In Time for Valentine's Day
In Time for Valentine's Day
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In the largely male-dominated world of film criticism (and filmmakers for that matter), it's fairly easy to trash romantic comedies which are usually dismissed under at least one of two headings-- "RomComs" and/or "Chick Flicks." While a good majority of the time, the by-the-numbers romantic comedies or "chick flicks" being sent spiraling towards the multiplex are fairly straightforward and usually demean both sexes (The House Bunny, anyone?)-- more often than not I do feel the genre isn't given a fair shake and I know a lot of straight men who actually enjoy romantic comedies of the Nora Ephron variety.
However, once Hollywood found a formula that worked, they milked it for all its worth and since the '00s hit, we've been inundated with dozens of rom-coms every month that usually center on successful, exceedingly bright, and gorgeous single women (usually ranging from 25-40) who all fall in love with interchangeable, nearly-neutered, sexless, sensitive puppy-dog men who gaze adoringly, say all the right things, and are ultimately as reliable (and as sexy) as one of those old wool sweaters we all keep at the bottom of our wardrobe that we can't bear to throw away for nights when it's too cold.
Whether they're played by handsome and otherwise immensely talented actors like You Can Count on Me and Zodiac's Mark Ruffalo (witness 13 Going on 30 or Rumor Has It for proof) or Alias star Michael Vartan (Monster-in-Law, Never Been Kissed), it doesn't matter-- because honestly, since everything ends in a cookie-cutter fashion-- we forget about them as soon as we leave the theatre.
While reviewers joke about the endless romantic comedies featuring Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts, Renee Zellweger, Meg Ryan, or Drew Barrymore etc. whose characters do indeed usually fit a similar pattern, at least we remember something distinct about each individual part (although they usually work in publishing, education or something extremely "feminine") whereas the men seem like they were ordered directly out of a JCPenney catalog and have the personality of the accompanying advertisement.
Gone are the days of wickedly witty rapid-fire seductive banter between Bogie and Bacall or even in the '90s Hanks and Ryan and while every once in awhile a film from the genre comes along that genuinely surprises me such as Happy Accidents, Down With Love, Dan in Real Life, or Waitress-- those are few and far between and most of the time we're stuck with 27 Dresses, Made of Honor, What Happens in Vegas, and Bride Wars.
In 2002, Nia Vardalos broke the mold (and the glass ceiling) by creating the astronomically successful independent rom-com My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Building a film out of what was essentially an ethnic stereotype filled sitcom styled plot but building it up in the rom-com arena by combining the viewer-friendly Ugly Duckling or Pygmalion like premise and coupling a worthy heroine with an admittedly beautiful yet exceedingly dull prince (played by Sex and the City star John Corbett whose work as Chris the philosophical DJ on Northern Exposure was one of my earliest crushes), Vardalos' film was a smash success. Moreover, it was a movie that made fun of everyone's wacky dysfunctional family-- sort of a Tony and Tina's Wedding for the big screen, given a Greek makeover.
And while I've never really understood the film's overwhelming box office business since in my eyes it makes fun of rather than celebrates the culture in question, I admire what the likable Vardalos did in trying to bring a multi-generational and family-centric flavor to the rom-com in the same vein as Moonstruck or Bonnie Hunt's woefully underrated Return to Me (a far superior work to Greek complete with a Douglas Sirk Magnificent Obsession or Affair to Remember worthy weepie plot).
Since then, other movies have followed suit with various success in exploring their particular niche-- neighborhood comedies, ethnic romances, cross-culture clashes etc. like Fay Ann Lee's wonderful Falling for Grace which sadly has yet to make its way to DVD and jumping onto Greek's bandwagon is writer/director Jason Todd Ipson's Italian twist-- the aptly titled Everybody Wants to Be Italian.
Blending together all of the same elements of a far-too-good heroine who's still amazingly single, a tight-knit largely Italian North Boston community where everyone (including Penny Marshall) knows everyone else's business (like Moonstruck)-- admittedly, Ipson's movie is far from perfect. Yet, the one way the film completely managed to differentiate itself from all the rest is by making the film not only male-centric (a la Dan in Real Life) and told from the man's point-of-view but also by making that man not the neutered, overly sensitive puppies we're used to but a mild screw-loose stalker who says the wrong things at all the wrong times.
He's the anti-romantic comedy hero and again in a refreshing change-- instead of focusing on a woman who sits around and chats Sex and the City style with her girlfriends, our main male character has his own Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte but they're all fiery Italian male fishmongers-- some of whom take night classes and quote Freud and others who just want the dirty details.
