Brian Crano’s Permission begins as a rom-com, quickly turns into a rom-dram, and settles into a rom-squirm, nightmarish or liberating depending on your vantage, present or past. The setup is flat, almost insulting simple. Thirty-year-old music graduate student Anna (Rebecca Hall, who co-produced) and artisanal carpenter Will (Dan Stevens) have been in a steady relationship since college and living together in Brooklyn for many of those years. At a birthday dinner with Anna’s brother, Hale (Joseph Craig), and Hale’s boyfriend (and Will’s colleague), Heron (Raúl Castillo), Will intends to pop the question at long last — until the discussion turns to how little sexual experience Will and Anna have had with other people. Why not give each other permission to sleep with a few others, provided there are no secrets? What could go wrong?
Crano is not especially subtle with his portents. A waitress drops an entire tray of dishes. A police siren invades the conversation, followed by piercing red-and-blue lights. The soundtrack on the street consists of pounding drums. What happens next is swift: A handsome ex–rock star named Dane (François Arnaud) fastens onto Anna at a club, and is frankly irresistible, and Anna is tugged toward his pad as if by an invisible lasso. But he’s no predator. He likes her a lot. Will — who’s also at the club — watches them vanish together into the night with a sinking feeling.
Not that Will doesn’t have his own opportunities. He’s very handsome, and is quickly set upon by a wealthy divorcee and evident libertine played by Gina Gershon, who’s having herself a time. They take bubble baths and drink champagne but the chemistry isn’t at the Anna-Dane level. Slowly, Will begins to seem more and more lightweight, ineffectual — young. Dane has real weight. If you identify with Will, Permission will be an exercise in masochism without parallel. Best to identify with Anna, if you can.
Rebecca Hall has proven herself in theater and tragic drama and now gets a chance to do a dithery rom-com turn. She dithers charmingly, pops her eyes, and allows herself to be led around in a daze. I began by thinking this wasn’t really her genre but ended up liking her a lot. She opens herself up. Her manner is lyrical but also raw, as if she’s surrendering to the music of the moment.
Permission has a B plot, unfortunately, centering on Hale and Heron. Hale wants a child, by surrogacy if possible. Heron doesn’t want to be weighed down. In some ways it’s the inverse of the Anna-Will plot, but the dialogue is full of signposts. Perhaps the worst idea is having Hale strike up an acquaintanceship in the park with a father (Jason Sudeikis) who comes every day with his baby son — and which confirms Hale’s feelings that he’s meant to be a dad. These scenes err on the side of being too casual. It really looks as if Sudeikis happened to be sitting in the park and was set upon by a film crew wanting him in their movie.
There’s a lot of clunky stuff in Permission and too many white guys with beards to keep straight. Ungainly as it is, though, it delivers a hell of a kick. I didn’t enjoy it, but I respect Crano for homing in on ambivalence — a feeling that something’s not right even when it seems, on the surface, to be ideal. The final scenes are wrenching. The final shot is happy and sad and strange and awful and very hopeful. As I said, it depends on your vantage.