In 1979, Woody Allen directed a film called Manhattan: half a love story about neurotic, self-obsessed intellectuals, half a gauzy Valentine to all the nooks and crannies of a city the filmmaker adored, filmed in unmentionably gorgeous black-and-white 70mm by the legendary Gordon Willis. And much as Annie Hall has been echoed consciously or subconsciously in virtually every romantic comedy to come out since, so has Manhattan influenced more movies than I could count. But never have I seen a film so obviously affected by the Allen picture as In Search of a Midnight Kiss, a Los Angeles-based indie romance from writer-director Alex Holdridge.

I'm well aware that comparing Midnight Kiss to Manhattan is quickly becoming a cliché, but it seems impossible to avoid doing it: that the film is desperately anxious for the audience to make that connection is clear from the very opening monologue, a slacker's proem set to, yes, jazz music. I should feel a crank not to indulge. The only other thing it wants to be quite so baldly is a next-gen version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, with which it shares a producer. And which are also films that have generated no small number of imitators and even a kind of subgenre: the Angsty Walk-'n-Talk.

It's not ipso facto bad that the movie doesn't really have anything in the way of originality. Just that the whole time you're watching it, you have to try really hard to not keep thinking about those other movies, which for the most part, Midnight Kiss can't compete with. And the fact that I had to qualify that with "for the most part" is its own kind of triumph. Above all else, it really does work as a paean to Los Angeles, a city where more movies have been shot than any other in the history of the world, which nevertheless only rarely ever seems to have a personality or a history to it. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white video, there are moments of true beauty that showcase an angle of L.A. that most of us have never considered, where the buildings are old but classic-looking, and the streets are filled with people who aren't movie stars. The artificial visual style makes it all seem a little unreal, and a little timeless, and by and large, this is one of the only times in history that I've felt the city looked nice enough to actually live in. Now to be fair, the film certainly looks rough-hewn (it suffers in multiple places from jutter and artifacting, banes of digital video that don't often make it into commercially released projects), but rather than suggesting cheapness, this simply makes the film seem more personal and intimate, like a home video made only for private consumption.

The city portrait isn't as important to the film as it is in e.g. Manhattan, and that brings us to the much more typical and much less exciting plot of the film. 30-year-old Wilson (Scoot McNairy, whose name I am going to assume to be a stage name, if only because the terror of parents naming a child "Scoot" does not fit into my worldview) has been living in L.A. for three months trying and failing to sell a screenplay or get over his break-up from his girlfriend of many, many years, who stayed behind in Texas. On the morning of New Year's Eve, his roommate Jacob (Brian McGuire) catches him masturbating to a picture of Jacob's girlfriend Min (Kathleen Luong), Photoshopped onto a porn model's head; perhaps incidentally, Jacob and Min encourage Wilson to consider using Craigslist that very afternoon to find a girl to spend the countdown to midnight with. Writing a post referring to himself as "The Misanthrope", Wilson ends up making plans with chain-smoking Vivian (Sara Simmonds), herself freshly off of a break-up.

Notwithstanding its quintessentially indie need to develop characters through quirk rather than, y'know, characterisation - that masturbation gag is awfully twee - the opening fifteen or twenty minutes are actually pretty great: though he has an incredible name, McNairy turns out to be an appealing actor, and his chemistry with McGuire is note-perfect; after the rancid "mumblecore" subgenre (now apparently dead) made human interaction seem like people reading Pitchfork quotes over one another's shoulders, it's amazing to see an indie movie with people who act like people again. Plus, there's a strong sense in the opening scenes that this is going to end up as a smart look at how the internet has fundamentally altered the way that people go through life (it's implied that the modern urban adult can only find love on the web), with at least a couple of ideas that haven't been fully strip-mined in the last five years.

Unfortunately, when Vivian shows up the movie goes to hell. It's not that Simmonds isn't a poor actress; she's been given an unplayable role, basically the trite Magical Pixie only horribly abusive. Before she ever meets Wilson, she informs him that she's "interviewing" three other men for her date; once they actually meet up, she warns that if he hasn't won her over by 6:00 PM, she's going to toss him aside and find somebody actually worthwhile to spend her night with, all while puffing through cigarette after cigarette and snapping over basically every opinion Wilson expresses. In time, we're made to learn that her visceral shittiness is a mask for fear and insecurity, but until that, we're left wondering what conceivable reason could drive Wilson to put up with her for five minutes let alone a whole afternoon, after which if he had any thread of sanity, he'd be grateful that she finally threw him over. But this is a movie, and so they stick together despite the fact that she is completely awful.

And that's the big problem, the one that the film never gets over: the film's idea of "romantic" is watching a boring guy with sexual problems try to flirt with a harridan (and I don't like to throw out sexist words, but Vivian is a harridan if ever I've seen one), and in the process become a better man. That's the other big problem: Vivian is tremendously flat, with character development pasted on for show, and her only function in the movie is to give Wilson some perspective. Maybe if she felt like she had an inner life, her shrewishness wouldn't be so grating (indeed, if she had an inner life, she by necessity could not be a shrew). Anyway, when the end comes, the film is all of a sudden very sweet and Vivian is gentle and human and all that, but there's an hour where we just want her to go away and stop being Angry Natalie Portman. Ah, but sexism is always alive and well in the land of the microbudget!

Even at the end, though, there's a hint of hipsterist nihilism that's not in keeping with what's gone before, and the feeling one gets is that Holdridge is not a student of life, but of other movies. At times this serves him well, but all in all it's hard not to regard In Search of a Midnight Kiss as a better-than-usual riff on a tune that's been played to death in recent years, with an unusually poor balance between the two romantic leads.