‘The Greatest Hits’ Review: Lucy Boynton Time-Travels Back to Her Dead Boyfriend in Predictably Weepy Musical Drama

A familiar sub-genre of time travel-movies has characters going into the past to see a loved one who has died. Writer and director Ned Benson gives that idea a musical twist In The Greatest Hits. Harriet (Lucy Boynton) was in the same car crash that killed her boyfriend, Max (David Corenswet), two years before. Now whenever she hears songs they listened to together, she is carried back to the first time they experienced that music. Weighed down with grief, every night she listens to LPs, labeled “Tested” and “Untested,” searching for a way back to a moment she can alter to save Max’s life. Or, as her potential new romance, David (Justin H. Min), tells her, “So you just sit in this room, go back in time and hang out with your dead boyfriend.”

Yes, she does, and it’s an intriguing premise. Benson deftly combines the time travel, grief and music. The soundtrack of pop, mostly from the last decade or so, has needle drops that include Lana Del Rey and Phoebe Bridgers. And the actors are all solid enough, although the chemistry is uneven. But The Greatest Hits is the kind of film that should sweep you away with its charm and emotion. Instead, it’s too transparently button-pushing to go beyond the stale tropes of the weepy drama.

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Boynton (Bohemian Rhapsody) makes Lucy in the present day believable and sympathetic. She was an aspiring record producer, but now works in a library, where no music will accidentally trigger a time jump. When she indulges in those willful leaps to the past at night, we can see how desperately she misses Max, and why. Corenswet, cast as the lead in James Gunn’s upcoming Superman, makes him a dashing and perfect partner, at least as Harriet mournfully remembers him. Boynton, always neat as a pin here, is less convincing as the bolder Harriet that the screenplay, and her best friend, Morris (Austin Crute), say she used to be.

Morris is actually her only remaining friend. He knows her time-traveling secret, and lovingly tells her all this dwelling in the past has gone on too long. Crute gives Morris flair, but it’s a sign of how on-the-nose the film is that he works as a DJ. His character seems merely functional, there to allow more music to land in the film.

Min (After Yang) and Benson make fresh choices with the character of David. Unlike Max, he is quiet and tentative, and when he describes Harriet’s nightly routine to her, he doesn’t say it unkindly. He is simply trying to fathom it, and her. They meet in a grief support group (led by Retta playing an understanding psychologist) because he has recently lost his parents. The visual clues to his grief say more than the dialogue. He drives his parents’ vintage convertible, and in one of the liveliest scenes, he and Harriet ride around in it singing along to Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird.” He wears a shirt with a VFW Lodge number on the back, which we surmise might have been his father’s. His character is developed with subtlety but leaves us wanting to know more. It doesn’t help that while Min may charm the movie’s viewers, there is no real spark on screen between Harriet and David, even though the film nudges us to believe there is.

Benson’s previous feature, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2013), was actually three films. Him is told from the point of view of a grief-stricken husband (James McAvoy), Her tells the same story from his wife’s (Jessica Chastain) perspective and Them combines the two. As in The Greatest Hits, there Benson tackles an ambitious idea and directs it fluidly, but in the end the actors outshine the story.

He has obviously put together The Greatest Hits with care. N.C. Page Buckner’s production design is especially impressive. When Harriet and David walk into the antiques shop he inherited from his parents, you can almost smell the dust, and the dark palette is a contrast to the bright Los Angeles sun that infuses most of the film, in Chung-Hoon Chung’s cinematography. And the eclectic pop music does a lot to carry us along in an easygoing way. Harriet and Max are at an outdoor concert when they meet, and “Loud Places” by Jamie xx becomes the soundtrack to their love-at-first-sight moment. Harriet and David bond over Roxy Music’s remix of “To Turn You On,” which his parents loved.

But the trajectory of Harriet’s path holds no surprise. What are the odds a film like this leaves its heroine drowning in sadness and mourning for the rest of her life? Near the end, Harriet has a moment when Boynton’s eyes fill with tears, and while many in the audience might weep along, it’s also easy to feel Benson leading viewers to follow the cue. This meticulously made film is finally too careful, far less adventurous and winning than it sets out to be.

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