Friday, February 6, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You: Not that into it

He's Just Not That Into You (2009) • View trailer for He's Just Not That Into You
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and a bit generously, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.6.09
Buy DVD: He's Just Not That Into Youu • Buy Blu-Ray: He's Just Not That Into You [Blu-ray]

As one who, way back in the day, once spent an entire afternoon searching the phone book for the last name of a girl who'd (quite by accident; I wasn't a stalker) given me only her first name and number — thank goodness her surname began with an M! — I can attest that one of the bits of relationship wisdom proffered in He's Just Not That Into You is accurate: If somebody really wants to hook up with you, s/he'll find a way.
Having just obtained a fresh nugget of relationship wisdom from her new "date
mentor," Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin, left) can't wait to share it with Beth (Jennifer
Anniston, center) and Janine (Jennifer Connelly). Unfortunately, like so many
attempts to generalize human behavior, Gigi's flash of "insight" has unintended
consequences for all three.

Conversely, and also as demonstrated throughout this film adaptation of the popular book by Sex and the City scribes Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, if somebody takes your number but then doesn't call within 24 hours, it ain't never gonna happen ... and no amount of wishful thinking or staring at your cell, BlackBerry or e-mail account will make it so.

Director Ken Kwapis obviously wants his film to be a hip American response to British filmmaker Richard Curtis' Love Actually, and at times he almost succeeds. Certainly the films look and sound alike: Both are breezy romantic comedies boasting impressive ensemble casts and the sort of droll, sparkling repartee and comebacks that we'd kill to deliver in real life.

But the recipe doesn't quite come together in the hands of Kwapis and screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein; this film's various characters often seem subordinate to their dialogue and amusingly misguided efforts at self-analysis. A few sound more like Hollywood archetypes of young marrieds and singletons, rather than properly fleshed-out people, and some of them — notably Drew Barrymore's Mary — are little more than stunt casting: too briefly seen, and utterly inconsequential in the grander scheme of things.

Paying proper attention to everybody in a cast of this size is a delicate juggling act; that's one of the many elements that made Love Actually so entertaining. Kwapis hasn't the same skill; his jigsaw puzzle pieces don't fit together nearly as well, despite trying to get it right for a noticeably too-long 127 minutes.

Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin, well recognized from Showtime's Big Love) is both the story's catalyst and by far the most engaging and sympathetic character. She gets the ball rolling by dating Conor (Kevin Connolly), a fairly shallow real-estate agent on the rebound — sort of — because his long-term "friendship with benefits" with Anna (Scarlett Johansson), a sexy, free-spirited singer and yoga instructor, isn't going anywhere.

Sheer chance places Anna in a supermarket check-out line with Ben (Bradley Cooper); they have one of those potentially magical "meet cute" moments that goes awry only when Ben, realizing that he's getting in over his head, backs off and confesses that he's married. That would be with Janine (Jennifer Connelly), a high-strung, uptight and frankly bizarre individual with a hang-up about lying and a weird set of priorities; as we eventually discover, she seems willing to forgive infidelity, but hates the thought of Ben smoking on the sly.

Janine and Gigi work in the same marketing department of a Baltimore-based spice company; their gal-gang also includes Beth (Jennifer Aniston), who has lived with Neil (Ben Affleck), the love of her life, for seven years. Although obviously devoted to Beth, Neil is a marriage-phobe; this arrangement apparently has worked so far, but now the third of Beth's three sisters is tying the knot. Suddenly about to be the only unmarried sibling, Beth ... panics.

As Gigi tries to pursue the hopeless situation with Conor, she encounters his best friend, Alex (Justin Long), whose benevolent nature — she seems like a nice person — prompts him to lay it on the line: Conor won't ever call her back. Gigi finds this frankness rather refreshing; she subsequently calls Alex every time she meets a new guy, to get a "translation" of first-date behavior.

Alex, for his part, finds it flattering that his advice is in such demand.

Kwapis, Kohn and Silverstein have, in effect, made Alex the "voice" of the book: the giver of ruthless dissections of all the little games played by both sexes. Sharp observational skills do not, however, equate with wisdom; the code by which Alex lives leaves him emotionally untouched.

Barrymore's Mary has so wholly succumbed to the 21st century model of electronic contact — cell phones, answering machines, e-mail, FaceBook, MySpace, BlackBerries — that her attempts at "meeting" guys are made wholly without actual physical contact. It's a cute gag worth a chuckle or two, but the film doesn't do anything with Barrymore.

Just to complete the various interconnected circles, Mary works at the newspaper where Conor books his display ads, and she's best friends with Anna. Oh, and Ben and Neil are longtime buds.

Got all that?

What works:

• Gigi, thanks in great part to Goodwin's adorable screen presence and delightful personality. Her determined efforts to "get" the dating scene make her a spirited underdog, and we can't help being in her corner. And once she becomes the eager Padawan acolyte to Alex's Obi-Wan Kenobi, the two together suggest intriguing possibilities.

• Beth and Neil, because they both feel so genuine, and because the script quite cleverly makes it difficult to anticipate where their characters, and their relationship, are going. This storyline builds to an extremely touching climax, which results from a minor crisis that erupts during Beth's sister's wedding.

Aniston and Affleck share the film's most powerful — and heartfelt — emotional moment in the kitchen of her father's home. It's practically worth the price of admission.

What doesn't work:

• Janine, and not to any degree. Not even an actress of Connelly's talent can make this woman palatable; frankly, Janine becomes more of a nutcake as the film progresses ... but the weird thing is, we're obviously supposed to sympathize with her. No way, no how. Never gonna happen. We can't for a moment buy where this script sends her.

• Ben, and I guess he and Janine deserve each other. Kwapis & Co. never decide whether to make Ben a good guy or a bad guy, and they cheat by constructing the story in such a way that we're essentially tricked into accepting Ben one way, then the other. Cooper can be quite charming; he has that "guy's guy" vibe working for him, but Ben's duplicitous behavior — almost sinister at times — is a major downer in this otherwise frothy concoction.

On the fence:

• Anna, whose motivations and reactions are all over the map. Do we like her? Hate her? Johansson certainly delivers the proper degree of earthy eroticism, and Anna — despite a cheerful willingness to be a marriage-wrecker — seems like somebody who can be taken at face value ... until not one, but two jarring reactions, late in the film, to the guys in her life.

• Conor, absolutely loathed mere minutes into the film, for his cavalier dismissal of Gigi (already firmly established as Our Gal). On the other hand, Connolly becomes more interesting as Conor attempts to re-invent himself; a subplot involving his willingness to "gay up," as a means of better presenting himself to a gay male clientele, is both amusing and oddly touching.

Plus, it's easy to sympathize with a guy carrying a torch for the deliberately flirty Anna; her somewhat callous treatment of him makes Conor more helplessly endearing.

Actually, the film's best — and most "real" — moments are the on-camera "interviews" with random folks on the street, who share their own fractured relationship experiences, which serve as "bumpers" between the chapters of Kohn and Silverstein's script. These little interludes feel and sound more genuine than the often contrived events that perplex or plague our many protagonists.

He's Just Not That Into You might have made a good stage play, where the greater charisma of in-person performances would have shifted the balance from the arch dialogue to the characters delivering those lines. On film, though — and with the notable exception of Goodwin, Aniston and Affleck — we just don't engage with the characters or material. It all feels too smug and contrived.

Or maybe the problem is more basic: This really does sound like a lingering echo of Sex and the City ... and that recipe only worked with those characters.

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