Thursday, September 24, 2009

Love Happens: Rather charming

Love Happens (2009) • View trailer for Love Happens
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.24.09
Buy DVD: Love Happens• Buy Blu-Ray: Love Happens [Blu-ray]

Given the limited number of ways that two consenting adults can be thrown together in a romantic comedy, the distinction between engaging sparkle and ho-hum familiarity usually depends on the little touches: the extra bits that help define the people with whom we're about to spend an evening.

Director Brandon Camp, who also scripted Love Happens with Mike Thompson, has a nice way with those little touches. This film's characters  and their problems  are believably ordinary, as is the set-up that brings them together. Better still, the subsequent plot developments are reasonably low-key: a meet-cute encounter that blossoms quietly into a friendship that might, in turn, grow into something stronger.
Burke (Aaron Eckhart) is intrigued by the secret collection of floral message
cards that Eloise (Jennifer Aniston) copied and saved, because they touched her
in some manner: little greetings, apologies and shared sorrows that bespeak a
deep connection between giver and recipient. It's a poignant notion, and one of
many nice touches in this film.

No flash, no intrusive slapstick and very little manipulative melodrama. Love Happens often has the intimacy of a stageplay, and its script is much more accomplished than Camp and Thompson's only previous big-screen credit, 2002's hilariously overcooked Dragonfly. I'd like to think Camp and Thompson learned from that mistake, and they also clearly refined their writing chops during their one-year stint on television's John Doe.

Love Happens also marks Camp's feature film directorial debut, and he has a nice touch with character interaction, and with the emotional range demanded by his storyline. Although marketed as a romantic comedy, this film offers more than a little heartbreak, demonstrating that comedy and tragedy often are separated by a very fine line.

Dr. Burke Ryan (Aaron Eckhart), a self-help celebrity vaulted to public acclaim after an extremely successful book, has taken his act on the road. City by city, he leads therapy seminars that encourage participants to confront their pain  usually over the loss of a loved one  as a means of securing closure and then moving on.

The package is slick, down to a signature catch-phrase, and Burke is gangbusters on stage: the sort of charismatic therapist able to turn readers into acolytes. His pop-culture success has not escaped the attention of a media conglomerate anxious to turn Burke into a franchise; best friend and manager Lane Martin (Dan Fogler) has orchestrated a meeting while the doctor conducts a session in Seattle.

Alas, Burke is conflicted. He originally wrote his book solely as a private coping device following his wife's tragic death, three years earlier; he reluctantly allowed it to be published, and has been swept along by its momentum ever since. And, judging by the dismayed frown that frequently creases Eckhart's sympathetic features, Burke also is a man with A Big Secret.

We get a hint during the surprise arrival, at a book-signing session, of Burke's father-in-law (Martin Sheen), who strongly disapproves of the whole seminar scene ... but (of course!) doesn't give us enough information to know precisely why.

While at his hotel, Burke chances upon florist Eloise Chandler (Jennifer Aniston), a spunky woman with a bad track record in male companions, who couldn't be less interested in meeting somebody new. But Burke is drawn to her, despite her dismissive behavior, and suffers a few stinging rejections before breaking through Eloise's surface hostility.

Once Burke confesses that he has been out of the dating scene for quite some time, Eloise softens enough to treat him, if not as a potential lover, at least as a good friend. And that's enough.

Their subsequent excursions  "date" might be too strong a word  are relaxed and natural, in part because of a shared warmth that radiates between Eckhart and Aniston. They're comfortable with each other; we're therefore comfortable with Burke and Eloise.

Eckhart, marching from one solid role to another after the early promise of a supporting part in Erin Brockovich blossomed into his breakout top-liner in Thank You for Smoking, has a natural grace on camera. He segues nicely from Burke's florid seminar theatrics to the melancholy of the man's private moments, and he also has a smooth physicality; watch how he flops onto a hotel couch, after getting "caught" trying to peer behind a painting.

Aniston, similarly understated, lights up the screen as a woman we'd love to have as a best friend, lover or family member. She makes excellent use of her signature half-smile, and her feisty side also comes through loud and clear, particularly early on, when she tries to shut down Burke's initial overtures.

There isn't much depth to Eloise, and it could be argued  although Aniston shares top billing with Eckhart  that she's more a supporting player than co-star. But maybe not: Her presence is felt even when she's not on camera.

Both Burke and Eloise have engaging side characters in their lives. Judy Greer is a hoot as Marty, Eloise's quirky employee, who prefers bohemian-style poetry slams to potting soil. Greer has toiled in dependable "best gal pal" roles for far too many years; she's an effervescent delight who deserves to star in her own project.

Fogler, until recently known only for insufferable moron comedies such as Good Luck Chuck and Balls of Fury, seems to be working toward an image change; he had a solid small role in Taking Woodstock earlier this summer, and he's even more effective here.

As with Jack Black, Fogler is funniest when he's held back by a firm director, and Camp must have realized this. For the most part, Lane is a straight part  Burke's genuinely sensitive buddy, as well as uber-competent handler  which makes the guy's occasional mumbled asides and vexed reactions that much more amusing.

John Carroll Lynch (Zodiac, Gran Torino) does a nicely shaded job as Walter Mayfield, a reluctant seminar attendee unwilling to "exploit" his young son's tragic death in so public a setting. The growing bond shared by Burke and Mayfield goes a long way toward diminishing the slightly unpalatable, touchy-feely taste of the whole seminar experience, which becomes rather too contrived at times.

There is, it must be mentioned, a good reason for this; Camp and Thompson deftly cover that base. Even so, eyes will roll when Burke encourages his followers to take a walk on a bed of hot coals; in terms that Eloise would understand, that gilds the lily a bit too much.

Mostly, though, I was enchanted by the small moments: Burke's discovery that Eloise likes big words; the wonderfully romantic way that she takes him to a sold-out concert one night; the awkward corporate oversell by immaculately dressed drones who envision Burke fronting his own line of weight-loss supplements.

Eckhart also gets a lot of mileage from his encounter with Rocky, a white-feathered, yellow-crested parrot that once belonged to his wife, and now resides with the in-laws. Droll as that scene is, it's topped by Rocky's later exchange with Sheen, which brings the film to a whimsical conclusion.

Films of this type demand quick payoffs: resolutions that arrive within (in this case) 109 minutes. We're much more likely to buy the progress made between Burke and Eloise, than the notion that any of Burke's "patients" can achieve serenity after 72 quick hours, a walk across the hot coals and a couple of field trips. Even Walter's eventual epiphany is much too pat, although Lynch sells the moment to the best of his ability.

But that's OK. Camp and Thompson grant their primary characters just enough closure to be satisfying, and the journey is engaging. The gentle tone is a breath of fresh air after a summer of bombast; I worry, actually, that Camp's film might be too quiet for viewers accustomed to grander gestures.

Sometimes, fortunately, the ordinary can be completely satisfying. This is one such time.

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