Coles Burroughs, the selfish protagonist played by Mark Ruffalo in Austin Chick's unexceptional debut XX/XY, proclaims early on to his girlfriend Sam (Maya Stange) "I'm never growing up," and then proceeds for the film's hour and a half to prove himself right. A spineless rascal guided by his sexual urges and fear of commitment, Coles is an aspiring filmmaker who meets Sam and her freewheeling roommate Thea (Kathleen Robertson) at a party in 1993, and winds up having a ménage à trois with the alluring strangers. The ensuing fallout finds Sam and Coles in a relationship and Thea on the outside as a full-time friend/part-time lover, and this uncomfortable setup leads to a pervasive fear of infidelity - as Coles later states, "There's no room for honesty in a healthy relationship." An untrustworthy lothario, Coles is all too happy to confirm such a statement, and the three soon discover that they cannot deal with the jealousy, deceit, and anger created by their current circumstance. The trio disbands, and the film jumps ahead ten years to find the former lovers reconnecting through a chance encounter. Yet while their situations (and hairstyles) are noticeably different, very little about Coles has changed for the better, and it's not long before the sparks are once again flying between him and Sam.
The problem is, Coles is now living with the devoted Claire (Petra Wright) - who proves both her love for Coles as well as her great cinematic taste in one fell swoop by getting her beau a box set of Claire Denis films for their anniversary. Her introduction, in a refreshing twist, allows writer/director Chick to deviate from his heretofore typical romantic comedy setup. Rather than cast Claire as the icy bitch Coles has, in the wake of losing Sam, been forced to settle for, Chick wisely pulls the rug out from under us, portraying Claire as almost frighteningly ideal. After Coles and Claire get together with Sam (who has shunned an engagement proposal in London and recently returned home) and Thea (who is now married to a restaurant owner) for dinner, Claire confronts Coles about the possibility that he might still harbor feelings for his one-time love; the forthrightness, respect, and clear-headed compassion and understanding she conveys while openly discussing the issue with Coles is, in its sincerity and equanimity, shocking. With Coles once again feeling magnetically drawn to Sam, Claire's goodness is the film's most delightful surprise, and winds up complicating what initially seemed to be a rote tale of lost love rediscovered.
Chick, who writes with a wittiness that's at odds with his awkward directorial control of the material - there are a few too many indie film-style slow motion shots for XX/XY's own good - finds, in Ruffalo, a fitting leading man. Coles is rather despicable, and it's a testament to Ruffalo's dashing, rakish appeal that he never becomes an object of our scorn or disgust. Whether sporting a slacker-ish fu manchu moustache during 1993 or a more clean-cut preppie outfit ten years later, his Coles is the kind of good-hearted (if hopelessly self-absorbed) moron who can't control his foolish and destructive sexual impulses, and it's this childlike disregard for taking responsibility for his own actions that makes him simultaneously loathsome and empathetic. With an enticing smile that radiates high-wattage cool under a cloak of scruffy nonchalance, Ruffalo gets completely under the skin of Coles, and turns in his most natural performance since his appearance as a similarly irresponsible yet irresistible guy in You Can Count on Me.
The film stumbles, however, with its central romantic entanglement. Chick's self-effacing screenplay and the conviction of his actors' performances can't overcome the lack of chemistry between Ruffalo and Stange (whose Sam is a bit too generic and demure for the oily, charismatic Coles) - they never generate the heat required to make their characters' passionate relationship wholly compelling. While sitting in a café one sunny afternoon, Coles - whose filmmaking dreams have given way to an advertising career creating commercials about singing tacos in bikinis - is approached by a young man who, having seen Coles' one and only (negatively received) feature film, demands his money back. On the basis of the agreeable but imminently forgettable XX/XY, Chick may eventually find that life sometimes imitates art.