The Idea of You: Stockholm Syndrome

Amazon MGM Studios

I have long explained that my ideal relationship to One Direction-turned-solo artist-turned-actor (?) Harry Styles would be that we see each other twice a year at crowded parties, flirt gently for maybe ten or fifteen minutes, and then go about the rest of our days. It would not disrupt our lives, it would not upend the world, we could even have this if we were both partnered—it would be breezy, harmless, playful. No one would have to consider an imbalance of power, nor abuse of fame, nor any kind of age gap discourse. No one, by which I mean myself, can get hurt. For example: friend of a friend of a friend (—so, grain of salt) slept with a different, up-and-coming if not already-arrived young star who said, “It’s crazy that I’ll forget this and you won’t.”

Michael Showalter’s adaptation of Robinne Lee’s novel The Idea of You explores that which my own fantasies fall short of imagining: what if you were almost 40 and the hottest boy on earth from a boyband that your kid liked thought you were the hottest woman who ever lived and then you tried to date but seemingly everything got in the way? It is probably happenstance that Google labels the movie “romance/comedy,” rather than “romantic comedy,” but the slash feels essential in dividing up this movie between two variant moods. On the whole, the film—script penned by Showalter and Jennifer Westfeldt —is not really funny nor romantic. 

The weight of the movie rests on the shoulders of Anne Hathaway’s Solène, a beautiful, divorced art gallery owner who suffers from having no two characters in the film pronounce her inexplicably French name the same way. That a beautiful, divorced gallery art owner in Los Angeles, California would not already have a boyfriend pushes against my suspension of disbelief, but I won’t overthink it because we don’t go to the movies for accuracy, we go to them for kissing and/or trauma. The Idea of You, thankfully, is full of these: Solène is constantly, quietly tormented by her ex-husband Daniel (Veep’s Reid Scott—so good at this kind of thing) and his new wife Eva (Perry Mattfeld), who spoil Solène and Daniel’s daughter, Izzy (Ella Rubin), with things like “new car from Carmax™” and “tickets to Coachella™”. Solène attempts to maintain her dignity by going camping off-grid in an outfit that I can only describe as “certain to end in multiple tick bites or poison oak.”

One thing leads to another: Daniel’s company has an “immediate merger” (?) which forces Solène to take her daughter and friends to Coachella which will feature a VIP experience and reunion of her favorite childhood boyband, August Moon. Solène, who is slightly too competent to pass as a typical romcom idiot, mistakenly goes into the trailer of August Moon heartthrob Hayes Campbell (Nicholas Galitzine), thinking it’s a bathroom trailer, and they proceed to flirt and banter, much as you might if you met Harry Styles at a party. This meet-cute drives both parties insane. Solène spends the whole August Moon concert wide-eyed and grinning; Hayes shows up at her gallery the next morning in an oversized sweater. He buys all the art; she makes him a sandwich; they smooch. 

It should all go perfectly, but unfortunately dating a world famous pop star—one who is either washed up or the most famous person of all time, depending on whatever best suits the scene—is terrible. Solène encounters paparazzi, rude Gen Z groupies, the ire of August Moon’s fanbase (“MOONHEADS CONCERNED,” reads a headline in the film) and ageist humiliation from Hayes’s bandmates. Why is her life so bad? I’m told, by a friend better versed in One Direction fanfiction than me, that embarrassment is a major trope of that world, that the civilian partners of bandmates in fanfiction are always being forced to feel less than—ugly, old, regular, gullible—if only because it allows an avenue for the boybander in question to have to issue a real apology, and what’s hotter than that? It’d be one thing if The Idea of You turned this into a psychosexual fantasy. But unfortunately, the film is more content to focus on the suffering. How much more does Solène have to endure to find love again? She spends the whole last hour of the film in tears. Is falling in love with a famo really worth it? In a movie ostensibly taking place in 2024, it’s hard to believe that she wouldn’t know that it’s maybe never been worse to be famous—or approximate to a famous person. Her arc, contorting her life around this person who does seem to truly love her, reeks of a kind of desperation both in character and performance. Why? Hathaway is easy to love; none of this should be so difficult.

Perhaps this is the hidden genius of something like The Idea of You—situated neatly in the title of the film itself. Nothing is ever as good as the concept of something is. Hathaway, an actor with big eyes and big feelings, plays the film with too much pain; it’s Fantine all over again. Galitizine, thankfully, fares a little better. His Harry Styles stand-in is part-uncanny valley, part-like looking at the sun. He’s just sensitive and sexy enough; his natural teeth lend an air of quiet plausibility. He’s beguiling enough to warrant fascination—more erotic than being “a hot guy.” 

As an accompanying bit of media, the fake band August Moon released a music video for one of their songs “Guard Down”:

The One Direction of it all is apparent—the sloppy prep clothing, the errant schoolboy misbehavior, the loosely Christian rock type of sound. It’s not hard to mimic those guys, but it’s hard to do it convincingly. Many movies purport a suggestion of sexiness, but for a brief period, The Idea of You is willing to engage with it. Sure, it may be terrible to date a celebrity, but even briefly, it would be hot, right? It would make you do insane things: lie to your child, sit in the middle seat on an airplane and stare forward into nothing, watch music videos late into the night. But what if it all stopped before it started, what if it stayed as an idea? Now that really might be something special.