Movie Reviews: Sappy Romances Edition
An Affair to Remember (1957)
The quintessential sappy romance, with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant. They fall in love on a cruise ship, despite the fact that they both already have prior relationships waiting for them back home. They act much too sensibly for a romance and decide not to see each for 6 months after they dock in New York, because they have to end their prior relationships and get their lives in order, and after the 6 months pass they are going to meet at the top of the Empire State Building. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because Sleepless in Seattle is based all around this concept, too. This is the movie that Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell keep watching and weeping over and which Rita Wilson recaps so memorably.)
So, as expected, there’s a lot of big drama, and a lot of it is pretty saccharine—there’s even a bunch of singing moppets (Kerr leads a children’s choir)—but Kerr and Grant hit all the right notes, so to speak. They’re both witty and charming and, since they’re a bit more mature (let’s say) than your typical romance couple, they’re a bit more dignified throughout the proceedings. A good time, even if you usually don’t care much for sobfests.
A cute flick more than anything else, with Keri Russell as a cute waitress who works in a cute diner making cute pies. Her husband, Jeremy Sisto—he’s been on Law and Order recently, but to me he’s always Elton from Clueless—makes her life less cute by being weirdly obsessive and abusive. When he finds out that she’s pregnant, he yells at her that’s it’s a bad idea because she won’t be able to take care of him the way he’s accustomed to being taken care of, and ultimately makes her promise that she’ll always love him more. I like the recasting of the ‘abusive husband’ role from your basic violent brute to a guy whose worst qualities are actually the result of like, severe insecurity. So Russell wants to get away, she doesn’t like her life and the new baby is just an anchor holding her there, but then she falls in love with her weirdly charming obstetrician. Which is also not quite perfect because he’s married, but ultimately Russell learns to sacrifice for what’s important to her, and makes a real and honest choice.
I wish I could watch this movie and appreciate its quirkiness and cuteness, and forget the horrible backstory to the film—how the writer-director, who also plays the shy waitress—was murdered in her apartment very soon before the movie came out. It was in the news so much they even did an episode of Law and Order about it (though Jeremy Sisto was not in it). Kind of an unpleasant postscript, sorry about that.
More reviews follow!
Le Divorce (2003)
Blecccccchhhhh. What a waste of a Saturday afternoon this thing was. I am not a fan of Kate Hudson, or of romantic comedies, and while this wasn’t the worst that either of them has to offer, it just didn’t do it for me. The movie is about these two sisters loving and losing in Paris, having the ill fortune to be both of them rich and beautiful. (Naomi Watts is the other one.) Watts’s husband leaves her and Kate kind of flits around toying with the affections of both this young artist and an older journalist (politican? I don’t know, something meant to be intellectually impressive). And things unfold just…kind of stupidly. They have shallow girl problems, they prance around in front of GORGEOUS buildings, they’re trying to sell some painting. Watts is trying to make a living as a poet, like it’s the 18th century or something. NO ONE MAKES A LIVING AS A POET. Grace Paley didn’t make a living as a poet, and I guarantee Paley was writing better stuff than Watts was.
Nonsense for the sake of nonsense is one thing, nonsense for the sake of fantasy or whimsy is another thing, but this movie is nonsense that results from the writers not thinking things through properly, and that bugs the hell out of me. See, for example, near the end of the movie, Kate gives her mother—played by the lovely Stockard Channing—this expensive purse that her older lover has given her. Mama Channing says—this is a line from the movie—”My favorite part of this trip to Paris? Getting this purse!” She adores it. Then this ridiculously overwrought and nonsensical scene plays out at the top of the Eiffel Tower. For reasons that are equally nonsensical the scene culminates in Kate taking the purse (right off her mother’s shoulder) and pitching the thing over the side where it CGI-flies across the Parisian cityscape. I know how narratives work, OK? I know that the purse was a symbol of the older man’s hold over Kate and that by pitching it off the Eiffel Tower she is making a dramatic proclamation of liberty. But why in the hell was it necessary, narratively, for her to give it to her mother first, and steal it from her to throw it over the side? She just said how much she loved that purse. JUST SAID IT.
Also bugged me? That Kate was still dating the young Frenchman at the end. SHE DOESN’T EVEN LOSE THE OTHER GUY? Are you kidding me? Does he not care that she was screwing around with another guy for months? That’s the fantasy of being Kate Hudson in Paris, I guess.
