Dir: Galt Niederhoffer
Paramount Famous Productions
The Romantics is hardly distinctive in its failed use of a standout cast. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve surely noticed the recent onslaught of glittering-ensemble-turned-train wreck movies (chief offender: He’s Just Not That Into You) that, for some reason, continue to hit the big screen. No, in the sense that it makes improper use of a rich, diverse and talented group of actors, Galt Niederhoffer’s latest stab at the romantic drama is nothing new.
Unlike the aforementioned ridiculous fluff, however, The Romantics isn’t shooting for box office numbers. Instead, Niederhoffer goes for a complex, provocative indie vibe – something with the class and gravitas of Wes Anderson’s quirk-ridden insight or Noah Baumbach’s unsettling yet compelling honesty. She misses the mark; and yet manages to garner enough of the requisite sensory cues in the process — the catchy yet haunting soundtrack, elegant cinematography, moody and tension-ridden setting – to thoroughly addle the tone of the film and confuse the audience in the process.
Much of this confusion comes from the stunning blonde triumvirate that constitutes the fictional Hayes family – porcelain beauty and bride to be Lila (Anna Paquin), clumsy ingénue Minnow (Dianna Agron) and compulsively anxious matriarch Augusta (Candice Bergen) – who immediately evoke a united front of classic beauty and aristocratic neurosis that seems ready to erupt, in a series of tense and increasingly dangerous tremors, into the sort of mess that makes for cinematic gold. Their opening scene together is brief, static and perfect, instantly drawing us in for what we hope will be a film as fulfilling as its first moments. But then Laura (Katie Holmes) pulls up, teary and angst ridden alongside a car full of hers and Lila’s frolicsome and obnoxiously named college cronies – Tripler (Malin Akerman), Jake (Adam Brody), Pete (Jeremy Strong) and Weesie (Rebecca Lawrence) – en route to Lila’s wedding; and just as quickly we’re snapped out of it, transported into a silly, obvious and WB-tinged world…and wondering what the hell Paquin and Bergen are doing there.
The Hayes family (which also includes an odd turn by Elijah Wood as Lila’s troubled, inebriated brother Chip) winds up holding this otherwise prime time soap-style story together with a semblance of cinematic clout, creating a nexus of well-played tension that swirls just enough to keep us interested in what will happen now that Lila is about to marry another of the old college crew, Tom (Josh Duhamel), who just happens to be Laura’s ex-boyfriend and longtime lover. Of course, Laura is also Lila’s “best friend” (code for “arch rival”) and maid of honor – a position that seems to make her nauseous and to fill her so-called dear friends Tripler and Weesie with gossipy glee. With the reunion of the self-titled “Romantics” (dubbed thus because of their incestuous dating practices, and with clear yet nonsensical reference to the high-minded communism of the great English poets), Lila and Tom’s rehearsal dinner devolves into a drunken mire of rude, crude and downright awful toasts that expose the group as a shallow, thoughtless and discontented lot far removed from the ideals of their supposed namesakes. In one of the film’s few moments of clarity and substance, Tom seems to realize this – about himself and everyone around him. His solution, however, is to avoid this insight by disappearing into the night, causing a lot of trouble, spinelessly vacillating between his neurotically calm bride and his passionate ex-lover until the wee hours…and making us wonder how in the world he could be worth this much grief to either of them.
All in all, Niederhoffer’s mistake lies in her attempt to make The Romantics something more than it is. Had she approached the film (an adaptation of her own novel of the same name) as something a bit lighter, more predictable and obvious – something, in short, more appropriate for a standard tale of triangular romance – it might have been better. Not necessarily great art or great filmmaking, but a more satisfying experience overall. As it is, The Romantics seems contrived, overblown, melodramatic and just plain frustrating. The promised twists, turns and eruptions either elude us completely or fall flat, never fulfilling the film’s suggestion and early promise; we are left numb to the hopelessly self-involved Romantics, unable to find catharsis in or really even care about the blatant symbolism of the film’s closing scene.
I will say this, though: it’s a hell of a lot better than Valentine’s Day.
by Lauren Westerfield