This "Cinder-fella" doesn't have any fairy godmothers but fishy fairy godfathers all playing matchmaker, trying to get a couple of crazy kids together in some of the most unromantic of ways such as deceit, analogies involving Victoria's Secret models and thirteen year old boys (don't ask) and moreover, forcing the film's main character Jake (Jay Joblonski) to pretend he's Italian in order to romance the gorgeous Marisa (Cerina Vincent).
Of course, what they don't realize in setting up the two to meet at an Italian Single's Night is that Marisa isn't Italian either but she keeps the secret as well when warned by an elderly Italian neighbor that Italian men never marry women who aren't Italian. Endlessly offered some of the worst advice that primarily consists of gender and ethnic stereotypes including some jokes about every Italian woman having not only a father but "most have brothers with sharp knives"-- nothing for these two goes according to anyone's plan.
While the incessant meddling of Jake's fishmonger pals including the Freudian aspiring psychologist Steve (John Kapelos), Aldo the manager (Richard Libertini) who always warns of violence, and the far more blunt and macho Gianluca (John Enos III) doesn't help matters-- mostly it's Jake who sabotages the entire would-be courtship.
Offering a veritable guide of "what not to do on a date," Jake ruins every chance he has right from the bat in not only insulting Marisa's profession of veterinarian by surmising that she isn't "like a real doctor," wearing jeans and a baseball cap to take her to an Italian restaurant by subway since it's cheaper and ordering for her without consultation but ultimately with the capping revelation being his delusion that he's in another relationship.
As we learn shortly into the film-- after cheating on his girlfriend with her sister and best friend and having been dumped eight years earlier by his "soulmate" Isabella-- Jake hasn't let the fact that Isabella is now happily married and the mother of three children dissuade him from his irrational belief that they're always on the verge of working it out. Calling her daily, stopping by routinely and showing up with an engagement ring, fancy suit and flowers every year on their now defunct anniversary, Jake the hopeless stalker is threatened from being fired from his own inherited business by his coworkers unless he moves on.
Refusing to give up, he informs Marisa that although Isabella "his girlfriend" is "cool" with their dating, his heart belongs to another. While normally this would send women running in the opposite direction, later Marisa relents and the two become friends which inevitably leads to something more as they misinterpret signals and intentions throughout-- always with a third, fourth, fifth, and sixth wheel in the background as he still pines for Isabella and constantly suffers the less than helpful advice of his crew back at the fish place.
Ultimately, it's an Italian variation of My Big Fat Greek Wedding filled with the same misinformation that perpetuated past rom-coms like Working Girl and Return to Me as both Marisa and Jake keep up the pretense that they're Italian throughout. And while the film suffers from its over-reliance on vulgar dialogue used throughout (including a thoroughly unromantic final proposal that has Jake citing a "who is better in bed?" lewd challenge with another man) and characters who frequently talk like a hybrid over-the-hill version of the teens from American Pie mixed with the characters from Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, overall, it's surprisingly more entertaining than I feared it would be going in.
While of course, I'm assuming that Vardalos and the production team from Greek Wedding and Norman Jewison and company from Moonstruck hopefully feel that imitation is the best form of flattery and the film doesn't compare quality-wise with Jewison's '80s masterpiece, a big part of its success is precisely because it goes against all the conventions we've come to expect. Indeed, by fixating on the male character instead of the female and moreover, making that male character at times the biggest clueless jerk one can imagine, it gives his scenes with the lovely Cerina Vincent an added spark and obvious amusement that's evident on her face as we never know exactly what he's going to say next.
And obviously, in real life, we realize that a woman like the beautiful and brainy vet would never give a fishmonger stalker the time of day-- the film knows its goal is to entertain more than serve as any sort of realistic idea of romance-- and in fighting against the rom-com cliches in some exceedingly unromantic ways and infusing it with a gorgeous sense of place in Boston's North End, Everybody Wants to Be Italian makes what should've been a "skip it" in the theatre, a "rent it" on the small screen as I expect it will do quite well on both DVD and cable with a pre-Valentine's Day street date.
Releasing on February 3rd from Lionsgate Home Entertainment and Roadside Attractions in a beautifully transferred 16x9 aspect ratio enhanced for widescreen televisions and offering a plethora of indie extras such as commentary from the filmmaker and editor, a behind-the-scenes featurette, cast auditions and unrated deleted scenes, it's a charming diversion rainy Saturday evening fare that-- again while being far from ideal-- is much more surprising and delightful than some of the big-budget multiplex rom-coms currently hurled our direction.