By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist April 24, 2014 at 3:26PM
For years past and in years future, dating sites, sociologists, eggheads and more will continue to try and reduce romance to categories and algorithms determined by a carefully measured mix of life goals, expectations, desires and data. The theory is that if two people essentially check all the right collective boxes, they will be a perfect match. However, it's the unknowable and intangible qualities of love that make it to so special and ultimately profound. The chemistry that arises between two people and the magnetism that pulls them together still remains mysterious at its core. Certainly, one can look at a couple and find all the ways in which they complement one another, but there will always be ephemeral qualities — perhaps even unexplained to those involved — that no supercomputer or observant scientist will be able quantify. And yet in "Love & Engineering," a group of largely misguided computer engineers and tech nerds will try to unlock the secret of how men and women unite.
Directed by Tonislav Hristov, the documentary boasts an intriguing premise, at least on paper, with the film following Atanas, a Bulgarian 3D engineer with a PhD, who has found the stability and joy of marriage and family, and wants to help his lovelorn colleagues do the same. But to do that, he'll make guinea pigs of them, embarking on a (not very) scientific study of what connects the sexes. Participating, while also helping to turn the findings into something resembling research are: Tuomas (who looks like a thoroughly depressed Matt Damon), who at 30 years old reveals he's never been on a date; the charming Todor, who just needs a little help with talking to women; and the creepy, self-involved, heavy metal and videogame loving Markus. These are the three the film largely focuses on, with a couple others on the fringes, but this trio along with Atanas earn much of the attention from Hristov.
And as you might expect, a handful tech heads who, outside of Atanas, don't interact much with women on any kind of regular basis, are completely clueless as they embark on this social experiment. Ranging from blind smell tests to blind dates, there isn't much rigor to their approach, and its hardly science; it's really watching Atanas chase whatever hypothesis he has about relationships, and using these guys to test his theories. And while it might be indicative of an academic sphere that already doesn't have a strong female presence, the fact that none of these guys figure to bring a woman into their group for an alternate perspective, is both hilarious and disappointing. And it's telling that when late in the documentary, a woman scientist does arrive, she offers the kind of insight these guys could've used before they even started on their illfated, quasi-scientific endeavour.
Infused with both humor and genuine heartbreak, Hristov does make you feel for these young men, who have spent so much of their time online or behind computer screens, that the only way they approach the idea of being social, is looking at it as a scientific problem. As Tuomas spins DJ sets on real turntables in his apartment, for an audience consisting solely of avatars in "Second Life," you just want to give the guy a hug. When Todar — the most outgoing and arguably "successful" of his buddies, who manages to score dates and interest from women — has an emotional breakdown after a woman breaks their evening plans, his desperation and inability to emotionally process the ups and down of dating is moving. These are guys who aren't just shy or socially awkward; they are fundamentally at a loss at how to make a genuine connection. And while you may gasp at some of their flailing efforts to interact with women, "Love & Engineering" is melancholy more often than not.
And yet, while he manages to find right tenor for his documentary, you wish Hristov had dug into the subject a little more. Clearly, Atanas and co. are fascinating, sometimes trainwreck worthy subjects, but "Love & Engineering" never amounts to anything more than a quirky, novelty of a film because it's not interested in actually getting to know these guys. Given that Atanas has a wife and child, it's a bit surprising there is no input at all from his better half about what she found attractive in her geeky husband (they met online). And outside of their friendships with each other, we don't get to know anything about the lives of Tuomas, Todor and Markus or their families, which would seem to be crucial in understanding who they are, and give bigger stakes to their investment in what for all of them is an emotionally trying "scientific" test.
"Love & Engineering" glides along pleasurably enough simply by virtue of telling a story you have almost have to see to believe — Atanas and co. truly are characters you couldn't invent. But ultimately, the documentary doesn't resonate because the investment Hristov makes to his doc is in the subject matter, not the people powering it. It's a crucial misstep, one that sometimes finds the filmmaker unable to reach his subjects, in the same fumbling manner that they are unable to connect with women. [C]