Sony // 2004 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // May 9th, 2006
The story of a once-in-a-lifetime second chance for love
Samantha (Jennifer Love Hewitt, Party of Five) is a talented violinist living in London. She is preparing to graduate from a prestigious music school and is shacking up with a successful young business type named Ian (Paul Nicholls, High Speed). While everything seems sunny and bright, there is a crack in the couple's interpersonal veneer. Ian is so tied up in his work that he tends to take Samantha for granted and she's convinced he's hiding himself from her. At this precarious place in their relationship, tragedy strikes -- yet, as if by magic, the pair gets to replay the events leading up to the loss. The purpose of such a second chance seems obvious: for a relationship built on love and trust, there is very little of both between the paramours. Samantha and Ian now have the opportunity to do all those things they couldn't find time for previously and to share themselves in deeper, more honest ways. It may be the only way to avert the heartbreak that's about to transpire, as well as keeping the couple from playing over the events of the day while wondering If Only.
If only If Only didn't end the way it did. If only If Only didn't cast Jennifer Love Hewitt as the center of our romantic fantasy. If only If Only hadn't been filled with so much cutesy crap conversational repartee. If only If Only had dropped the droopy J-Love musical numbers. Sadly, there are a lot more of these clichéd criticisms that can be launched at this film, flaws that peck away at what wants to be a metaphysical missive on seizing the day and loving the one you're with. Under the guidance of TV talent Gil Junger (known for such mainstream movie fare as 10 Things I Hate About You and Black Knight), this overly sentimental story about second chances and emotional honesty rings rather false. A lot of the problem is the leads, including some quasi-cute-as-a-button Brit boy toy named Paul Nicholls. Hewitt and Nicholls generate a minor amount of heartstrings heat while their carnal chemistry barely bubbles. Hewitt in particular does so much acting with her eyes, batting and flitting her lashes like she's got apoplectic peepers, that she's more evasive than involving. Nicholls plays the role of retarded paramour very well, acting incredibly dense throughout the first 30 minutes of the movie. As a couple, you can't conceive of what they see in each other. Even their blah bed romping at the beginning takes on the look and feel of a badly-drawn Haines commercial.
Then we get the big fat farce of a twist, one that sends the movie into Sliding Doors/Groundhog's Day mode. Since it's nearly impossible to discuss what comes next without indulging in a spoiler or two, here is your advanced warning. Don't read beyond this sentence if you want to keep yourself blissfully unaware of any important plot points (oh, and don't read the write-up on the DVD case, either). When Hewitt dies in a car crash, it seems anticlimactic. Junger hasn't built up any foundation of feeling other than a weird paranormal/portents of evil vibe before the incident occurs and we automatically expect that something horrible is going to happen without us being properly prepared to care. Nicholls's scenery-chewing reaction (and montage of memories) gives the film a real horror-genre gloss. Before you know it, the tone has gone from sunny to scary to silly. When he wakes the next morning to find Hewitt alive and ditzy, we are supposed to laugh with "Was it all a dream?" relief. But instead, we feel as sideswiped as our heroine the night before. The surreal second half of the film, which retraces the steps of the deadly day, wants to be part brainbuster (how will the key omens we've seen before show up in reboot mode) and part fairy tale. Nicholls learns to give of himself and Hewitt gets to flap those eyelids with even more determined delirium.
It's the ending, though, that really ruins If Only. A movie like this, mired in a true sense of unreality and dreamscape, cannot just come crashing back to Earth and force the characters to deal with issues in a realistic, matter-of-fact manner. Aside from the shifting of mood, which we already acknowledge the film is flummoxed by, there's also a lack of narrative logic that totally destroys the storyline. When he is presented with the options for change, Ian is under the impression that there is the possibility of averting the destined death. Never once is it suggested, however, that it would require some kind of "trading places." The whole story is set up to be Ian's journey into sentimentalized self-discovery. He opens himself up and exposes the bitter little boy inside. He learns to love and really appreciate the woman of his dreams. So how, exactly, is he rewarded? Such a sacrifice seems pointless, since it leaves both characters heartbroken and hopeless. While it may have seemed like a powerful way of wrapping up the story, it feels more like the tragic twist at the end of a hackneyed Harlequin Romance. If Only wants to have its fate and defeat it, too, logic and logistics be damned. It hopes that by providing such a penance for its lead lovers, we will well up with tears and bawl our little orbs out. All we really end up doing is wondering why we wasted 85 minutes getting to this smarmy, stupid conclusion.
You can really see how much faith Sony has in this product through the way they handle its release on DVD. No bonus features save for a collection of trailers, a perplexing pan-and-scan transfer, the film's attempted visual scope crammed into a 1.33:1 full-frame fiasco, and a Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 mix that is flat and featureless. When J-Love hits center stage to belt out the film's main musical number, the speakers get their one and only chance to shine. Sadly, the sound coming out is pure pop pap. There are minor moments of pleasure in this otherwise scattered storyline, places where we see and hear interesting individuals sharing their innermost emotions and feelings. If only If Only had capitalized on those, instead of going for metaphysical melodrama. What could have been a sad, sappy hanky-fest is now just a lost in limbo bit of lameness.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13