Monday, June 1, 2009

On DVD: "He's Just Not That Into You"

He’s Just Not That Into You is kind of like an American Love Actually, minus that film’s minimal charms; Love Actually is irritating but tolerable, while He’s Just… is insufferable and revolting. But both buy into the idea that somehow, if you jam every romantic comedy cliché into one overlong movie, the volume somehow outweighs the monotony. It didn’t work before, but Richard Curtis’ clever dialogue and a couple of his character touches made Love Actually, at the very least, watchable. No such luck here.

The film is based on the popular self-help book, which was inspired by a line in an episode of Sex in the City, and that one line may contain everything that you need to know about the movie—if that sounds like something you would enjoy, well, you probably will, and God be with you. And I’ll grant that they’re at least up-front with their intentions; the opening montage immediately sets up the tiresome stereotypes and worn-out concepts that the book trafficked in and the film perpetuates.

The screenplay, by Never Been Kissed scribes Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, illustrates the book’s “insights” with a host of interrelated characters traipsing through familiar paces. There’s no spontaneity to these people; they’re all cardboard types (Desperate Single Girl, Cheating Husband, Girl Who Cheats With Husband, Impatient Girlfriend, Wise Ladies’ Man, etc.) and are written with barely one dimension, while the script shuffles around their subplots to create the illusion of a story moving forward. Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a neurotic single gal who over-analyzes her dates, gets too attached too quickly, and waits by the phone; when the film begins, she’s out on a date with Conor (Kevin Connolly), a real-estate agent who blows her off because he continues to pine for his friend-with-benefits Anna (Scarlett Johansson). Anna’s got the hots for Ben (Bradley Cooper), who certainly reciprocates, but he’s married to Janine (Jennifer Connelly) and is hanging on in spite of the fact that their relationship has grown stale. Janine works with Beth (Jennifer Anison), who has been with her boyfriend Neil (Ben Affleck) for seven years; she goes along with his bohemian notion that they don’t have to be married to love each other, but her resolve begins to crack. Oh, and then there’s Anna’s friend Mary (Drew Barrymore), a magazine ad agent who is trying to keep up with dating technology, and Conor’s buddy Alex (Justin Long), who takes pity on Gigi and offers her blunt but truthful advice to help her get over Conor.

So the cast is full of people we like, and even the smaller, throwaway roles are filled by capable character actors like Luis Guzman and Kris Kristoferson and Busy Phillips. But it is tough, tough work to watch good actors like these struggle with this kind of trite dialogue. Goodwin probably comes off best (and gets the most screen time); she’s ridiculously appealing, and it’s fun to see her and Justin Long (who co-starred on the TV show Ed for several seasons) working together again. In fact, their relationship—the guy who knows the score decoding the jargon and offering up advice to the naïve girl—is the one fresh thing in the picture, though it eventually denigrates into Long’s character spouting the book’s bullshit philosophies.

And here is where we get into trouble. For a film presumably geared towards the female demographic, He’s Just Not That Into You doesn’t seem to like women very much, or at the very least, to respect them. It operates under the narrow-minded notion that all women do is obsess over men and why men aren’t calling them; the women in the film don’t think or talk about anything else. They have no exterior lives, no careers, no hobbies, no ideas—and what’s more, none of them are happy, since they presumably require the unconditional love of a perfect man in order to be happy. But nearly all of the men in the film are presented as perfectly content, at least until the women in their lives start muckety-mucking things up with all their demands. The not-so-subtle underlying message is clear: It takes a man to be happy, and to land one, you have to know all of their tricks—which you can learn, because they’re all exactly the same. This is progress?

What’s more, there’s a depressing homogeny to the entire enterprise; all of the people it focuses on are upper-class, straight, and oh so very white. I counted three black people with speaking roles: two chunky black ladies, telling an “mmm-hmm”-heavy story during one of the film’s ill-advised, When Harry Met Sally rip-off, straight into camera faux-interviews, and “Tyrone,” a mouthy black guy who works for Long and won’t wear the required clothing (he gets about three lines). Oh, and then there are some African tribeswomen in that cutesy opening. Hispanics fare even worse: there’s only the talented Guzman, who gets no funny lines (and this guy can make any line funny) as, no kidding, a construction contractor (there’s a tossed-off line about all of his undocumented workers). The gay characters are all flitty queens whose only function is to give wise and sassy advice to the straight characters (can this convention die already?)—God forbid one of the film’s 47 relationships were a homosexual one. I’m not trying to impose some kind of affirmative action on the picture or anything; merely to add some flavor to a bland, dull movie. Who cares about these rich white people obsessing over minutiae? How’s about they get some real problems?

The stupefying shallowness of the material is disappointing, because there’s not a bad performance in it, although Kevin Connolly gets nothing much to play and Affleck and Barrymore both disappear for long stretches at a time. Jennifer Connolly get the rare opportunity to exhibit her comic timing; she appears to be having fun breaking away for her usual noble/suffering characters (at least until the second hour, when they turn this into another one of them).

Director Ken Kwapis, who has directed some very good television (The Office, Freaks and Geeks) and some very bad films (License To Wed, The Beautician and the Beast), does his best to shoot the film like it’s not the TV sitcom that it is; his camera moves well and his compositions have a nice depth of field (thanks, no doubt, to the participation of expert cinematographer John Bailey), even if he’s somewhat crippled by the odd decision to shoot in 2.35:1 (it’s too big a canvas for this kind of material). But his sense of pacing is lethal, and there’s just no excuse for a romantic comedy to run this long, particularly when the ending is as excruciating as this one—everything works out exactly as expected, with the “bad” people getting what they deserve (being—shudder—alone!) and the good people paired off and happy. It’s about as subtle and nuanced a conclusion as a Garry Marshall picture, and nearly as predictable—you can sit there clicking off the plot points as they’re tidied up, with the help of Cliff Eidelman’s pushy, twinkly, white-bread score. It’s the perfect ending for a perfectly horrible film.

You wouldn’t think that so many talented people could have gotten sucked into a film as shallow, cluttered, and banal as this one. The many familiar faces on the cover and the innocuous advertising might fool you into thinking that this is a harmless, enjoyable rom-com with some laughs and insights. Don’t be fooled. He’s Just Not That Into You is awful.

"He's Just Not That Into You" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 2nd.

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