Well-written characters and dialogue are, of course, great opportunities for actors. But nothing proves an actor’s talent more than elevating, with the power of craft, mediocre or bad material. So let us take a moment to sing the praises of character actor John Carroll Lynch (Fargo), who, in the dopey Love Happens, works miracles as a father navigating grief after the death of his young son.
Lynch can’t turn the movie’s whine back into refreshing water, but his work gives one something periodically to admire while enduring the cliché-ridden and predictable movie around him. And he’s not entirely on his own: Martin Sheen comes in with charm and gravitas as another grieving father (that’s right: two for the price of one!), and even leading players Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston muster glimmers of charm over the course of Brandon Camp’s clumsy romantic drama.
Eckhart plays Burke Ryan, Ph.D, a therapist who has parlayed his wife’s tragic death into a thriving business conducting one-step-at-a-time seminars for the grieving. Though he’s skilled at helping others--wait for it...--he can’t help himself. Ryan preaches to his clientele that they must learn to “pay the piper” and “do the work” to move past their fear and anger and live again; meanwhile, he fearfully avoids both elevators and intimacy. About to close a deal to be “branded” and franchised as a multimedia personality, the hypocritical life coach is at a crossroads. He is definitely not, as his book title trumpets, “A-Okay!”
Enter florist Eloise Chandler (Aniston). Get this: she’s sensitive and quirky. While outfitting Ryan’s hotel with flowers, she secretly enjoys scrawling fancy words on the walls (golly…she’s one of a kind!), and though she’s been burned by caddish men, she has a “funny” friend and co-worker (Judy Greer) cheerleading from the sidelines. Awkwardly stumbling into a relationship after a couple of comically unpleasant chance meetings, Burke and Eloise help each other to move forward from past pain.
The script by Camp and Mike Thompson deals with subjects of universal relevance, but it does so in the most pat of ways. Aside from a bizarre detour to the graves of Bruce and Brandon Lee (the film takes place in Seattle), Love Happens utterly lacks the element of surprise. It’s pure Hollywood hokum, with plotting that’s practically impossible (for a guy conducting a seminar, Ryan sure has a lot of free time), graceless product placement, cutesy situations, and neatly tied bows. Like a romance novel, Love Happens provides sappy reassurance that love can indeed happen, but sexy it is not. By the time Ryan earns a slow clap from his patients, you’ll be scrambling for the exits.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]