Johnny Belinda (1948)
This movie had some weird shifts in tone, from sweet romance to dark drama, so it had kind of a fableish feel to it. A deaf and mute girl in a very small, rural town is educated by a doctor and released from the isolation she felt when she was not able to communicate with anybody. But then she gets pregnant and everybody blames the doctor, who they believe has surely taken advantage of her. The story is actually more complicated and dark and sad and spunky little Jane Wyman (who won an Oscar entirely without the benefit of dialogue) becomes a sad and spunky little outcast. It was a weird film, kind of like an Irish folk song people sing when they’re drunk. Enjoyable enough in its weirdness, and well-acted, even though Jane Wyman has never been my favorite.
The Heiress (1949)
Based on Henry James’s Washington Square (I actually didn’t know that until finding the IMDb link), this one is more of a weeper than anything. Olivia de Havilland, moused up within an inch of her life, is a rich girl whose father blames her for her mother’s death. He torments her constantly with stories about how beautiful and magnificent her mother was, and what a shame it is that she hasn’t inherited any of those qualities. This is not subtext. He says that. So, when this girl, Catherine, starts getting attention from a dreamy young dude (Montgomery Clift—the 40s’ answer to Johnny Depp) everyone thinks it’s all about her money, even though he says it’s not about her money and even though she feels that they really have a connection. And she blossoms, as mousy women tend to do in movies when men fall in love with them. Is that the end of the story? Noooooo, not in Henry James’s world! No, there everybody has a hidden agenda, even if it’s not the one you think it is. And even when Catherine gains the strength to stand up for herself, it’s sad, because you can see that a little bit of herself has been lost. Like I said, good for a weep.
For the first thirty minutes (give or take) of this movie, I loved the character played by Meryl Streep. She struck just the right chord as a sweet but no-nonsense therapist. Then she makes the worst decision imaginable, and the movie derails itself with its ridiculousness. It wants viewers to take an enormous breach of professional conduct and find it funny. Yeah, sure, it’s funny to watch her squirm while her patient, played by Uma Thurman, describes her sexy new boyfriend, whom Dr. Meryl has figured out is her own son. But I kept bracing myself for the moment of betrayal when Uma found out—and yeah, it was devastating. And you have to ask, how could a character who seemed so wise and knowledgeable do something so terrible and so obviously wrong? In the movie’s defense it seemed to recognize how floored Uma was and how sorry Dr. Meryl felt about it; YET, it never addressed the issue of how ignoring a conflict of interest like that could have earned her professional censure. Again, we see the fantasy world of modern romantic comedies where you can’t ask too many questions about the logic of it or your head will hurt and you’ll be too cranky to enjoy it.
The movie also presented issues with Uma being much older than her guy, which were, at least in my experience, based much more in the real world. Don’t deny it, Men in Your Twenties! You do too play too much X-Box, and you don’t know how to keep house. But the movie didn’t make him out to be a bad person because of that stuff; it just showed how two people’s personalities can be in sync, but it doesn’t matter if their stages of life are not. Good points and bad points here, sort of a mixed bag overall.
And finally, one I unabashedly love!
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
I hesitate to oversell Preston Sturges, but he is one of the most underrated American writer-directors of all time. He inspired Woody Allen in his heyday, and the Coen brothers (who, I noted in my review of Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, took much of their O Brother Where Art Thou from that film). Those references should go a long way towards explaining where Sturges operates in terms of tone: it’s silly but brilliant, poignant but delightful. He has several terrific movies to his credit (Sullivan’s Travels is one, The Lady Eve is another) but The Palm Beach Story is by far my favorite. It stars Joel McCrea as an poor engineer, looking to finance his idea for an airport that is suspended over a major city, and Claudette Colbert as his wife. She fears that she’s a terrible housewife and economist and that she’d be more use to McCrea if she divorced him, married a rich man, and used her new husband’s money to finance his genius. He tells her this is a ridiculous idea, but she heads down to Palm Beach (where the millionaires hang out) anyway to pick out a new man, with McCrea following close behind. It all sounds very silly, and it is, but for some reason the silliness doesn’t bother me in movies from the 40s. Fantasy just played better back then. Partly because the story is unbelievably hilarious, with Mary Astor as a carefree heiress who sleeps in a tiara and keeps a whipping boy named Toto, a crotchety hot dog magnate, and a bunch of old, drunk hunters who call themselves the Quail and Ale Society. It’s also really quite romantic—Joel McCrea is tall and hunky, and he and Claudette Colbert have some poignant moments when he manages to catch her. It’s just a shame the suspension airport idea has never caught on.