Doodad Kind of Town

New Rom Coms: There’s Good News and Bad News
July 15, 2009, 11:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

First the bad news. We might as well get it out of the way.

We’re now seven years past the summer of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and Nia Vardalos is still managing, if just barely, to cruise along on the enormous goodwill generated by that monster hit. But if her latest film is anything to go by, Vardalos’ days as a rom-com darling may be numbered.

I find it odd that a film titled “I Hate Valentine’s Day” is being released in July, even odder that it’s playing the arthouse/IFC In Theaters On Demand circuit (a distribution pattern usually reserved for foreign films and offbeat indies rather than crappy mainstream comedies). But those are the least of its problems.

“… Valentine’s Day” starts promisingly enough, with a peppy opening credit sequence of Vardalos greeting other merchants in her neighborhood as she heads out to open her flower shop on the day before Valentine’s day. It’s atmospheric and set to a lively pop tune, and it’s kind of fun. But then we see John Corbett stepping out into that neighborhood street, and from there, the entire plot of the film becomes a foregone conclusion.

Because John Corbett doesn’t have to act anymore, he doesn’t even have to try! All he has to do is show up. In the lingering afterglow of his roles in “Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Sex and the City,” Corbett’s mere presence is shorthand for “This is the decent, honest, sex-on-a-stick kind of guy who will teach the leading lady the meaning of true love.” (It’s about time Corbett switched it up and played an arrogant prick or two, don’tcha think?)

But if Corbett barely makes an effort to distinguish this character from the others he’s played, Vardalos is guilty of trying way too hard. She wrote and directed “… Valentine’s Day” in addition to starring; that’s at least two more jobs than she was equipped to handle. More on than a bit later.

Vardalos’ character, Genevieve, loves romance and dodges commitment. She gathers her adoring, love-starved friends for lunches at the local sandwich shop where she delivers canned lectures on her dating wisdom: meet someone, have five great, romantic dates with them, then dump them and move on before the romance dies. Her half-wit friends hang on her every word, but Corbett’s hunky restaurateur isn’t having it. He dumps her after date four (or date five, depending on whose side you take in a very tiresome running argument.) The rest of the film devotes itself to a long, contrived, not terribly interesting run of misunderstandings and miscommunications, with some side trips to Genevieve’s dysfunctional family history. By the time it all gets resolved, you’ll be so tired of both of them that you won’t really care.

How can I put this kindly? Nia Vardalos isn’t the best person to direct herself. I still contend that Vardalos is more of reliable straight woman than a gifted comedienne; her likability is considerably enhanced when she’s surrounded by a cast of eccentric goofballs to play off. No such ensemble feeling is apparent in “I Hate Valentine’s Day.” The lovable goofballs are there, but they’re definitively second or third bananas. Vardalos holds center stage all to herself.

Or should I say center frame? Because that’s where she usually is – feet planted firmly, a too-wide predatory smile plastered across her face, as she favors Corbett with non-stop pearls of wisdom on matters of both commerce and the heart. Flirtation is the obvious intention here, but Vardalos’ stilted, overemphatic line readings are more reminiscent of a mediocre community theatre actress performing her tried-and-true audition monologue. We get just enough cuts to Corbett looking on, quizzical and mildly enchanted, so that we understand how irresistible Genevieve is when she can’t stop talking bullshit. And should Corbett ever fail to summon sufficient enchantment, there’ll be tinkling, romantic music on the soundtrack to hammer home the message that these two crazy kids belong together, damn it!

It never seems to occur to Vardalos that the best way to show us how much these two are attracted to each other might be to – at least occasionally – shoot them in the same frame! There’s one brief, sweet scene with them sitting side by side on a park bench that ends with Corbett leaning his head gingerly into Vardalos’, and it feels so utterly real and fresh that it seems to have been spliced in from another director’s movie entirely. It’s the only minute of genuine chemistry between the two stars in the entire 94.

Otherwise, when Corbett isn’t around, we’re treated to Genevieve’s relentless tendency to make, goofy, sputtering, slow-leak kinds of noises when she’s frustrated or depressed. All in all, this film is the most horrific example of a director celebrating her own, self-perceived adorableness since Barbra Streisand’s “The Mirror Has Two Faces.”

