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Entries in Love Happens [2009] (1)

Sunday
Sep202009

Love Happens (2009)

The Legacy of Two-Face

I’ve lost a bit of weight this year. A few weeks ago, my wife and I went shopping to find me jeans that don’t sag like a gangsta rapper’s. After an hour of trying things on, I left the store satisfied that I wasn’t quite ready for new pants. While the idea of trading up my old, worn jeans was tempting, I realized that the subtlety of the non-fit would ultimately make me feel uncomfortable and look ridiculous.

If only the studio behind Love Happens had that kind of restraint. It’s as if Universal Pictures took two half-formed movies of different genres—one great, one awful—and mashed them together like some celluloid Frankenstein monster. In fairness, Halloween is right around the corner.

But there’s nothing fun about the end result. This is an emotionally jarring mess that engenders anger rather than sympathy. In the movie, Aaron Eckhart plays Burke Ryan, a self-help guru on the verge of household name recognition. Having lost his wife in a car accident three years earlier, he now counsels people on dealing with grief. He touches down in Seattle for a weeklong seminar; this coincides with a big meeting that his agent (Dan Fogler) has arranged that will net Ryan millions of dollars as a Dr. Phil-type media star. The people Burke encounters range from stock comedic cat-lady-types to genuinely damaged people such as Walter (John Carroll Lynch), a former construction worker who lost his 12-year-old son. For its first fifteen minutes, Love Happens promises a compelling film about loss, with just enough airiness to not be a complete downer. Then Jennifer Aniston shows up and ruins the entire goddamned movie.

I like Jennifer Aniston, and consider her a good actress. For those who can only picture her as Rachel on Friends, I highly recommend Office Space, The Good Girl, and The Break-up; all of which showcase her dramatic and comedic talents, all of which (to varying degrees) share strong, complex scripts about relationships. For this reason, I can’t forgive her decision to appear in the soulless cash-in that is the rom-com portion of Love Happens. Sure, it’s being sold as a “romantic drama”, but Aniston’s Eloise character—a florist with a penchant for graffiti-ing obscure words in hotel hallways—is pure chick-flick caricature.

It’s fascinating to watch Eloise and Burke’s first few scenes together. In keeping with hack-movie tradition, they don’t like each other at first. But after a couple of dates, their barriers begin to break down; what makes the meet-curts of Love Happens worthwhile is that they are so awkward and painful that I stopped seeing them as conveying the characters’ apprehensions and started believing that the film itself was gagging on the bogus storyline that had been shoe-horned into an otherwise solid screenplay.

This should have been a smaller, truer film, like John Swanbeck’s The Big Kahuna. I thought about that movie a lot during Love Happens, remembering fondly the way it treated its characters with dignity and allowed them to explore grand issues by simply checking into a Wichita hotel and talking with one another. There was neither a need nor a place for a phony love interest or a tears-filled climax. The people behind Love Happens either didn’t trust the Burke Ryan material to stand on its own, or they were instructed to make the film more marketable by adding some artificial sunlight.

I’m beating up on this picture a lot because the stuff that works really works. I cried a number of times thanks to John Carroll Lynch’s tortured sincerity, and I hoped to God that Burke and Walter would help each other to move past their pain and their secrets. Martin Sheen also makes a welcome appearance as Burke’s father-in-law, who—for reasons I won’t reveal—was never allowed to move on from his daughter’s death. But these scenes were consistently cut short by another date with Eloise, or a beyond bizarre sub-subplot about kidnapping a parrot. I couldn’t participate in the emotional conversation that half the movie was trying to engage me in because of all the wacky horseshit; it was like watching a drunken standup comic give a eulogy.

The movie is worth renting for the performances in the main story, including Eckhart’s, who has redeemed himself after his schizoid bombast in The Dark Knight (though the script was mainly at fault there, too). It would be great if the DVD had a special chapter search that would allow the viewer to watch only the self-help scenes and skip the fluff; the result would be a solid 45-minute viewing experience. That won’t happen, though. We’re stuck with Love Happens as it is, not as it should have been: an honest, comforting movie that avoided looking ridiculous.

Note: Am I the only one who absolutely hates the title of this film? Why not name it after Burke Ryan’s self-help book, “A-Okay”? Love Happens is something you’d see ironically bejeweled on a Hot Topic baby-doll shirt.