” Red, White & Royal Blue ” is a harmlessly enjoyable fantasy rom-com. It’s not Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers, nor is it really trying to be. It’s more in line, aesthetically, tonally, emotionally (in other words not really emotional at all), with one of those early aughts trifles where a normal American girl discovers she’s actual royalty or a not-normal American girl (usually the president’s kid) starts dating. This is “What a Girl Wants” meets “First Daughter” except this time the romantic partners are men.
The movie, directed by Matthew López, the Tony-winning playwright of “The Inheritance,” who co-wrote the script with Ted Malawer, is based on a popular novel by Casey McQuiston that quickly became a New York Times bestseller upon its debut in 2019 and got the attention of Amazon Studios. McQuiston’s story dealt a hate-turns-to-love story between the son of the American president (a woman) and a senator who begins a secret romantic affair with a British prince. Prince Henry is gay. Alex Claremont-Diaz isn’t quite sure how he identifies. But both are certainly closeted. Other characters are trans and pansexual, though not solely defined by that. The president is a woman, married to a man of Latino heritage. The LA Review of Books described it as “propulsive” and “pulpy” and “fantastical.”
López keeps “Red, White & Royal Blue” in a solidly fantastical space. You don’t ever quite believe anything you’re seeing — from Prince Henry’s ability to go undercover at a Texas bar by simply putting on a baseball hat, to the horrendously fake snow adorning a pivotal New Year’s Eve scene. And yet, like a beach read, it goes down easy and has enough surprising wit and edge that makes it a cut above a lot of mediocre rom-coms. Plus, this has Stephen Fry as the King, Uma Thurman as the U.S. president and an ethically dubious Politico reporter.
Taylor Zakhar Perez (of “The Kissing Booth”) and Nicholas Galitzine (of “Cinderella”) star as Alex and Henry, who met once years before in an unseen “Pride and Prejudice”-style misunderstanding that have our two strapping leads hating one another from the start. This is a bit overdone, but at a royal wedding Alex gets quite drunk and he and the prince end up bumping into the $75,000 wedding cake which comes crashing down on them. The incident becomes known as the Buttercream Summit and has both countries scrambling to prove that they are still friends with some forced photo opportunities and interviews with the quarrelling men.
Have you heard this one before? Of course you have and at almost two hours it starts to wear thin by the end. “Red, White & Royal Blue” tries to keep things modern and cool, with its best approximations of CW-style “West Wing”- meets-“Veep” White House and campaign staffers who say things like “you’re yucking my yum.” Sometimes they work.
There’s no “Call Me By Your Name” or “Passages”-level passion here, but López and his actors do go well beyond what their prudish predecessors ever attempted, which is not nothing. We even get a cheeky cutaway to the Washington Monument.
And yet these characters also leave a lot to be desired. Alex, who we’re told has a working-class chip on his shoulder, wears Le Labo’s Santal 33 and throws an annual New Year’s Eve party that looks like something Paris Hilton would have attended in Georgetown in the George W. Bush-era. And Prince Henry has a real, heartbreaking dilemma that is given the most minimal, palatable space possible. There were more opportunities that could have been explored, but “Red, White & Royal Blue” chose a more vanilla soft serve version. Prince Henry also gets points in Alex’s book for being a David Bowie fan (which seems about as unique as being a “Star Wars” fan).
Credit goes to Amazon, López and Berlanti Productions (also behind the teen rom-com “Love, Simon”) for releasing this with an R-rating (though I can’t imagine a similar movie with a heterosexual couple getting that).
Ultimately, it’s not earth shattering but it’s also perfectly pleasant for what it is and what it knows it isn’t. “Red, White & Royal Blue” is a beach read in movie form and one that can and should be watched with friends.
“Red, White & Royal Blue,” an Amazon Studios release streaming Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “language, some sexual content and partial nudity.” Running time: 118 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.