And would it be churlish of me to suggest that, at 46, Vardalos is getting a bit long in the tooth for this kind of nonsense? In “I Hate Valentine’s Day,” she’s written herself a role that might have been great for Kate Hudson. Five years ago. You can feel both sympathy and empathy for a 25-year-old with Genevieve’s hang-ups, but when you encounter them in a 46-year-old, you pretty much just want to slap her upside the head.

Now for some good news. Well, better news anyway.

“The Proposal” feels fresher and sweeter than it has any right to be, given that’s it’s yet another retread of the very tired, “Busy Business Lady” rom com formula. Large credit for that must be given to its leads.

Sandra Bullock hasn’t made a romantic comedy in years, and more’s the pity. Unlike many actresses who’ve essayed the genre of late (Renee Zellwegger and Katherine Heigl spring right to mind), Bullock actually is a gifted comedienne. She has a nice flair for physical comedy and a way of putting an unexpected, ticklish spin on her line readings that generates laughs where lesser comic talents would never know to find them. Above all, she’s reliably likable and sympathetic, even when the characters she plays aren’t.

Those qualities pay off in “The Proposal” where Bullock plays a tough-as-nails, bitch-on-wheels, Canadian-born publishing executive. The “Canadian-born” part is important, because she’s ignored restrictions on her green card and is about to be deported. To keep her Manhattan publishing gig, she pretends to be engaged to her assistant (Ryan Reynolds). Soon she and Reynolds are winging their way to his hometown to celebrate the 80th birthday of his Grammy Annie (a peppery and fitfully funny Betty White – think Sue Ann Nivens, not Rose Nylund).

Aside from Bullock, what gives “The Proposal” its unique appeal is that, for most of the movie, you can’t tell how it’s going to end. Whether the icy relationship between Bullock and Reynolds will thaw sufficiently to become a romance is never a foregone conclusion; in fact, it doesn’t feel terribly romantic, at all. For one thing, Reynolds is twelve years Bullock’s junior, an obvious fact which is never directly addressed. For another, the warmth and understanding that eventually develops between the two is unforced and un-formulaic, and doesn’t involve much passion. You really do keep guessing up until the last minute. No rom com in recent memory has been this subtle and evasive about where it was heading.

Reynolds proves a good foil for Bullock. I’ve been slow to warm to his charms as a leading man, but his performance here is subtle, confident and generous. He complements, but doesn’t outshine, his leading lady – as is appropriate for the solid, decent, prinicipled guy his character is meant to be.

“The Proposal” isn’t perfect. There are some woefully misguided moments (chief among them a very strange scene where Bullock discovers White out in the woods, wearing Native American garb and chanting prayers to Mother Nature; it’s a WTF moment out of nowhere that’s never brought into the larger context of the story.) But it’s suffused with such a glow of good will and charm that you’ll likely forgive the rough spots.


