Long Story Short wraps middle-age anxieties into time travel romantic comedy of redemption

In the time travel romantic comedy Long Story Short, time flies, but not when you’re…

In the time travel romantic comedy Long Story Short, time flies, but not when you’re having fun. For Teddy, a thirty-something Londoner relocated to Sydney and recently married, time flies when your life falls apart.

He’s the victim of a mysterious time travel curse, condemned to jump forward into his future, landing on his wedding anniversary every year to survey the mounting wreckage of his life.

A failing marriage, a suffocating career, jowly cheeks.

The anxieties of early middle age hit particularly hard in this second film from writer, director and actor Josh Lawson, a carpe diem fable that grapples with the impossibility of having it all, via a protagonist who can’t seem to realise he has to give up something to hold on to the ones he loves.

Rafe Spall and Zahra Newman, a young pregnant woman and her concerned partner, in the film Long Story Short
Experienced theatre actor Zahra Newman told Jason Di Rosso that shooting her first feature film was “a massive challenge … and quite intimidating”.(Supplied: Studio Canal/Brook Rushton)

It’s better conceived, but in some ways similar to Ruben Guthrie (2015), a comedy made by fellow actor-director Brendan Cowell that was also set in a waterside Sydney milieu and depicted a man’s struggle to set priorities in early middle age.

Cowell seemed less sure of the point he wanted to make, but Lawson, whose filmmaking has improved since his somewhat clunky 2014 sex comedy debut The Little Death, is clear on where he’s headed.

There’s a distinct echo of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s A Wonderful Life in Teddy’s growing anguish about his place in the world, but the earnestness is counterbalanced by some droll wit and comic self-awareness.

English actor Rafe Spall (The Salisbury Poisonings, Hot Fuzz) is funny and likable in the lead — an everyman who is already slightly dog-eared when we first meet him on a Sydney New Year’s Eve down by the harbour.

He meets cute with wife-to-be Leanne (Zahra Newman), an aspiring novelist, in a witty set piece that combines mistaken identity with a food allergy emergency.

They’re soon planning to get married, but Teddy needs to rein in his procrastinating tendencies that put work before everything else.

Enter Noni Hazelhurst, playing a mysterious stranger offering unsolicited advice, somewhat enigmatically, and a gift that can’t be opened for ten years.

Her words don’t really land until Teddy falls asleep on his wedding night, only to wake up a year later on his first anniversary, with Leanne 18 weeks pregnant.

And so it begins.

Noni Hazelhurst and Rafe Spall, a young man speaking to an older woman in a cemetery, in the film Long Story Short
The film was shot in Sydney, with the Harbour Bridge, Bronte Beach and Waverley Cemetery all featuring heavily.(Supplied: Studio Canal/Brook Rushton)

Initially, Teddy thinks he might have some form of early onset dementia because he can’t remember the previous twelve months. But a pattern forms and the years start to whizz by with terrifying regularity, and each anniversary he learns more about what a terrible partner and father he’s been.

The time travel premise, of course, exacerbates what is a classic mid-life crisis: the realisation that the years are slipping away and you’ve spent too much time on things that don’t matter.

In Teddy’s case, this means his job.

Just what exactly he does for a living — and how he can afford a townhouse overlooking the exclusive Bronte beach — is not clear. Which is a pity, because the film might have had a sharper, more topical edge if it had delved into specifics.

Sydney is, after all, a very expensive city, full of people mortgaged to the eyeballs.

Ronny Chieng, a young man holding champagne at a wedding, in the film Long Story Short
Lawson had comedian and actor Ronny Chieng (Crazy Rich Asians, The Daily Show) in mind for the role of Teddy’s best friend Sam, from the beginning.(Supplied: Studio Canal/Brook Rushton)

Whatever corporate servitude Teddy has signed up for, it’s keeping him from his family and, as Leanne reminds him, the dream of becoming a photographer.

Couples have fallen apart over work life balance in countless films, and without the chemistry between these two leads, this might have seemed more derivative. But they share it in spades, and Newman’s fine performance here is equal to Spall’s.

The Rosehaven and Neighbours star manages to convey a feisty independence and a sunny resilience, while Lawson’s script gives at least partial voice to her character’s grievances.

There are other people in Teddy’s life, too, providing a much-needed opportunity for the modest film to widen the frame.

The director appears himself — as Teddy’s romantic rival — in a funny, understated performance of alpha male self-assuredness timed just right for when our hero is hitting rock bottom.

Rafe Spall and Zahra Newman, a young couple kissing, in the film Long Story Short
“Leanne could go on and live her life, she isn’t completely reliant on Teddy,” Newman told Jason Di Rosso.(Supplied: Studio Canal/Brook Rushton)

Popping in most often is Ronny Chieng (Crazy Rich Asians, The Daily Show) as the best friend. He’s an inspired deadpan foil to an increasingly desperate Teddy, and even navigates a dark plot pivot towards the end.

But it’s a pity he’s not given some more lengthy scenes for the dynamic to bed in, because the friendship never quite feels authentic.

The same goes for Teddy’s ex, Becka (Dena Kaplan), who at one point delivers some much-needed home truths, but is given an all-too brief monologue within which to do it.

These appearances make you feel like Lawson should have heeded his own film’s message and taken a little more time. Certainly, he’s got the tone right with the performances, and you feel like he could have gotten away inserting some extra scenes.

As for the mystery of the time travel curse, it’s clear Teddy must pull out of this downward spiral — perhaps winning back Leanne in the process — and there’s never any doubting he will.

Which is not a spoiler, because a film like this is never about a rocky landing.

Long Story Short is for audiences looking for redemption with their romance. It’s a date night fantasy, in time for Valentine’s Day, and thankfully, the film’s lead actors are worthy avatars.

LoadingLong Story Short is in cinemas from February 11.