The debut feature of Valerie Weiss, a biophysicist with a PhD from Harvard, Losing Control arrives under the aegis of something called “the Catalyst Workshop,” a program the film’s press kit describes as “a U.S. Department of Defense-backed program designed to help scientists translate their work into stories for film, television and new media,” which I’m pretty sure is how the C.I.A. described the Congress for Cultural Freedom, its anti-communist advocacy group from the 1950s. I don’t know if the Department of Defense had any notable influence, directly or indirectly, over the content of this film, or even if anybody working for the Department of Defense is aware of the films their program is involved in producing. But it’s rather amusing, given the circumstances of its production, that Losing Control explicitly vilifies both the treacherous Chinese government and the treasonous American intellectual who aids them, and that it does so with mindlessness and glee. I assume this is nothing more than a coincidence. The film, in its defense, is far too vacuous to be accused of having any kind of agenda—it just happens to get its politics wrong along with everything else.
We’re told that Losing Control is “loosely based on Weiss’s own experiences,” but it would be more accurate to say that it’s heavily based on Weiss’s own experiences watching terrible movies. What unfolds reveals not even traces of lived experience. Samantha (Miranda Kent), a PhD candidate at Harvard who wants to apply the scientific rigor of the classroom to the unpredictability of romance, is distressed to learn that—oh gosh—in the experiment of life, sometimes true love just doesn’t measure up. Samantha, one of the most irritating rom-com characters in recent memory, can’t replicate the results of a lab experiment we have no reason to care about for reasons the movie doesn’t bother to explain, and as a result she’s spent the last four years deeply considering the moral implications of her unquestioned privilege. Actually, no, she doesn’t do that, but she does fret ceaselessly about her meticulously fashioned life plan, which as for all straight white women involves marrying her affluent, educated white boyfriend and starting a family. Again, this film has no agenda.
Lacking empirical evidence that he is “the one,” Samantha rejects her boyfriend’s surprise marriage proposal, suggesting instead that she test a smattering of control subjects against which she can compare him. Because the film believes that agreeing to have other sexual partners while in a healthy, loving relationship is inherently wrong and terrible and something that nobody normal would ever do, Samantha’s romantic experiment is framed as a wacky and totally outrageous thing that we should find funny and interesting simply because it’s happening. And because cartoons and stereotypes are easier to work with than believably developed characters, Samantha’s male control subjects range from culty polygamous weirdos to buffoonishly vapid jerks, all of it coughed up to sell the idea that her boyfriend truly is the one after all. Eventually Samantha’s romantic testing leads to a breakthrough in the lab, which then leads, quite inexplicably, to a dramatic subplot involving an escape from a mental asylum and—yes, seriously—a secret Chinese espionage scheme. This, I suspect, is why we’re told the film is only “loosely” based on Weiss’s personal experiences.
In theory, it’s incredible that we get to see autobiographical movies by biophysicists with PhD’s from Harvard, and I love the idea that scientists—or dentists, police officers, cobblers, whomever—get to translate their work into stories for film. But Losing Control is not a personal story; it doesn’t offer a unique perspective or a portrait of experience. It’s a poor approximation of a genre built around artifice and cliché.