Judge Erich Asperschlager might not know what love is, but he's pretty sure this ain't it.
Love at your own risk.
Staged like a play but shot like a music video, writer-director-actor Mars Callahan's What Love Is tries to be post-modern and stylish but fails miserably, despite a cast of name actors I can only imagine got called in as favors or to repay some lost bet.
There's a reason the title is phrased as a statement rather than a question (and not just to avoid association with A Night at the Roxbury). This movie doesn't ask questions, it gives answers. Lots and lots of answers. Answers to questions no one asked. Answers to questions no one's ever asked. It takes a fire hose approach to male-female relationships by cramming as much dime-store philosophy, bar stool observation, and bedroom psychology as possible into 77 minutes (88 if you include the extended closing credits/outtakes sequence).
So how, exactly, does one attempt to cover the entirety of interpersonal romantic relationships in an hour-and-a-quarter-long film? Easy: by getting your actors to talk way too fast, saying things no real person would ever say, and playing characters so thin the word "stereotype" should be offended.
Facts of the Case
Tom (Cuba Gooding Jr., As Good as It Gets) returns home late on Valentine's Day to surprise his long-time girlfriend with a box of chocolates, a bouquet of roses, and an engagement ring. But all he finds when he gets there are her packed suitcases and a break-up letter. Unfortunately, he invited his friends Sal (Matthew Lillard, Scream), Wayne (Andrew Daly, Mad TV), Ken (played by Callahan himself), and George (Sean Astin, 24) over for an impromptu (and premature) engagement party. After a lengthy bitch session with the guys that ends with Tom swearing off the fairer sex, who should show up but five single women, courtesy of Sal. As the evening wears on, and the booze readily flows, Tom's guests engage in a frank discussion about sex, men, women, and what he should do when his ex comes back to collect her things.
I feel sorry for anyone who picks up this movie based on the cover art, which shows a smiling Cuba Gooding Jr. holding a bouquet of roses, backed up by a likewise-upbeat trio of Gina Gershon, Anne Heche, and Tamala Jones. Pink and blue collide behind the film's title, set in a jaunty heart-dotting-the-letter-"i" way that practically guarantees an evening of feel-good ribbing of the Mars v. Venus variety. Buyer beware: despite frequent attempts at humor, there's considerably little smiling in the film, and if there's any ribbing to be found, it's probably somewhere in the middle of a rant about prophylactics.
I can't think of too many romantic comedies that throw around profanity the way What Love Is does. This is a hard-R movie, folks. Most of the rapid-fire dialogue focuses on explicit sexual quirks, practices, and theories. There's a weird fantasy sequence involving magically appearing stripper poles and exotic dancers that I assume is meant to poke fun at the way men think about women, but there's no actual nudity or sex. Of course, that doesn't mean you'll want to watch this with your grandma.
Callahan's speed-talking script is reminiscent of playwright David Rabe's ode to '80s-era American excess, Hurlyburly (later adapted for the screen as the 1998 film starring Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, and Robin Wright Penn). But where Rabe had something interesting to say, What Love Is relies too heavily on a never-ending stream of tired relationship chestnuts.
I understand that Callahan is going for a kind of stylized satire, but the only excuse I can come up with for the film's characters being such blatant stereotypes is that if they weren't, the densely packed "story" would be even harder to follow. On the guys' side, you've got the Pig (Sal), the Gay Guy (Wayne), the Married Guy (Ken), the Hippie (George), and the Nice Guy (Tom). I'm willing to give Callahan the benefit of the doubt and assume he wanted his characters to be over-the-top. Why else would the homosexual be dressed in pink, or the tie-dyed-shirt-wearing hippie immediately sit down and pour himself a bowl of organic raisin bran? The women, while not quite as easily labeled, fall along party lines (that is to say, they line up neatly with the guys at the party). The most recognizable faces belong to Gina Gershon (Face/Off) as confident ringleader Rachel and Anne Heche (Six Days, Seven Nights), who plays Laura, the not-so-prudish prude. Filling out the estrogen-quota are Katherine (Tamala Jones, Daddy Day Camp), who only hits on married men; sensible Debbie (Shiri Appleby, Charlie Wilson's War), and cute-and-innocent Amy (Jud Taylor, That '70s Show).
Stereotypes aside, how exactly are people with so many problems this self-aware? If Callahan wanted to simplify his characters to make a point, fine—but don't pair simplicity with overwrought, thesis level, late night, alcohol-fueled philosophizing. It just doesn't make sense.
Visually, the film is set up like a stage performance. Most of the action takes place in the living room of Tom's apartment. Characters enter and leave. All of which fits Callahan's talky, theatrical script. What doesn't work as well are the editing-room embellishments. The movie is marred by quick cuts that nauseate more than energize, and while there are some interesting Steadicam and film speed effects, those moments are as over stimulating as the screenplay. The movie's soundtrack uses stale hits like EMF's "Unbelievable" and Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart" as breaks in the "action." Other than those few songs, however, there's not much in the way of musical score (not that anyone takes a long enough breath to justify the addition of music). Content aside, the audiovisuals are handled pretty well on this disc. The picture is decent for an indie production, and the 5.1 mix does a good job with all the overlapping dialogue, effects, and music.
There are two extras, "Making Love: The Making-of What Love Is" and a defensive feature-length commentary with Callahan and producers George Bours and John Hermansen. If you like the movie enough to want to know how it was made (and how much everyone enjoyed making it), or want to hear Callahan explain that his film is just too edgy and "honest" for some critics, you might dig the behind-the-scenes info.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to give Mars Callahan credit for the singularity of his vision. He knows exactly the effect, style, and message he wants, and goes for it completely. Like it or hate it (I'm guessing you know which side I fall on), What Love Is is a consistent experience from beginning to end—one that its well-known actors must have had enough faith in to be part of.
What Love Is is the perfect movie for pretentious friends to sit around and pretend to enjoy. Writer-director Mars Callahan seems to think actors spewing relationship theory at speeds that make Howard Hawks look like Harold Pinter is enough to sustain a feature film. He's wrong. Despite competent actors and a level of visual polish, this is an obscene, overblown, unfunny ego trip. But hey, I never said I was a romantic.
If all's fair in love and war, this film should be brought up on war crimes. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary With Writer/Director Mars Callahan And Producers George Bours And John Hermansen
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