The Beast, the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame aren’t just classic characters from epic love stories of old — they’re alive and kicking in today’s modern world, and they’re still looking for love, without much success.
They keep their hopes up, however, when they get on an app called Matchbox, which uploads short 3-second videos to get users to swipe. But when they encounter failure instead of true love, they lead a popular movement to shut the app down — only to put them on a collision course with the app’s enigmatic billionaire founder, who is not what he seems.
Writer-director Harry Jackson’s short dramedy — co-written with David Young — is undeniably goofy and doesn’t take itself seriously. But through sheer gumption and commitment to a wry, ironic and very British vein of humor, it manages to be both an acerbic yet sweet take on the enduring yet mutable nature of courtship and romance throughout the ages.
It gets its sharpness from its sardonic observations about the landscape of modern dating, “optimized” via technology, apps and other forms of electronic or data mediation. But it also takes its characters’ quest for love, acceptance and connection seriously, making the film very relatable amidst its antics. Like anyone else, our trio of misfits only want to be loved and accepted for who they are, but find themselves unable to get users to see beyond their first impressions.
For a romantic comedy, the short is on the longer side and quite ambitious, with a fairly complex narrative structure that loops between past and present and actually grapples with complex questions. Its strength lies in its ear for witty, observational dialogue, and the distinctive voices of its main characters, which betray both their old-fashioned perspectives as well as their attempts to adapt to modernity.
Of course, they stand for old-school notions of love and romance, with ideas of true love and chivalry. Their bewilderment at the state of romance in the age of Tinder allows for amusing yet pointed questions on whether or not these apps and sites really do facilitate genuine connection. The performances overall toe the line between broad comedy and sincere feeling and include a terrific turn from veteran British character actor Simon Callow, whose mysterious oligarch harbors unseen dimensions. When those hidden sides come out… well, all hell breaks loose, narratively speaking, but it culminates in a series of unexpected happy endings.
“Matchbox” satirizes a moment in contemporary culture where the most romantic gesture going is a swipe on Tinder. Its ending is quite nutty, but the journey getting there is actually full of ideas and inquiries about how people can flatten their quirks, complexities and vulnerabilities for quick and simple content consumption. But it also makes a case that no matter how we get there — whether through an app or via real-life — true love is a lot looser, odder and hairier than a simple “happily ever after.”