‘A Tourist’s Guide To Love’ Review: Rachael Leigh Cook Gets a Heart-Stamped Passport in a Conventional But Charming Rom-Com

By the time the title card drops in “A Tourist’s Guide To Love” (ten minutes in — the Netflix rom-com equivalent of the 40-minute wait in “Drive My Car”), we know exactly what we’re in for: The heartbroken heroine at the film’s center is going to experience a life-altering perspective shift via romance when embarking on a work trip. Acting as a travelogue for Vietnam with an adorable romantic comedy happening in the foreground, this sweetly spirited story isn’t terribly dissimilar from the streamer’s other offerings like “Love in the Villa” or “Resort to Love,” sating any viewers suffering from stunted wanderlust. Funny, poignant and simultaneously progressive and regressive, it may not add up to five-star escapism, but it’s a jovial jaunt worth taking.

High-powered Los Angeles travel agent Amanda Riley (Rachael Leigh Cook) is used to going above and beyond for her clientele, but not necessarily for herself. She leads a safe, comfortable life, dedicating her talents to her job and her bestie boss Mona (Missi Pyle), while sharing a bland apartment with John (Ben Feldman), her equally boring accountant boyfriend of five years. However, her world turns upside down when John announces he’s planning to move across the country, putting their relationship on hold. Desperately seeking a change in scenery to get her mojo back, Amanda is sent on the vacation of a lifetime to Vietnam to secretly scope out a potential new business acquisition: a small, family-owned tour company that’s up for sale.

After experiencing a slight fish-out-of-water mishap at the airport, Amanda is greeted by her quick-witted tour guide Sinh Thach (Scott Ly) and his colorful bus-driver cousin Anh (Quinn Trúc Trán), who whisk her away to her hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. Amanda’s tour group has the good fortune of visiting the country during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration where everyone participates in traditional renewal rituals — letting go of the past year and opening themselves up to new prospects in the coming one. Yet as Amanda savors Da Nang and Ha Noi, learning to be a traveler rather than a tourist, she finds herself falling in love with Sinh, whose own plans to take over his uncle’s company throw a wrench into her sly scheme.

Director Steven K. Tsuchida and screenwriter Eirene Tran Donohue take care to incorporate the sights and sounds of Vietnam into the narrative, and the film is most buoyant when capturing the country’s beauty. Interstitial montages are crafted with prospective explorers in mind, featuring scenery saturated with color and warm light. From Amanda’s compact car surrounded by scooters (a baptism by traffic) in Ho Chi Minh City to more intimate locations like Sinh’s family village in Thon Chang, elegantly constructed sequences show our heroine swept away, immersed lush landscapes and cultural traditions.

The film doesn’t allot much time to the supporting players on tour with Amanda, but they’re meaningfully used. A subplot in which Sam (Jacqueline Correa), her wife Dom (Nondumiso Tembe) and their teen daughter Robin (Morgan Dudley) rekindle their familial bond counters the heteronormativity of the central romance. While long-time marrieds/first-time honeymooners Brian (Glynn Sweet) and Maya (Alexa Povah) recede into the background, the arc of awkward college-bound vlogger Alex (Andrew Barth Feldman) makes a big impact in a short time. Perhaps it’s an idealized portrait, but it’s refreshing to see tourists not depicted as bumbling buffoons, disturbing landmarks or mocking rituals for comic purposes.

There’s a light feminist streak here, as both Amanda and Sinh save each other from despair at various points, while a callback that sees Amanda navigating chaotic city traffic as a pedestrian — thus showcasing her evolving confidence — is well-handled. However, the female characters’ relationships with each other are woeful. From Amanda’s nail technician to Sinh’s grandma, their primary topic of conversation usually revolves around a man. It also doesn’t help that Amanda spends very little time working on herself before jumping into another romance. Her goal should be independence, not codependence.

That said, Cook and Ly share sparkling repartee, best glimpsed in their walk-and-talks and seated chats. Their chemistry builds from well-earned, character-building moments, as they bonding over the Hoi An lanterns they float on the river, or detour to My Son Sanctuary. Cook makes Amanda an easy heroine to root for, suffused with strength, humor and vulnerability, while Ly radiates wit and tenderness, especially when digging into Sinh’s deeper layers. He also embraces the obligatory beefcake shot with verve, emerging from the ocean during their day at the beach in a gender-flipped play on Ursula Andress’ famous entrance in “Dr. No.”

In a film that inspires its protagonists to go off-book and take a less travelled path, it’s surprising that the filmmakers don’t take this advice to heart themselves. They not only rely on the safety of genre tropes, they also don’t trust the audience to figure out any underlying sentiments, which are always expressed through dialogue. Though the journey taken with these characters doesn’t disappoint, it could use a little more fuel to propel them further.

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