Mark Reviews Movies


2  Stars (out of 4)

Director: Brandon Camp

Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Jennifer Aniston, Dan Fogler, John Carroll Lynch, Martin Sheen, Judy Greer

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language including sexual references)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 9/18/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik

There's a fine film about grief and denial lurking just at the surface of Love Happens, but it's obvious someone at some point wasn't too happy with the idea of a fine film about grief and denial. There's marketability to consider, after all.

Hence, all the marketing for Love Happens, from the trailer to the ads to the title itself, veer steeply away from the very real premise of the movie into the romance that happens amidst the movie's core story of a man coming to grips with the death of his beloved wife.

That is, admittedly, a hard sell, which is usually why we see movies coming out of the studio system that touch upon mourning but keep it decidedly at bay. What's commendable about Love Happens is that the movie focuses a lot of energy on the distress and tries to find ways to fit the romance angle within the central character's evolving acceptance of his loss.

Where the movie falters within that focus is in trying to tidy things up for our troubled hero without allowing him to do the hard work on his own. It cheats him out of vital scenes, gives him a formulaic goal in the form of a new romance to work toward, and forces him to take a giant leap when a first step is much more emotionally satisfying and honest.

The man at the center of it all is Burke Ryan (Aaron Eckhart), who wrote a self-help manifesto for himself to cope with the death of his wife. The book made its way into publication, became a hit, and started Burke on a wide tour of self-help workshops to assist other people who have suffered the loss of a loved one.

His latest stop is Seattle, the place where three years ago the fatal car accident that left him a widower happened. Burke has to face not only the grieving of spouses and parents in his seminar but also some personal demons, like his father-in-law (Martin Sheen), to whom he hasn't spoken since his wife's death.

Thankfully, he cutely meets (She pretends to be deaf, he finds out she's not, they fight, he asks her out to dinner) Eloise (Jennifer Aniston), a local florist, and has some tender adventures with her.

Eloise is a problem character. Her very existence in a movie of this sort obliges her to become a love interest for and equal to Burke, which explains the quick introduction of her backstory (She has her own shop (with a quirky assistant played by the always-quirky-assistant Judy Greer), and her boyfriend cheated on her). She's also and more importantly meant as a fresh perspective for Burke, which explains the quick dismissal of her own backstory (She has very few scenes without Burke present).

There's a palpable tension that exists between these two purposes, and by the time screenwriters Brandon Camp (who also directed) and Mike Thompson really concentrate on Burke's inner turmoil, they've also decided to keep her on the sidelines, telling him he has a problem and trying to show him the way to face his grief.

These scenes between Burke and Eloise feel more honest than the romantic ones that precede them, but as hard as Camp and Thompson try to show Burke's growth, they can't quite bring themselves to committing to it.

There are a few key scenes for which we're waiting. One is Burke coming clean to Eloise about his behavior, but it's left offscreen to his agent (Dan Fogler, who plays an compassionate agent and somehow makes the oxymoron work). Even more important, though, is the scene in which Burke finally facing his father-in-law.

Instead, there's an out-of-place mission to extract Burke's wife's parrot from her parents' house so he can release it into the wild. It's avoiding the inevitable, and we wonder if Camp and Thompson will actually give Burke and the audience the closure they need.

Burke's self-revelation scene does come, but it takes place on stage in front of a major audience. It just so happens, his father-in-law is present, which neatly avoids the difficult moment of finally confronting him. It's far too easy of an out, and the scene just barely works because of Eckhart and Sheen's vulnerability in the moment.

I might sound completely critical about Love Happens, but it's only because the movie comes so close to defying formula and expectations only to conform to them. It has a very good performance from Eckhart, a near-willingness to confront Burke's pain head-on, and some very honest moments.

It just doesn't trust them, as we can see when it continues with two superfluous scenes after its real ending. You'll know it when it comes; the elevator doors close. That's the right ending if this movie were genuinely sincere about its story and character.

Copyright 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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