Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Romantics: A Catch-Up Review

The Romantics had big shoes to fill. It was released at the tail end of a slew of indie-aesthetic films about miserable people attending the rural, New-York-area weddings of brides and grooms the protagonists resent for one reason or another. In 2007, there was Margot at the Wedding and in 2008, Rachel Getting Married. The wedding theme, ensemble casts, dim lighting, choppy camera work and cringe-worthy antics of our leading ladies link these three films. Unfortunately for the other two, Rachel Getting Married is the golden child in this triumvirate. Given the blazed trail, though, The Romantics promised something different enough that I actively sought it out, and I maintain that its differences in form, lovely casting and open-ended conclusion make it more than a tagalong to better wedding films. In fact, it’s much better than the miserable whine-fest that was Margot at the Wedding.

The Romantics is a surprisingly fun version of a cliché story: two friends fighting over a dude. It’s no surprise that one of the women represents out-of-control passion while the other is a beacon of sensibility—women characters in film rarely break the dichotomous trend of embodying only one trait at a time, usually either pure malice or pure grace.

This film tells the story of a group of friends who meet and fall in love, a la St. Elmo’s Fire, at Yale. Poetry buff Laura (Katie Holmes) takes up with the similarly literary-minded Tom (Josh Duhamel—who knew he did anything worthwhile but marry Fergie?). Somewhat inexplicably, these two break up, and Tom starts dating the comely, rich Lila (Anna Paquin), Laura’s best friend and roommate. This love triangle is emblematic of the larger group of seven friends, who earned the nickname The Romantics for their “incestuous dating history.” Years after Laura and Tom’s breakup, these three reunite—along with their four other college friends—for Tom and Lila’s wedding at her parents’ coastal estate.

The setup is something we’ve all seen before, courtesy of the Brat Pack and countless romantic comedies. But The Romantics redeems itself with a few variations, the most interesting of which is the structure. This film spends a remarkable amount of time with the ample supporting cast, which includes Dianna Agron, Elijah Wood, Candace Bergen and Malin Akerman. The way these characters pop in and out of scenes—hiding in corners, overhearing whispered conversations, switching romantic partners—is delightfully operatic. At times, you almost expect characters to launch into soliloquies or recitatives. Writer and director Galt Niederhoffer takes a Shakespearean approach to storytelling, deftly connecting the disparate vignettes together to add levity and heart to a film that could have easily fallen into romantic-comedy hell in less capable hands.

Unlike your typical big-budget wedding fare, The Romantics is also unapologeticly ambiguous in meaning and somewhat in morals. It gives us awkwardness—thankfully not on level with Rachel Getting Married—but not necessarily the clear answer. Maybe this is just resistant spectatorship talking, but it wasn’t clear which woman was right for Tom in the way that most love-driven films make that choice abundantly clear. In fact, the complicated friendship between the two leading ladies was much more interesting than Tom’s boring and aimless equivocating.

Don’t expect The Romantics to reinvent the genre, but do expect to see Niederhoffer take liberties with plot and form conventions that make this film worthy of your Netflix queue.

Bechdel Grade: F

Feminist Grade: D

Overall Movie Grade: B-

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