The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)
★★ / ★★★★
These time loop comedies need to realize that it is not enough to acknowledge Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day.” To honor that film, it is better not to mention it at all; simply take the familiar template and steer it toward interesting, challenging, or new directions. While tolerable in parts mostly because of its charming leads, “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” based on the short story and screenplay by Lev Grossman, is an underachieving twee romance, never stepping out of its comfort zone to try and deliver an experience worth remembering. It is the kind of movie that allows you to find a comfortable spot on the couch and fall asleep before the third act.
The last twenty minutes is the strongest part of the film because—finally—it feels like we are following a character who is written from a certain perspective. She is named Margaret, played by the luminous Kathryn Newton, and she is introduced as the romantic interest of Mark (Kyle Allen) early on in the picture. There is a palpable sadness to Margaret; those eyes contain questions and conflict outside of the fact that, like Mark, her day resets at the stroke of midnight. Just about each time Newton is on screen, her Margaret is saying something even if the character is simply standing on one spot in utter silence. She has attitude and we wonder about her fears. Mark is a bore compared to her yet we are forced to follow him for the majority of the picture’s duration.
Yes, the screenplay is based on a short story. But sometimes in order to make a successful jump to feature film, major concessions need to be made for the sake of achieving cinematic quality, of establishing the correct rhythm and flow, of excavating drama and intrigue. I felt as though Mark is chosen to be the fulcrum simply because he has the more outgoing and fun personality; it is obvious the filmmakers wish to capture such a vibe. While understandable, the work is a comedy after all, there must be something compelling about the character. Although Allen gives it his all, I felt his talent is wasted because there is nothing about Mark worth delving into.
We learn superficial information like his hatred for mathematics even though he is a science geek, his aspiration of attending art school, and his ability to retain a sunny disposition despite repeating the same day for what it appears to be years. (We are dropped into the story when Mark is already well-accustomed to many goings-on around his town.) But what about him as a person, as an artist, or as a romantic that is especially unique? Why is it necessary that this character be our conduit to this temporal anomaly?
In terms of the film’s level of comedy, it offers a handful of light chuckles. Mark and Margaret travel around town and wait for beautiful things to happen, like a bird catching its prey or a little girl showing all the boys that she can out-skate any of them. But the approach is consistently vanilla: without the time loop factor, the humor does not work. The best comedies are not one-dimensional. Take a look at “Groundhog Day.” Bill Murray’s performance itself is funny outside of the zaniness that happens to or around the character. Phil’s self-centeredness can be the butt of a joke. In this film, the humor is consistently situational and it gets boring real fast.
At one point, I wondered if Ian Samuels directed “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” while half-asleep. Nearly everything about it is safe and relaxed, from its look, the story’s dramatic parabola, down to its soundtrack. Consider time loop movies as a sub-genre: they thrive in taking risks, danger, and mystery. They entertain because there is usually subtext to the day resetting. Surely it would have been a wise choice for the filmmakers to have ask themselves if the material were interesting had the aspect of time loop been removed completely. I wager they didn’t.