I suppose all film-makers are “manipulators”, in the sense that they use words, pictures and music to make their audience care deeply about imaginary people. Some do it subtly and smartly, earning the tears and laughter honestly… while others, like Brandon Camp, the writer/director responsible for Love Happens (2009), throw a lot of clunky, cliché, cringe-worthy crap at their audience, and hope it will trigger the rote response.
For those who don’t know, this so-called “romantic drama” stars the always-excellent Aaron Eckhart as ‘Burke Ryan’, a self-help guru who specialises in helping the bereaved accept and overcome the loss of their loved ones. While leading a week-long workshop in a plush Seattle hotel, he has a painfully pat “meet-cute” with an obnoxiously quirky florist named ‘Eloise’ (Jennifer Aniston), who has a habit of writing obscure words on the walls behind the hotel’s paintings, because SHE’S SO FRICKING QUIRKY AND INTERESTING AND DON’T YOU JUST LOVE HER??? No. No, I do not… but, for some totally inexplicable reason, Burke is irrevocably smitten. Eloise is actually a pretty classic example of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” archetype… there’s a brief scene where she splits with her boyfriend, after catching him cheating in the most obvious and expedient way possible (lipstick marks on an unwashed wine glass!), but other than that she exists solely to shake the mopey male protagonist out of his doldrums, and encourage him to seize the day via her wacky antics. Feh. I’m sure there are people out there who find Aniston irresistible, but I am not one of them… she’s pleasant enough, but I was far more interested in her support staff here: The brilliant Frances Conroy appears in a single scene as Eloise’s mother, fawns over the mildly famous Burke like a giddy schoolgirl. Bless. And Judy Greer appears as Eloise’s BFF and sole employee at the flower shop, ‘Marty’, who has an intriguing sideline in saucy “slam poetry”. Personally, I’d much rather have heard more of her libidinal lyrics, and less of Burke’s therapy group unburdening itself.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m unsympathetic to human sorrow… I’m actually very soppy in real life… but when an advert/show/movie tries to make me feel sorry for a bunch of poorly sketched (and/or badly acted) minor characters, it tends to bring out the cackling cynic in me. The scene where Burke takes his group on an impromptu expedition to a local Home Depot store, and encourages them to drop random tools and building supplies into the shopping cart of a grieving father who “retired” from his career as a building contractor when his young son died on-site… well, that was just ridiculous. Healing through hardware! Meh. Worse still was the BIG SECRET that Burke was concealing from his devoted followers… a BIG SECRET concerning the car accident that killed his own wife, and set him on his current path… a BIG SECRET that has estranged him from his father-in-law (Martin Sheen), who angrily confronts him at the hotel about his lies, without going into any particular specifics. The writers go to a lot of trouble to build up the suspense and mystery surrounding this BIG SECRET, but in the end it turns out to be a total damp squib. I mean, the BIG SECRET is that Burke has been telling people (or letting them assume) that his wife was driving the car on the night of her fatal accident, but the truth is that he was the one who was driving, and lost control of the vehicle. Obviously that would be a heavy burden for a real person to bear, but after all the build-up, it just came off as an anticlimax here. I mean, I’d pretty much assumed he was driving from the outset, and that he was covering up for some more egregious error or crime…. but, no. He wasn’t drunk, he wasn’t hopped up on goof-balls, he wasn’t angrily demanding that she give him oral pleasure from the passenger seat… he just saw a dog in the road, and panicked, and skidded in the rain. Yawn.
Nevertheless, a weepy confession on stage, in front of his followers (and several network TV executives) is enough to immediately transform his irate father-in-law into a loveable old coot, who hugs Burke and reassures him that it wasn’t really his fault, and that he’s happy to overlook the whole “dead daughter” thing so long as Burke makes more of an effort to stay in touch. Feh. The fact that Sheen’s character was even in the room to hear the confession was the result of an extremely annoying contrivance involving a cockatiel that I just don’t have the energy to get into. But, seriously, when someone says that you should release a beloved exotic bird “into the wild”, they don’t necessarily mean “into the first forest you spot while driving around with your new hook-up”… because Seattle isn’t exactly a parrot’s natural habitat, y’know? If you’re going to honour the request of a dead spouse that you actually cared about, maybe put a bit more effort into finding a suitable home for the bird? Like, at least Google where they come from and what they eat or something? Asshole.