Shit Happens (in Spite of Some Efforts to the Contrary)
A friend of mine with similar tastes in movies, a friend who snorted with delighted derision and just a smidge of sympathy — I think — when I told him I had to go see Love Happens and that was why I couldn’t hang out with him instead, asked me after the ordeal if my review would have been any different if I hadn’t actually seen the film. (Because we both guessed, from the trailers and the ads, that it would be slick and simplistic tripe, and we were right.) And I had to honestly answer: Yes, my review would have been worse. Because I’d never have expected that the movie would be saved, just a little, from being complete bullshit by the presence of Aaron Eckhart. I might have guessed it, because I’ve known for years that Eckhart is a wonderfully passionate actor, but I didn’t.
There are moments here, amongst the Hallmark-card gloss, in which Eckhart (The Dark Knight, No Reservations) near to breaks your heart with his grief and his pain, all in slips of seconds that slide by like the raw emotions flickering across his face, all the ache his Burke Ryan is trying to keep tamped down. Burke lost his wife, see, three years earlier, in a car accident, and he channeled his rage into a bestselling self-help book, A-Okay!, about mourning and moving on. But for all his pleasant-sounding but superficial aphorisms about healing, which do seem to have helped many people, he doesn’t follow a one of them himself, natch — he’s hurting, hurting something awful, I tell you. Despite what he tells his rapturous seminar audiences, which treat him like a secular preacher, he is not a-okay.
The thing is, Eckhart sells that hurting in a way that makes you wish the rest of the movie was as dedicated to the whole endeavor as he is. The rest of the movie — by grief-porn peddlers Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson, who wrote the script (and who as a team wrote Dragonfly); Camp directed — plays like the highlights of a story about anguish and recovery, not the story itself. It’s all signifiers for real emotion, not the real emotion itself… except for every moment Eckhart is onscreen, and then, all too briefly, the film surges with electric life.
Eloise, for instance, the florist who does the arrangements at the Seattle hotel where Burke is giving his seminar, is not a woman, just an amalgam of quirks and oddities, lashed together in the person of Jennifer Aniston (Marley & Me, Management), who plops a funky hat on her head and drives a pastel-colored VW van and thinks herself adorably idiosyncratic, the perfect foil for Burke… and the perfect cure for what ails him, of course. (A genuinely potent Eloise might have been played by, oh, say, Judy Greer [27 Dresses, American Dreamz], who can actually play “charmingly eccentric” onscreen. But this is a Hollywood excuse for authenticity, not authenticity itself, so Greer is relegated to a small, thankless role as Aniston’s shop assistant.)
Burke and Eloise meet cute — it involves her tendency to express her oh-so-funky-cute idiosyncrasy by vandalizing hotel property like a toddler might, and with about as much apparent thought as a three-year-old. And then, lest Burke get past his grief too soon in the face of the irresistibly bubbly, life-affirming Eloise (or so we’re meant to see her), their second encounter is a meet-mean, which is intended, narratively, to… well, I’m not sure. The love that the title of the film assures us will happen doesn’t happen until about the last 10 seconds of the story, so perhaps we should be thankful for the small favor the filmmakers granted us in skipping over the goofy falling-in-love montage followed by the requisite breaking-up-in-the-rain moment before, at last, everything is fixed in time for the closing credits.
They try, though, Camp and Thompson, with one bit that veers the movie from its general tone of mopey melodrama into sitcom — it involves the wildly inappropriate release of a tropical bird into the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, a wish of Burke’s dead wife that Eloise prods him to finally fulfill. The entire episode is cringe inducing… except when it comes to the moment when Burke must finally shoo the bird away from its cage. He hates the damn thing, isn’t sorry to see it go, but it’s the last thing of his wife’s life that remains undone (perhaps; we don’t actually learn much of anything about her or their marriage beyond this). It’s the tiniest of moments built up from the tiniest of actions on Eckhart’s part as an actor performing the moment, but it speaks volumes of regret and disquiet and that awful, wonderful sorrow that comes from the decision to give up a pain one has been clinging to…
And it’s private, for Burke, which is what grief always is. But Love Happens, at its so-false finale, posits grief as public and mourning and recovery as something to be congratulated. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has experienced heart-wrenching grief creating a story that comes to this conclusion. Such a movie does not deserve Eckhart as its leading man, and Eckhart doesn’t deserve to be stuck in it. I’d like to see the movie he was in in his head.