7 Comments so far
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First of all, my darling, you are absolutely hilarious. You have a forceful, biting wit that hits hard when you make a substantial point.And you hit the bullseye several times with this awesome post..Totally agree with you on THE PROPOSAL. Sandra and Ryan have a simple realistic bond that appears completely believable on screen. You can't manufacture such things…and the magnificent chemistry that they have can not be denied. In terms of the film, those two really lucked out. They were not only able to portray two people who had a serious deeply felt connection but they had some superb backup from some great supporting players. Betty White and Denis O'Hare were both hilarious. As good as Sandra and Ryan were, it wouldn't have been the same film without those two terrific character actors. As for Ms. Vardalos…I've only seen her in MBFGW. Can I be honest and say, for the record, how much I HATED it? I adore Nia. I think she's great. I also dig John Corbett a lot too. Sexy as hell on NORTHERN EXPOSURE. But the film itself was sappy and ridiculous. I may be a passionate romantic. But I am allergic to stupidity. It just seemed so watered down and insubstantial. I've only seen the trailer for I HATE VALENTINES' DAY. I all ready had problems at that level. Have to ask you one thing though. I'm also with you on the point about certain difficulties being more forgivable if the person is young. If someone doesn't know what the hell she's doing in her midforties, then I imagine she never will. Hell, we don't get to live THAT long. But Nia isn't playing her own age, is she? I can't believe she's 46. (Even though I know she is.) She looks 30ish. Is she portraying someone in that particular age bracket? Believe me. Many, many, MANY people haven't gotten their lives together (especially relationship wise) at that point. In this post modern culture, people grow up really late now. Frankly, that trailer offended me as a person, as a woman – in ways I couldn't even go into in a public forum. This five dates BS seems like exactly that: BS. I get her point about relationships inevitably crumbling and romance dying. But if you're only going to give it FIVE DATES you're not going to get anything good out of it either. PERIOD. No wonder her character is unfulfilled and miserable. That's insane. If you're going to cut it off anyway, why not when it's reached a month or two months? Then you can at least get a level of excitement built up. Get your needs met. If it's not going to work, then it's not going to work. But five dates???Then why "date" at all?So I saw the clip where the Corbett character talks to his guy friend about Nia's guidelines. He tells John that Nia sets her boy/girl scenarios up this way because she wants to have sex with him. So John tells her that he wants to have sex with her and she just shakes her head. With a condescending little smile (the kind that you'd give to a petulant child) she tells him: "Just because I'm NOT interested in a relationship doesn't mean I'm easy." Um…WHAT???If you're not interested in a relationship then why bother to date? I suppose whether a woman wants to have sex with a guy or not is really irrelevant because it has to be on her terms in any case. But if a woman is (hypothetically – even in a whimsical motion picture) going to lay down the law and have personal rules for herself and the men that she gets involved with, SHOULDN'T THEY MAKE SENSE? This whole scenario seemed much too retarded to me…and now that you've blown the lid off of it, I don't have to bother going. I look forward sincerely to Nia's future endevours. With or without Mr. Corbett. I think she's very attractive, funny and talented. But I want to see her (or them) in a better film than this. Thanks for the eye opener, Patty. You're my hero.

Comment by Miranda Wilding

Miranda -As always, you make some wonderful, thoughtful points.From the trailer alone, you've clued right on one of the film's biggest weaknesses. The whole "five dates and you're done" mentality is ridiculous, and the fact that Genevieve's friends would turn to her for romantic advice when she espouses such preposterous philosophy is beyond insane.No, Vardalos isn't necessarily playing Genevieve as a 46-year-old. Her age is indeterminate, probably mid-to-late 30s. My grouchiness about that probably grows out of the fact that I'm feeling old myself and getting tired of how few films deal with things that 40-somethings actually face. I'm tired of 40-something actresses (Sandra Bullock included, even though I'm a fan) who repeatedly play younger in films about younger people's issues. It's not an entirely rational view, just the way I'm feeling these days.I used to like Vardalos a lot, but the more I see of her, the more I realize how limited she is and how much of her appeal is really just the reflected glow of her well-chosen co-stars. Corbett seemed sexy to me at one time, but there's only so far you can go when you're typecast as the Ideal Boyfriend. Nowadays, he bores me to tears. I hear he was great on "Northern Exposure," but I've never seen that show. I really didn't watch TV in the early '90s, so I missed a lot.

