Saturday, April 8, 2017

Hearty Rom-Coms

Generally speaking, I'm not the hugest fan of romantic comedies ... or romantic movies ... or most of the ones that pass for "comedic" these days. But there were a couple of movies that were on my "to watch" list for quite some time that I finally got around to, which both are purportedly part of the rom-com genre.

First up, a movie called Playing by the Heart. Never heard of? I'm not surprised, because it didn't seem to win much critical or box office love when it came out back in 1998. What is surprising is how so many talented actors were convinced to take part in this unexceptional film. The movie opens with a number of unconnected couples in various stages of relationships: 
- Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery) are an older couple facing the end of their relationship now that Paul's been diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor. One shocking revelation still remains though: An old affair that Paul had is discovered by Hannah. "Fun" note: watching how Paul tries to explain away this affair is pathetic. Second "fun" note: Paul's terminal illness no longer seems to be an issue at the tacked-on "happy" ending.
- Joan (Angelia Jolie) just got out of a terrible and ridiculous relationship but after breaking up with her boyfriend via a payphone in a club, she immediately turns upon the stranger (Ryan Phillippe) standing next to the phone and tries to pick him up. This happens repeatedly, night after night, despite his unwillingness to be in a relationship. "Fun" note: Ryan Phillippe's angsty portrayal is just him looking sullen all the time. 
- Meredith (Gillian Anderson) is a workaholic divorcee whose "meet cute" with an architect (Jon Stewart) involves a wall-sized bookcase falling over on her tiny self. "Fun" note: Jon Stewart's character is basically an asshole masquerading as a "nice guy." Yet I'm 99% sure the audience is supposed to think he really is a nice guy. Nope.
- Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) is having an affair because the "mystique" of it is so much better than her "boring" husband. "Fun" note: Shut up, Gracie. Second "fun" note: Even she seems to be have a more or less optimistic ending, despite all odds.
- Hugh (Dennis Quaid) keeps trying to tell a different sob story to whatever woman will listen to in bars across town. "Fun" note: Hugh could probably save himself a lot of grief by being more honest.
- And last but not least is the only non-romantic couple in the cast: Mark (Jay Mohr) is dying of AIDS and now has to open up to his mother (Ellen Burstyn) about his homosexuality. "Fun" note: The movie tries so hard to be open-minded and modern, but its handling of this topic feels both so preachy and so dated. 

These disparate characters and storylines eventually come together in an ending that I *think* is supposed to surprise the viewer, although it is easily predictable early enough into the movie. As you can probably gather from my sarcastic comments above, I wasn't a big fan of this movie. Almost everything about it felt contrived and/or saccharine, and the relationships depicted were all so unhealthy, yet we're clearly supposed to be happy at the ending. No thank you. And despite having such a talented cast, the performances were mostly pretty shoddy, although I can't help to think that a lot of that has to do with a corny plot and terrible dialogue. The only real standout is Ellen Burstyn as the grieving mother of a dying son, but even that is just a small part of the movie. There are a few funny moments scattered here and there in the movie, but honestly even those aren't that good.

Final word: Do yourself a favor and save your time by staying away from this title. I didn't believe Jon Stewart when he made fun of his movie career by holding this movie up as an example of wretchedness. No wonder this movie was hard to get a copy of -- it's not worth watching.

Next up was In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, and Shirley MacLaine, and based on the book of the same name. Rose (Collette) and Maggie (Diaz) are two sisters who couldn't be more dissimilar -- Rose is practical and plain; Maggie is flighty and primped. When a particularly painful betrayal happens, Rose kicks Maggie out. Forced to find her way on her own, Maggie discovers a grandmother (MacLaine) the girls never knew they had.

So I read the book this movie was based on way back when and loved it. When the movie came out, I wanted to see it but for some reason I just never got around to it. Recently, I read a memoir by Jennifer Weiner (the author of In Her Shoes) and her mentioning the movie in that memoir renewed my interest in watching it. Luckily my library had a copy, so I grabbed it right up. 

It's hard to review this movie 100% fairly. It's been so long since I've read the book now that I can't accurately compare the two -- the only glaringly "wrong" thing to me was that Maggie's time in Princeton (a part which for some reason sticks out to me more than any other part of the book) is completely missing from the movie. I guess it just wouldn't have filmed as well perhaps, but I felt like it was a crucial part to her story. 

Other than that, the movie seemed to jive more or less with the overall message of the book. Somehow though -- the condensed time perhaps -- the movie lacked some of the emotional impact of the book. Although I've loved Toni Collette in many other things before (including but not limited to United States of Tara), her story seemed the most lacking in emotional "realness" -- so often, her character just burst out with something that didn't seem to mesh with anything else, or else other characters referred to changes in her emotional state that just didn't seem to be there. Mostly I chalk that up to the shortened storytelling time more than on Collette's performance, but it was still a bit disappointing. (Also, it was terribly hard to believe that her character was so insecure about being overweight when she looks like she's about a size 4.)

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised with Cameron Diaz's performance. It is probably biased of me, but I didn't expect much from the star of There's Something About Mary and The Sweetest Thing (two movies I wish I had never wasted my time on). However, she really embodied the role of Maggie and brought an impressive range to the character. Shirley MacLaine also did a fine job in her role as a grandmother long estranged from her grandchildren and dealing with some heavy emotional baggage of her own.

While both the book and the movie have been cast in the ghetto of "chick lit" and "rom-com," respectively, the story of In Her Shoes is so much more than your standard romantic storyline (girl meets boy, they have a falling out of some sort, girl and boy end up back together when everything is cleared up). Deep and varied issues are addressed, ranging from mental illness and death to forgiveness and acceptance. It is not necessarily a strictly "feel good" movie, although it does end on uplifting notes.

Final word: Hard to say with this one, actually. If at all possible for you to do so, I'd recommend you read the book, which was so thoroughly good. Barring that, then maybe watching the movie is a worthwhile use of your time. It's a decent choice for when you don't want something too fluffy, but you also don't want to be slammed by something unremittingly depressing with no hope whatsoever.

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