New Line // 2004 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // April 11th, 2006
A comedy for the bitter, cynical, hopeless romantic in all of us.
Originally titled 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, this charming romantic comedy didn't make me want to hop on the bus, Gus. It did, on the other hand, make me need to discuss much.
(Wonder how much Paul Simon demanded for the licensing rights.)
After seven years in the City of Angels, freelance writer Owen McCabe (Paul Schneider, All The Real Girls) has fallen out of love with Los Angeles. Although he has carved out a modest living cranking out ghostwritten autobiographies for demi-celebrities -- like his current client, former astronaut and legend in his own mind Bucky Brandt (Fred Willard, A Mighty Wind) -- Owen's emotional life is in the toilet.
Determined to flee southern California and make a clean start, Owen torches his L.A. connections by telling all of his friends -- including his best pal and roommate Allison (Poppy Montgomery, Without A Trace), who's currently exploring her lesbian side with the rough-and-tumble Stephanie (Tori Spelling, Beverly Hills, 90210) -- exactly what he thinks of them before hopping on a flight bound for New Jersey.
Only...he never quite makes the plane.
Instead, at the airport boarding gate, Owen encounters the attractive Val (Jennifer Westfeldt, Kissing Jessica Stein), an animal rights lobbyist whom he had first met in passing some time earlier. She is, at that very moment, in the process of being unloaded by her boyfriend of four years. Owen and Val click immediately, sending him into a panic -- suppose he falls in love with her, and remains permanently stuck in L.A.?
There's only one thing left for Owen to do: sabotage his nascent relationship with Val before he loses his heart -- and his will to escape -- forever. There must be at least 50 ways to ruin a romance, wouldn't you think?
The romantic comedy is perhaps the most challenging film genre in which to innovate. Men and women have been falling in (and out of) love on this planet for thousands of years -- is there really anything new that can be said or shown about the process? In all likelihood, no. But that status quo doesn't keep filmmakers from trying, or filmgoers from, well, going.
Writer-director Jordan Hawley's retitled How To Lose Your Lover makes a valiant attempt at doing something fresh with the tired, stale romcom. Surprise, surprise -- he succeeds to a significant degree, despite a budget that probably rivaled the meal ticket for six at a top-shelf Hollywood restaurant. Hawley's premise is novel, and his talented cast makes up for most of the deficiencies in a script that starts solid, but loses some of its focus toward the end.
What I enjoyed most about How To Lose Your Lover was its perceptiveness about the people and subculture of Los Angeles. It's always strange to me that, with the film industry being centered in southern California, we don't see more films that have a good eye for the way Angelenos behave, or a good ear for the way they speak. (The reason, I suspect, is that the upper echelon of the film community is so insular that its members don't take time or opportunity to really look at or listen to the people around them.) How To Lose Your Lover shows that Hawley has both the eye and the ear, and that he's put them to effective use. His characters look and sound authentic, even when the situations into which he presses them do not.
I also liked the way Hawley's script takes familiar character types in somewhat different directions than we might at first suspect. It would have taken little effort to turn our hero Owen into an unredeemable cad, and make his boorishness the focal point of the film's comedy. Instead, there's a certain underlying sweetness in Owen's cynical attempt to torpedo his shot at true love. And, although the film's final destination rang ever so slightly false to me, the events leading up to it bought sufficient good will to keep me from heaving a brick at my television in response to the ultimate twist ending.
The quality cast certainly helps. I've appreciated Paul Schneider's work before, in George Washington and All The Real Girls, and he's quite strong again here. Schneider's easy chemistry with his costars, especially Jennifer Westfeldt and Poppy Montgomery, not only makes us believe in their quirky interactions, but also endears them to us as well. Westfeldt, who won me over as the title character in the brilliant Kissing Jessica Stein, lights up every scene with her uniquely off-center charm. Viewers familiar with Montgomery only from her understated turn as an FBI agent in TV's Without A Trace will get a charge out of seeing her in a more boundary-pushing role here. (She also does an excellent job at masking her natural Aussie accent.) Even Tori Spelling, who more often than not serves up the acting equivalent of tepid tapioca pudding, has a full-on blast in her limited screen time as Montgomery's Sapphic paramour.
The one member of the cast whose appearance feels perfunctory is the usually hilarious Fred Willard. I don't know what happened here, but Willard seems to be sleepwalking through his paces as blowhard ex-astronaut Bucky (a character suspiciously reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's retired space ace in Terms Of Endearment). As his appearances in Christopher Guest's "mockumentaries" demonstrate, Willard can spin the thinnest of straw into comedic gold. In this film, he's so laid-back I feared he might topple over, and so lacking in the humor I've come to expect that I wondered who this was doing a lousy Fred Willard imitation. Given that he was on the set for only a day or two, maybe Willard was just having an off week.
Hawley's no-frills direction suits this material well, allowing his dialogue and his actors to take center stage without distracting flash and dash. In fact, the stagy yet intimate camera setups make the viewer feel more like front-row ticket-holders at a live theater than a movie audience. I admire the confidence of a director for whom the context is more important than the technique. Hawley has a clever and sharply drawn story to tell, and tells it well. I enjoyed the end product more than I expected I would. And yes, that's a compliment.
New Line presents the rechristened How to Lose Your Lover in a serviceable DVD release. The video transfer runs the gamut from adequate to substandard, but it appears that a fair amount of the visual clutter and often oppressive graininess is a result of the poor source material (most of the movie was shot on leftover film stock -- a common money-saving measure in the independent cinema world) rather than the actual digital regeneration. It's a detriment, but at worse a middling one. The sound quality is reasonably good, with the dialogue well centered and clearly delivered.
Jordan Hawley and his coproducer J. Todd Harris team up for a low-key audio commentary. The pair is joined sporadically by actor Fred Willard, whose remarks are confined in the main to the scenes where he's on camera. Most of the chat centers on the film's microscopic budget, and the challenges arising from the tight shooting schedule and constant cost-consciousness. Hawley and Harris offer interesting insights into the process of independent filmmaking on a shoestring.
Hawley also delivers the optional audio commentary for a collection of seven deleted scenes. Unlike many discs, where the "deleted scenes" are merely extended or alternate takes of material that is present in the final cut, all but one of the edited sequences here offer some new, fresh take on the characters and story. It's easy to see why these pieces were left behind -- mostly to quicken the film's pacing -- but they're fun to watch nonetheless.
A trio of uninspiring trailers (for National Lampoon's Adam and Eve, The Thing About My Folks, and Just Friends) rounds out the programming.
High Times aficionados should take note of the fact that How to Lose Your Lover is one of the most 420-friendly mainstream films in recent memory. I haven't seen this much marijuana go up in smoke in 95 minutes since the heyday of Cheech and Chong.
I respect a romantic comedy that takes chances immeasurably more than I respect one than simply follows the clichéd conventions of the form. How to Lose Your Lover makes a creditable attempt at, if not breaking the romcom mold, at least expanding the parameters a bit. For that, as well as for its delightful cast and insightful script, it deserves your consideration on some future date night.
Not guilty of needing a new plan, Stan. The Court finds that the defendant can just drop off the key, Lee, and set itself free. We're adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2006 Michael Rankins; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary Featuring Writer-Director Jordan Hawley, Producer J. Todd Harris, and Actor Fred Willard
* Deleted Scenes
* Bonus Trailers