Comment by Pat

Thank you so much for your kind words, Patty. Your warmth and generosity is extraodinarily rare these days. On the net or off. I feel exceptionally fortunate to have you as a friend. We see so much of the world in the same way…and our discussions (whether at your site or mine) are always greatly interesting and substantial. It bothers me (and it makes me tremendously sad) that you're allowing the shallow entertainment industry to get to you. It's true. We do live in a very ageist society. Film, television, music and (the worst of all possible examples) modelling have always been about highlighting the abilities of the younger crowd. There is a long way to go. But I've been beating this drum a long time. People are aging every second they're alive. ALL OF US will be middleaged and old eventually. But whether we'll look it is another matter entirely… The baby boomers are behind this upheaval. Good for them. Everything comes down to money at the end of the day. Those women are in their 50s and 60s – many of them still gorgeous, hot and very youthful. They wanted to see themselves reflected on screen and it is happening more and more. LOTS of female actors are working well into their 40s and beyond. Meryl Streep is not just a performer of great acclaim. She has serious power. Judi Dench has never stopped working. Helen Mirren has the best of both worlds. She's taken seriously as an artist. She's a formidable Academy Award winner…and people still consider her an eminently desirable woman. The barriers are coming down. I found an old interview with Michelle Pfeiffer, who was paired romantically with Sean Connery in THE RUSSIA HOUSE. The reporter asked her how she felt about the age disparity. She said that it was simply a reflection of the industry itself. Accept that that's the way it will be. The suits think that people will pay good money to see beautiful young (or YOUNGER) women with old dudes. But not the other way around. Then she made a facinating comment about performers: "There is not one woman that that will happen to in my lifetime." Deeply ironic. Twenty years down the road, she (at 50) is starring opposite Rupert Friend – who is her love interest – in CHERI. He's pushing 30, I believe. And in the film he ages from 19 to 25 while her character Lea is approximately 20 years older. But I think that it goes deeper than that with you. You want to see your life or some kinds of similar experiences reflected on screen without actors having to PRETEND that they're younger or in a different age bracket. I get it. But all of that's a ooming attraction. As in SOON. Frankly, I didn't think that some of this would ever happen and it's all ready started. No big deal, Patty. I bet you look fantastic. And you'll NEVER be old to me…

Comment by Miranda Wilding

Miranda -Right back at ya, sweetie.I'm always thrilled to see comments from you at my blog. You have smart and thoughtful perspectives on every situation,and you are unfailingly kind and generous. Plus (no small thing), you know how to disagree with civility.And I agree with you. We are "getting there," slowly but surely. Hence the success of "More" magazine – to which I subscribe – which every month highlights fabulous-looking, bright, talented, active, over-40 women. Not to mention the many fine TV shows – "Damages," "The Closer," "Saving Grace," "The New Adventures of Old Christine" to name just the best-known examples – that provide nuanced, intelligent depictions of over-40 women.Films, however (at least of the mainstream, American variety) are lagging a bit behind TV in this regard. I'm going to guess that's because film audiences tend to be overall younger (and dominated by young males, perhaps?) therefore less interested in, as well as less sympathetic to, the tribulations and joys of middle-age. That's my theory anyway. Even so, isn't it great that, at allmost 60, Meryl Streep can still pull 'em in at theatres?

Comment by Pat

I never go see movies like this, so I was never really interested in finding out more about them. I disliked (not hated) the lame Big Fat… and felt Vardalos had shot her wad with that. She seemed so much like the one-trick pony she is, aided in a film deal by her acquaintance with Greek wife to the mighty Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson.As for Bullock, I like her a lot; she always makes her movies, however potentially retarded (e.g., While You Were Sleeping) better. I still call Corbett Chris in the Morning, which give you a hint of where I am with him.As for this comment, My grouchiness about that probably grows out of the fact that I'm feeling old myself and getting tired of how few films deal with things that 40-somethings actually face, you're not being personally indulgent in that wish. We all need stories about our lives; they help us learn how to cope with each stage of life. It's funny how we know that for children and look for "lesson" books, but don't pay near the amount of attention to our aging, which in many ways, is a lot harder as we approach death. Few filmmakers venture into this territory (Paul Cox is the only one I can think of who deals regularly with the elderly) but there's always been and always will be a market for movies of this type. I try to see and review them when they cross my path because you do have to search for them. Television is the place for more mature stories and actors.

Comment by Marilyn

Marilyn -I think you may have Vardalos pegged correctly as a one-trick-pony. But it also occurs to me that the best thing I ever saw her do was a cameo on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" as Larry's combative, brittle attorney. I suspect this Greek-American Sweetheart role she keeps recycling may not be allowing her to play to her strengths – I get a a sense that she's suppressing a snarkier, funnier side.

Comment by Pat

My gosh, I didn't realize Corbett was actually in The Valentine's movie. Why not just make a direct sequel after MBFGW?And The Proposal, despite my strong disinterest (?) in it, continues to intrigue me based on what I've heard. Kind of like Definitely, Maybe, last year – everybody loved it and I still chose to skip it. Is Ryan Reynolds the secret ingredient?

Comment by Daniel Getahun

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