The romantic action comedy has always had a breathlessly eager-to-please, overstuffed quality. You might say it’s a what’s-not-to-like genre. We laugh! With pulses racing! And swoon at the moonstruck chemistry! In a superior rom-act-com, like “Romancing the Stone” or “Out of Sight” or “True Lies” or the new “Murder Mystery” sequel, the action is the romance — it’s how the characters connect. (One way the form extends vintage Hollywood screwball is that it tends to be about couples who so dislike each other that only by joining in death-defying scrapes can they melt the ice.) But then there are movies like “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” where the love gets sandwiched between vehicular mayhem so aggressive it’s played for “laughs,” and the too-muchness of the whole thing becomes like one of those fast-food fusion experiments. Sorry, but the movie escapism equivalent of a burger topped with a quesadilla served with cheese fries is not my idea of a good time.
And that’s what “Ghosted” is. Directed by the awesomely unsubtle Dexter Fletcher (“Rocketman”), from a what-the-hell-let’s-throw-it-in-there script by four screenwriters (Rhett Reese, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Wernick) that makes you grateful there weren’t four more, the movie is a romantic action comedy that starts off light and breezy but turns, before you know it, into a dead-weight spectacle of wretched excess.
We’re talking a set-up that’s too defiantly farfetched to hook into. Fight scenes out of a Jason Statham movie but staged with far less precision. An arbitrary series of international settings. An espionage-thriller plot that’s just convoluted yet inconsequential enough to be thoroughly annoying. And a romantic connection between the two stars that doesn’t so much grow and develop as metastasize and get trampled, though theoretically we’re meant to look at their machinations and think: The couple that makes it through a top-heavy put-on thriller this exhausting together stays together.
“Ghosted” starts off in Washington, D.C., as a beguiling screwball confection, with Chris Evans, all sexy beard and menschy grin, and Ana de Armas, all spiked flirtation, getting into an argument the moment they meet cute. He’s Cole, a farmer who’s minding a potted-plant stand at the farmer’s market; she’s Sadie, an art curator who’s buying the wrong plant. But their squabble melts into an afternoon coffee, then a visit to the “Exorcist” stairs in Georgetown and a live-band karaoke bar, then a wander through the city that lasts all night, followed by a hop into the sack that seals the deal. The characters connect; the actors connect. The only conflict hinted at arrives in the form of a running joke about a potted cactus, which symbolizes two things: the tendency of one party (her) to neglect what she’s supposed to be nurturing (that’s why the cactus is the perfect plant for her), and the tendency of another (him) to be overly needy, which means that he could use a bit of that prickliness. So far, so fun.
The title sounds like it’s telling us that someone’s going to get ghosted — but it’s actually a reference to Cole’s paranoia about being ghosted, which leads him to frantically text Sadie the next day. (He doesn’t think he’s sending her too many texts, because he doesn’t count the emoji texts.) Cole lives with his family on a lovely farm outside Washington, where his folksy parents (Tate Donovan and Amy Sedaris) are more supportive of him than his brassy sister (Lizze Broadway) is. But they all can agree on this: Calm it down! Don’t act so needy!
Cole, however, can’t help himself. It’s in his nature to be that outdated thing, the overly super-nice guy. So after Sadie doesn’t return his texts, and he discovers, by tracking the asthma inhaler he left in her purse (that’s the first time our plausibility alert button goes off; it won’t be the last), that she’s gone to London, he makes an impulsive decision. He will fly across the ocean and surprise her! As if this were the climax of a ’90s rom-com and not the kickoff of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink streaming movie.
Will Cole look like a stalker? Of course he will! No sane person would do this. But the movie needs him to be in London so that he can suddenly get surrounded by three henchman who mistake him for…the Taxman. That’s the code name for a mysterious espionage specter he is very much not. (It’s also an excuse to use the Beatles’ “Taxman.”) So why would they think that’s who he is? Why would a sinister baddie (Tim Blake Nelson) with a Cold War Dracula accent strap him into a chair and begin torturing him with a smorgasbord of live bugs? If you haven’t already figured it out, the theme of “Ghosted” — or at least its modus operandi —is, Why ask why?
A good rom-act-com should escalate, slowly but surely, so the audience feels like it’s being invited along for the ride. “Ghosted,” on the other hand, wastes no time dropping Cole and Sadie into a desert in Pakistan, where they commander a colorful spangly indigenous bus and engage in a cliff-side road chase that looks like it wants to be the centerpiece sequence of “Indiana Jones XIV.” That Cole, an innocent farmer, is already hanging off the side of the bus like an action demigod is less nagging than the central confusion built into the story. Sadie, in case I forgot to mention it, is a CIA cutthroat who didn’t plan on Cole following her to London. Yet she never looks the least bit nonplussed about the fact that he showed up. Even as they become partners, the two maintain their hostility, which is partly rooted in her “man over mission” ethos. (She values the mission more than the life of any colleague. Including Cole.)
Yet for two sloggy hours, we could care less about the mission. Yes, it’s all a MacGuffin (or about three of them), starting with Aztec, a biomedical weapon that Leveque (Adrien Brody), a saturnine baddie, is trying to get hold of. Yet the film barely musters the pretense that any of this matters. Evans, Marvel hero that he is, is canny enough to flirt with nerdishness, but he spends too much of “Ghosted” acting petulant, maybe because he has to react to one too many lines like “You thought you met a hottie. Not a Mata Hari!” And de Armas, I’m afraid, turns into Mata Glare-y.
In a running gag, famous actors keep showing up, unbilled, as assassins, only to be assassinated after two minutes of screen time. In another running gag, everyone keeps telling Cole and Sadie, “You two should get a room,” the joke being that they’re fighting like cats and dogs. We get it: They’re expressing their sexual chemistry. There’s an action scene set aboard a plane set to Jet’s triumphantly raucous “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” which leads to the two being stranded on an island in the Arabian Sea. At this point you may start to notice that the movie isn’t building their chemistry — it’s getting in the way of it.
“Ghosted” works up to an elaborate sequence, set in a glassed-in skyscraper restaurant, that may remind you of a lot of other, better sequences. The espionage intrigue is rote; the action is more bombastic than any rom-act-com can truly sustain. I’m not sure if Dexter Fletcher has it in him to stage an elegantly fanciful-yet-plausible action scene. Yet in “Ghosted,” he tosses a whole lot of stuff into the blender, and that’s supposed to be enough. The action in this movie doesn’t really do much to bring the two characters together, except to the extent that when it’s over it’s like Novocaine wearing off.