Sometimes you watch a movie and you know it’s deeply flawed, maybe even not good at all, but you find yourself relating to it all the same. The Romantics, a 2010 independent dramedy with a 15% rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes, is one of those movies.
It would be pretty hard for me to see a movie about a group of seven college friends, now in their late twenties, reuniting for a wedding and not relate to it, I suppose. They feel lost and kind of disappointed? I feel lost and kind of disappointed! They love their friends? I love my friends! They are trying to make it in difficult career paths (writers/actors/professors/etc.)? My friends and I are also trying to make it in difficult career paths! The Romantics is a movie with a very precise target audience made up of people who are more or less me and the people I know. Its cast seems selected to provoke nostalgia for teen soaps of the late 90s and early 2000s: Katie Holmes and Adam Brody are basically playing Joey Potter and Seth Cohen, ten years later. How are they doing? Well, they are both depressed, because everyone in the movie is depressed. (The Romantics itself is not depressing, though. Just strangely disconnected.)
The wedding in question is between Tom (Josh Duhamel), who has fluffy hair and likes to swim, and rich Lila (Anna Pacquin), who is supposed to be intimidating and perfect and rigid. She’s not, though, because she’s played by Pacquin, whose emotionality can’t really be suppressed. There’s a natural quaver in her voice and an expressiveness to her elfin features that betrays Lila’s cool cover. Lila’s maid of honor–and Tom’s former girlfriend–is Laura (Katie Holmes), a sarcastic, outsidery writer. She is easily the most depressed person in the movie. Obviously, she lives in New York.
Laura spends the entire movie in an understandable funk about her ex-boyfriend and theoretical best friend getting married. However, the movie never gives the audience any reason to care, because Laura sucks. She never has any fun, she doesn’t seem to like any of her friends at all, she doesn’t make jokes. It’s also difficult to understand what Lila and Laura see in Tom, who is dull as a tea cozy. His main personal quality appears to be that he is good at swimming, which is very nice for him but not really compelling in terms of characterization. He’s also getting his PhD in English, which one character cites as a draw when she’s giving her toast, but I was just like, maaaan clearly the people in this movie haven’t heard about the job market.
Why do the members of this love triangle like each other at all? I think we’re supposed to think that Tom wants Lila because she’s rich, Lila wants Tom because she wants a husband, Tom wants Laura because she is exciting, Laura wants Tom because she feels exciting with him. But if Tom is the kind of person who would marry for money, why would someone like Laura be in love with him? They don’t seem to have much of a connection. In what is intended to be a dramatic moment, Tom strides passionately toward Laura holding his tiny smartphone aloft, the text of “Ode to a Nightingale” (their favorite poem) on its lit screen. Watching the scene, I started laughing. How is she supposed to know what’s on the phone? She’s twenty feet away! Why doesn’t he just recite it? I really hope that one day someone walks toward me with a serious expression on their face while just holding up their phone; I will leap into their arms.
Meanwhile, although Lila and Laura are supposed to be close, in the movie they seem basically like strangers. They don’t even speak to each other directly until the last fifteen minutes of the movie, when they start yelling. It’s hard to feel invested in how they betray one another when there seems to be no love lost between them. The stakes of this story are so low, they’re underground.
Yet there are some wonderful moments in The Romantics. Lila spends the night before her wedding sitting at her vanity table, sipping miniature bottles of alcohol and taking dainty puffs of cigarettes–the perfect accessories for her carefully controlled panic. The easy intimacy between Laura and two other bridesmaids as they get ready together in the crowded bathroom, sharing mirrors and plucking their eyebrows, reminds you just how long these people have known each other. Flirting with a married friend (Malin Ackerman), Adam Brody busts a Kid n’ Play dance move, and her delighted laughter as she begs him to do it again tells you everything you need to know about what’s going to happen between them.
I mean, I don’t know. The thing about criticizing movies that are really trying to be movies–as opposed to criticizing movies that are trying to be money trees–is, how are you supposed to forget that people poured themselves into them? Writers, directors, actors, editors, gophers, camerapeople, costume designers: clearly people were trying to make a good movie here, and they even succeeded in places. If you make a movie, and it fails, you still made a movie. That’s incredible, if you think about it. I’ve never made a movie. Maybe I’d like to.
What I’m trying to say is that The Romantics is odd and under-developed. But there’s a scene where the friends (minus Lila) are drinking beers on the beach, the night before the wedding. The water is black and quiet. They’re sprawled out on the sand in their suits and dresses, all of them fairly drunk. They’re teasing each other and saying serious things as jokingly as possible. When they strip down to their underwear, join hands, and run together into the ocean, The Romantics, which is not good, does something that good movies know how to do: it reminds you how being with your best friends feels.