At first, “All My Life” looks like a typical romantic comedy: Girl and boy meet cute, banter playfully, flirt, go on a fun first date and fall in love during montages set to pop songs.
But if you know anything about the Marc Meyers movie starring Jessica Rothe and Harry Shum Jr., you know going in that this is not a rom-com. It’s based on a true story, and all the promo materials spell out that this is a movie about a couple dealing with a serious illness. It’s a drama rather than a comedy, so call it a rom-dram – and if that phrase seems slightly dismissive, it’s appropriate for a movie that plays up the sentimentality and never escapes the feeling that it’s a light look at a heavy subject.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and “All My Life” is nothing if not pleasant and amiable as it makes its way down the road to heartwarming. It also makes the decision never to become an out-and-out tearjerker, a decision you can appreciate even if you don’t succumb to its charms.
The film is based on the true story of Jennifer Carter and Solomon Chau, a young Canadian couple who were engaged to be married in 2015 when he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, and who had an accelerated, crowd-funded dream wedding to beat the ticking clock. Rothe (“Happy Death Day”) plays Jenn and Shum (“Crazy Rich Asians”) is Sol, in a fictionalized version of their relationship that retains the significant beats.
In the film, Jenn and Sol meet in a bar, where she’s intimidating and he’s tongue-tied but endearing. They jog in the park, they walk in the rain and they fall in love in what would be typical rom-com fashion if the com part weren’t so dialed-down. The first half-hour of the film is pretty much bliss and silliness, meandering along pleasantly enough while the movie waits for a reason to exist.
That reason comes not in the big Thanksgiving dinner or the deliberately cheesy and over-the-top riverside proposal set to Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” but in the diagnosis that follows. Until then, Jenn’s default mode has been a kind of smartass flirtation, Sol’s a nonchalant uncertainty. (He’s very stressed-out at work.) But the cancer strips them of their cheeriness, which gives Rothe and Shum more to work with as actors.
Still, Todd Rosenberg’s script would rather find places for inspirational speeches than wallow in the darkness, so Jenn ‘n’ Sol’s large and demographically diverse group of friends go to work funding and throwing a wedding. (The friends include former “SNL” cast member Jay Pharoah and actress-singer Keale Settle, who finds time to belt out both the Cure and Pat Benatar.)
This is a movie where you know each moment of happiness means something bad is about to happen, but then the bad stuff leads to important lessons and the point lies in the happiness. Unlike Meyer’s last movie, “My Friend Dahmer,” there’s nothing morbid about “All My Life,” which always looks for ways to be unabashedly sentimental and proudly uplifting; it tries really hard to take heartbreaking and turn it into heartwarming, a transition that won’t quite come off for many viewers but will likely work for some.
Sure, the movie feels a bit out of place in this pretty cynical and dark year in which we live under the constant specter of death. But if it seems crazy to say that a movie about terminal illness could be a diversion in tough times, that might be the point of this rom-dram.