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Nishtha Banavalikar | January 28, 2022

“Hating someone feels disturbingly like falling in love with them,”

Bookending the opening monologue, this quote astutely summarises the narrative of the screen adaptation of Sally Thorne’s bestselling novel, The Hating Game. The film follows Lucy, played by Lucy Hale, and Josh, played by Austin Stowell, as they toe the oh-so-narrow line between love and hate, falling predictably in the former. The two battle it out as assistants from rival publishing companies who now share an office space after their recent merger. Lucy’s company regards literature as art and sees the value in cultural contribution whereas Josh’s company is an “evil empire of ghost-written autobiographies” of sports stars. The classic star-crossed enemies dynamic plays out when their attempts to get under the other’s skin unwittingly create rules to a game fuelled by spite where the goal is to destroy the other.

Lucy is a lover of literature and a hobbyist writer, perpetually deciphering the people around her like case studies and weaving her own fictitious stories about their lives. It’s through this mindset that she analyses and fixates on Josh, memorising his behaviours and patterns from the layout of his desk to the order in which he wears his shirts during the week. Like the cover of a book, she expertly studies his surface, pegging him as cruel and profit driven. He plays the part like a born actor, feeding into the rivalry and matching her fixation with equal obsession. They have a cannibalistic dynamic – consuming every aspect of each other’s lives to the extent their families and HR managers are intimately familiar with their dynamic.

The plot kicks off with the announcement of an internal promotion – and Lucy and Josh are pitted against each other for the job. Josh’s boss guarantee him as a shoe-in for the role and Lucy, unable to be one-upped, demands that if either of them get the job, the other has to quit. Following the classic rom-com format, the two experience several events that push them closer together, creating an inescapable and suffocating (but not necessarily undesirable to either of them) proximity. The film is indulgent in its tropes, from ‘bodyguard at a corporate paintball match‘ to ‘fake date at my brother’s wedding’. The midpoint of the film is where Lucy realises she has feelings for Josh however, a part of her is unsure whether those feelings are sincere or just a consequence of the mind games they play. Similarly, Josh doesn’t understand whether what they have is real or if she’s just toying with him again. Their emotional fixations come to a head as hate, love and lust all collide, catapulting them and their game into unchartered territory. Each one of them takes a tentative foot forward before recoiling back sharply in fear that the other’s sincerity is still part of the game.

The set design is delightful, with deliberate choices adding to the atmosphere of the film and fleshing out character relationships. For instance, sun light shines exclusively on Lucy’s desk, basking her half of the room in warmth and shrouding Josh’s in shadow. The camera shots between the two of them feel as though they were sourced from separate films, highlighting their origins in two separate worlds. Similarly, their desks reflect their characters quiet well; Lucy’s is messy and decorated with cherished objects and Josh’s is metallic and kept pristine. It’s through these contrasts that the film lets its narrative unravel; Lucy’s subtle “Johnny Black, neat” against a “Baileys, on the rocks”. It’s a memorable dynamic with the construction of the film reaffirming them as opposites whilst also tying them together through an indisputable bond.

For readers and fans of the novel, the film’s progression is somewhat underwhelming. There’s an unspoken understanding of how these characters’ stories will end and the screenplay makes no attempt at adding any intrigue or playing around with the beats. For a novel renowned for its illustrious sex scenes, removing them for a slightly (only slightly) less explicit romance reveals many of the initial story’s weaknesses, namely its underdeveloped side characters and subplots. The film makes some attempts at thickening up the plot and the world-building through comedic gags with co-workers at their office and side stories which ultimately feel out of place. Still, Hale and Stowell have a charming dynamic and the film is strongest in its smaller, effortless moments of dialogue that are genuinely humorous and joyful.

For viewers unfamiliar with the source material, the film is a pretty traditional rom-com, with an interesting premise and enjoyable chemistry that hold its together. The Hating Game is no pioneer in its field but rather a steady proponent of the universal appeal of a predictable romance.

The Hating Game is screening at Hoyts & other locations from January 27.

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Nishtha Banavalikar

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