, like almost drowning because he’s “hot girl fit” and only ever worked vanity muscles.

For no discernible reason, Bea sneaks out the morning after — not even taking down Ben’s number. Upon finding out that he was ditched, Ben says some nasty things about Bea to his friend Pete (GaTa), which she inexplicably overhears. Everyone in this movie has an acute sense of hearing and an uncanny sense of timing.

After this misunderstanding, Bea and Ben’s hurt escalates into extreme dislike. Flash-forward six months, and they are forced together at a bar. Her sister is dating Pete’s sister, who is also Ben’s lifelong friend. Bea calls Ben a fuckboy, and he tells her she has abandonment issues. She says he’s a loser finance bro, and he calls her a bitch. While the two could coexist and dislike each other from a distance — Boston is ostensibly a city full of people who loathe each other — their paths become intertwined when the women get engaged, include Bea and Ben in the wedding party, and have their nuptials in Australia. It’s there that the side characters reveal themselves to be full of Bard-inflected frivolity and scheming. And it’s there, as the movie’s copious marketing materials have relentlessly reminded us all, the two must pretend to like each other and, perhaps, end up somewhere more than just pretending.

With such a flimsy script, Powell and Sweeney’s chemistry has to do the heavy lifting. And often, it does! Whatever it is that they have — acting skill, a secret relationship, a shared language based on being the absolute pinnacle of ACC school hot, etc. — it’s so strong that it doesn’t matter that their characters often don’t sound or act like humans (“Permission to put my left hand on your right buttock,” Powell says to Sweeney at one not-so-memorable point).

Powell and Sweeney look at each other while standing in front of a table of food in a kitchen.
I know what this looks like, but Glen Powell is far more shirtless and naked in this movie than any of his female co-stars.
Brook Rushton/Anyone But You

This works even when it really shouldn’t. At one point, Ben fries a grilled cheese for Bea, and she bites into it too quickly. Instead of handing her a glass of water or a paper towel to spit it out, Ben lowers his chin and blows into her mouth. “Is it still hot?” he asks. This is, objectively, not how to cool down a mouth. But Powell and Sweeney fully create the illusion that breathing into a mouth full of blisteringly hot cheese and butter is an intoxicant we all must try.

The possibility of Poweeney eclipses Ben and Bea as they teeter-totter on a sailboat, talking about how everyone wants to get them together. If only the story was suited to both stars’ strengths. If they were to do another movie together, a do-over, they wouldn’t be the first: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan first paired up in the often-ignored Joe Versus the Volcano before Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail; Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell connected on the set of the forgettable Swing Shift before co-starring in Overboard (and life). There’s at least one good rom-com in both of them.

At the heart of it, the prospect of Powell and Sweeney falling for each other — or at least a Powell type and an actual Sweeney type — remains far more compelling and convincing than the story that’s been constructed for Anyone But You. Of course it’s not just possible or even probable, but nearly certain that all this chemistry is just good acting, coupled with a savvy marketing and social media campaign.

Whatever it is here that works, it surely wasn’t anything in the script.

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