For These 'Romantics,' Little To Rhapsodize About Galt Niederhoffer adapts her novel for the movie screen, wearing her cinematic influences proudly on her sleeve. Critic Ian Buckwalter says the affection is apparent -- but what motivates the characters decidedly is not.
NPR logo For These 'Romantics,' Little To Rhapsodize About



For These 'Romantics,' Little To Rhapsodize About

Night Moves: Laura (Katie Holmes) and Tom (Josh Duhamel) step cautiously across fine lines in The Romantics. Paramount Famous Productions hide caption

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Paramount Famous Productions

The Romantics

  • Director: Galt Niederhoffer
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 95 minutes

Rated PG-13: Nudity, mild naughtiness, salty talk and a controlled substance or two

With: Katie Holmes, Josh Duhamel, Anna Paquin, Candice Bergen, Malin Akerman, Adam Brody, Elijah Wood

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'The Toast'

'Wedding Jitters'

Just moments before his wedding, a groomsman tells Tom, who is anxiously trying to decide how to part his hair, to "choose a side." The clumsy metaphorical suggestion, courtesy writer-director Galt Niederhoffer, is that Tom (Josh Duhamel) also needs to choose a girl: He's just spent the night before his vows torn between two lovers — his betrothed, Lila (Anna Paquin), and his college sweetheart and on-again-off-again flame, Laura (Katie Holmes).

Lila and Laura also happen to be best friends, and the trio is part of an extended, incestuous group of old college buddies — almost all of whom ended up married or engaged. As the movie opens, they've all been thrown together at a windswept bayside estate (Long Island, standing in for the Maine of the novel), together in one group for the first time in years and subject to all the old temptations of their fading youth.

Niederhoffer also has some sides to choose in adapting her own novel to the screen: Will she put her own stamp on her directorial debut, or wear her influences proudly on her sleeve? She goes with the latter, but crosses that line between homage and mimicry, making it difficult to hear her own voice as a filmmaker.

That applies to everything from opening credits that scream "Wes Anderson" with their use of his trademark typographical style to a cringe-worthy re-creation of the famous boombox-held-aloft scene from Say Anything. Unfortunately, in this case, the boombox is an iPhone, and rather than playing Peter Gabriel, it silently displays a Keats poem. Grand romantic gestures tend to lose their grandeur when they're displayed on a 3-inch screen.

Jonathan Demme's masterfully queasy rehearsal dinner scene from Rachel Getting Married also gets a retread here. The shaky hand-held camera and the inappropriate toasts are in attendance; what's missing is any connection to these characters, and that's what might have given the scene the cringeworthy mortification of the original. When Laura is forced to give an awkward salute to the love of her life and her best friend, wishing them a happy future together, what should be a gut-wrenching moment just falls flat.

I Do (Or Do I?): Anna Paquin (center left) plays Lila, whose place in Tom's heart may not be as secure as she and the caterer might hope. JoJo Whilden/Paramount Famous hide caption

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JoJo Whilden/Paramount Famous

I Do (Or Do I?): Anna Paquin (center left) plays Lila, whose place in Tom's heart may not be as secure as she and the caterer might hope.

JoJo Whilden/Paramount Famous

This is early in the film, granted, but in its remaining time The Romantics still fails to give much shape to any of the characters. Lila is the only one drawn in anything but the broadest strokes: Her character stands on tradition, choosing not to spend the evening with her fiance as he and her other friends carouse drunkenly down by the beach. She spends it mostly alone, forlornly sneaking cigarettes and tiny bottles of liquor, and those quiet moments are some of the best in the film.

Niederhoffer runs through a checklist of other influences, from Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, with its WASP-y emotional misfits, to generation-defining ensemble pieces like St. Elmo's Fire and The Big Chill. As with the latter, pop music is a prominent force within this film, but the unmemorable indie-rock used here proves as insubstantial as The Romantics itself.

Once all the betrayals and tearful confrontations have played themselves out, the wedding begins as symbolically laden storm clouds gather. Will Tom choose the woman before him, or the maid of honor just a few feet behind? Unfortunately, given barely any idea of who these people are beyond their contrived literary inclinations and impeccable fashion sense, it's hard to muster much emotional investment in the decision.