‘The Greatest Hits’ Review: Lucy Boynton’s Time-Traveling Music Movie Never Finds the Right Tune

David Corenswet and Justin H. Min provide decent romantic foils but no one has enough depth to create lasting characters

"The Greatest Hits"
"The Greatest Hits" (Credit: Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace, Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

The prospect of losing the one you love and having to pick up the pieces of what is left in your life is one of the most painful parts of being human. In Ned Benson’s “The Greatest Hits” the experience of watching this premise play out is painful, but not in the way the film intends.

The film is built around Harriet (Lucy Boynton) who loses her boyfriend Max (David Corenswet) in a car accident. Devastated by his demise she clings to the songs that provided the soundtrack to their relationship. When she listens to them she is literally pulled back to the moment in time they first heard it together. The only problem is Harriet can’t change what others do, only what she does, so Max seems forever fated to die and leave her all alone. Still, she keeps playing the songs back to try to save him while retreating from the rest of the world and any future she could find there.

This is an intriguing hook that offers a new spin on a well-worn narrative convention, but “The Greatest Hits” never makes the most of it. Despite the gravity of the loss that is at its center the entire thing just floats through the emotional motions without any real resonance. From the supporting characters to, most egregiously, Max himself, nobody feels like a real person with anything approaching texture. All exist as a way to hammer home ideas and points about Harriet hiding herself away, with a humorous Austin Crute getting the worst part of them all as he is reduced to being the supportive best friend who has next to no interiority of his own.

Even when Retta, of the series “Parks and Recreation,” briefly shows up to lead a support group, she is completely wasted and there is no sense of why she is there other than to set up the next scene. This is merely the beginning of how the film is defined by painfully rote characterization.

When Harriet, still in the midst of grieving and trying to find a way to bring Max back, meets David, played by Justin H. Min of last year’s stellar “Shortcomings,” one gets a glimpse of the film trying to turn a corner. As the two banter back and forth it’s a sweet enough meet cute. However, with Harriet remaining trapped in the past and struggling to move on there is never a sense that she is ever fully present. Some of this is by design, with the film spelling out this idea over and over again, though much of it ends up leaving the present feeling empty.

David, while given the most basic of backstory about a loss of his own and a family business he is trying to run with his similarly underdeveloped sister feels like a character who exists to shake Harriet out of her funk rather than a fully formed person with his own complexities. This becomes dire when the various trips that Harriet takes to the past run into the same problem.

Despite being entirely built around the supposed passion of the relationship she had with Max, there is never a sense that we truly know him beyond these fragmented picture perfect memories. He is charming, funny, attractive and that’s about it. They seem to have a shared love of music but we never really see them connecting over this in any substantive way. They meet at a music festival, which the film keeps cycling back to, but every interaction remains repetitive in how it plays out. Harriet will be heartbroken at the knowledge that he is dead in the future and Max will deliver a “clever” line that just falls flat.

Corenswet, who is set to play Superman, certainly looks the part and does a fine job where he can but that is all he ever is. Some of this is down to the material he is working with but rarely does he do anything special. After watching the entire film there is never a moment where you come to understand much of anything about Max or what convinced Harriet that he was the one for her. “The Greatest Hits” tries to coast on its many montages, like one of the couple on a beach, but there is nothing behind any of them. Max is just a fragmented approximation of a soulmate on paper and never one on-screen.

There is a moment where the film almost comes close to acknowledging this in something approaching a meaningful way. In a scene Boynton shares with Crute, where they again discuss her character, he still takes her down a peg or two by complicating the image Harriet has of Max. In addition to one of the film’s few funny lines about how the band he was in wasn’t even good, it offers a wrinkle in this almost fairytale fantasy she has preserved in her mind.

The trouble is you never feel this even once in the film before or after the talk. We don’t know anything about Max or their relationship beyond the highlights of it. Did they ever fight or have disagreements while metal music raged behind them? Were they ever moved to tears by an orchestral arrangement that made them think about loss? We’ll never know, as the film is entirely filtered through perfect moments that never feel alive or authentic.

While its heart is in the right place, this is a story of love that never finds the rhythm or the blues. “The Greatest Hits” is a fitting title as there are plenty of familiar beats that may ensure it achieves broad popularity, but it never finds anything remotely close to genuine emotional potency. Even the moments of time travel are never as visually interesting as one would hope them to be. Like a superficial pop radio hit that gets played over and over, the only grace it finds is the potential that it will fade from your memory as soon as you finish watching it.

Searchlight will release “The Greatest Hits” in select theaters on April 5. It will be available to stream on Hulu starting April 12.

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