By Don Simpson | September 28, 2010
Director: Gait Niederhoffer
Writer(s): Gait Niederhoffer (writer & novel)
Starring: Katie Holmes, Anna Paquin, Josh Duhamel, Malin Akerman, Jeremy Strong, Candice Bergen, Elijah Wood, Adam Brody
Laura (Katie Holmes) has the very awkward privilege of being the maid of honor at her wealthy former college roommate Lila’s (Anna Paquin) wedding — Lila is marrying Laura’s former college flame (and until recently, friend with benefits), Tom (Josh Duhamel). The wedding, at Lila’s family’s Long Island bay-side estate, serves as a Big Chill reunion of sorts for Laura, Lila, Tom and their college friends. Comprised of one married couple (Tripler [Malin Åkerman] and Pete [Jeremy Strong]) and one engaged couple (Weesie [Rebecca Lawrence] and Jake [Adam Brody]), they are quickly encroaching upon their 30s. Together in one group for the first time since their college days (when they were together known as the Romantics due to their incestuous dating habits) the temptations of their fading youth become apparent. The college friends live up to their moniker, swapping partners like an intoxicated game of musical chairs; all except the bride to be, who spends the night alone — for the most part — sneaking cigarettes and tiny bottles of liquor.
Oh yeah, let us not forget Lila’s brother Chip (Elijah Wood) — an odd bird who apparently has just done some time in jail. It is difficult to say how he fits into the mix, other than being an annoying alcoholic whose advances towards Laura get swatted away like a pesky mosquito. There is also [a] Minnow (Dianna Agron) — really that is her name! — Lila’s younger sister and Lila’s mother (Candice Bergen). All three of these characters are shamefully underutilized in the grand scheme of things.
The film starts shortly before the rehearsal party and ends as the wedding ceremony comes to its conclusion — a span of less than 24 hours — and takes place entirely on the Long Island estate. I admire films that take place during abbreviated time spans almost as much as I admire films that take place in one location. I cannot claim to admire The Romantics, but these are two of my favorite aspects of this directorial debut of Galt Niederhoffer. (Niederhoffer also adapted the screenplay from her originating novel, The Romantics). My other favorite aspect of The Romantics is Sam Levy’s (Wendy and Lucy) sensually mouth-watering cinematography.
My main problem with The Romantics is its over-reliance on words and under-reliance on acting. The audience has no rhyme nor reason to form any sort of connection with these shapeless characters. For example, we are told that Laura represents fiery and tempestuous sex for Tom (it is impossible to believe that Tom and Laura ever had incredible sex), just as Lila represents tradition and security (of the financial and emotional nature). Tom is equally one-dimensional, lacking any noticeable personality traits — other than being told (and reminded multiple times) that he is an Irish-American Ivy League champion swimmer and Ph.D. candidate, we learn nothing that explains why Lila and Laura swoon at his every move. We are told that Tripler is promiscuous party girl and would-be actress who is prone to debauchery; but as far as we can see, she is just a drunk woman acting like a drunk college student. (Åkerman’s is the best performance of the lot.) The characters must verbally describe their personality traits because otherwise there is no way we could surmise anything about them from their actions. As for Pete, Jake and Weesie…well, those characters could have been better served as mannequins. (Nonetheless, my man-crush on Adam Brody has yet to fade.)
Back to Laura…we are told she is a New York City writer; therefore that explains why she is prone to spouting literary references and over-written dialogue. One example is when she explains to Tom that their former relationship was so great that “they explain[ed] the evolutionary purpose of speaking.” Right. The problem is, it gets worse. Not only does Tom woo Laura with “Ode to a Nightingale” illuminated from the 4” screen of his iPod (never mind that Laura would probably be turned off by Tom not knowing the poem by heart), but the two reunited lovebirds de-evolve into whispering sweet bits of “Ode to a Nightingale” into each other’s ears. (“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense…”) In the right time and place, I do not have any problem with characters regurgitating literary references and speaking in over-written prose; The Romantics is neither the right time or place and the execution is all kinds of wrong.
For the most part, most of the dialogue feels like it was ripped directly from the pages of Niederhoffer’s novel with no attempt at adapting it for a visual medium. There is only one scene that probably works better on screen than on the written page — when Tom, just moments before his wedding, is anxiously trying to decide how to part his hair. The visual metaphor of Tom flip-flopping between the two sides is way too heavy-handed to actually be effective (and the heavy-handedness is magnified when another character is prompted to explain the metaphor to us, telling Tom to “choose a side”). Speaking of which, it seems like there should be at least a tinge of suspense surrounding the question of whether Tom will choose Lila or Laura…there is not.
For better or worse, The Romantics attempts to borrow heavily from the “mumblecore” movement but forgets that the backbone of “mumblecore” is its propensity for realistic dialogue and situations. Not only are these characters unbelievable (Tom sums it up brilliantly when he says “We are all so uninspired”) but they are also downright annoying.
I think The Romantics is supposed to be about the way that the characters’ memories of the freedom during their college years is haunting and hindering their future attempts at settling down and/or how these characters have made little to no progress towards any meaningful goals in their post-collegiate lives. Instead, The Romantics seems to only be about a small clique of rich, fashion-forward, white people who communicate solely in soulless faux-literary diatribes and who after a few swills of alcohol revert back to wanting to shag someone other than their current partner.