Great things could be in store for writer-director Pete Chatmon if, as he has one character tell his hero, he gets out of his own way. Clearly fed up with the hoary conventions and often idiotic contrivances and semi-stalker behavior of Hollywood romantic comedies, he aims for something more real-world that still clings to the magical idea of true love. Premium has a problem with its slack and meandering narrative and an attenuated ending that tries too hard not to be a typical rom-com finale, but it's still well worth a look for its generous wit, casual insightfulness, and love of humanity in all of our foibles and fables. So committed is Chatmon to honesty, in fact, that he doesn't even take it easy on himself, casting himself in the uncredited role of a disdainful and self-important indie-film director named Pete Chatmon.
Ironically, the real Pete Chatmon may be Reggie "Cool" Coolidge (Dorian Missick), an aspiring African-American actor in suburban Essex County, NJ, a commuter-train ride away from auditions in Manhattan. Committed to his craft, he day-jobs pumping gas at Phil's Fill-Up, a mom-and-pop service station where his white old high-school buddy Derick (Keith Nobbs) fixes cars. And we do mean mom-and-pop: Namesake Phil (Frankie Faison) lives with Cool's caterer mom, Marva (Tonya Pickins), in blissful middle-aged domesticity--and are hinting for the 28-year-old Cool to maybe find a place of his own.
Between rounds of casting calls for murderers, thugs and "street pharmacists"--enduring the likes of a puffed-up Spike Lee wannabe who complains Reggie isn't playing things "black enough"--Cool tries to impress the ladies. That's not easy when he's a pump jockey who doesn't own a car, and brags that he rides a "collector's item" Huffy bicycle. Then, by chance and in need of gas, psychologist Charli Reynolds (Zoë Saldaña) drives back into his life after three years and a broken engagement.
In true romantic-comedy fashion, Charli's getting married in two days to Ed Marshall (Hill Harper), a patronizing buppie lawyer--the kind of sturdy, successful, predictable guy who gets the girl in real life but never in rom-coms. Of course, the still-mooning Cool is going to try to win Charli back--yet Chatmon keeps throwing curves and change-ups, and as the wisecracks and banter simmer down to real talk, a movie marketed as a romantic comedy shows its true self as a romantic drama about social masks and happily-ever-after expectations. The characters are completely color-blind all-American, yet Cool and Ed in different ways find themselves wanting to figure what "black" means, and finding only ideas out of movies. Charli tells Cool, "We're doing it right," as she argues for her upcoming life of a suburban house and a family. "You're doing it typical," Cool lobs back, believing love will find a way despite social, economic and other differences. The tragedy is that they're both right.
Chatmon has a sure hand with actors, getting nuanced performances all around-even from "America's Next Top Model 4" winner Eva Pigford as an actress with whom Cool sometimes works. Occasional inserts of "the screenplay as its being written" speak to Chatmon's theme that life's not like in the movies, and despite the needlessly retro clackety-clack typewriter sound, this is a case where a self-conscious device actually works.