Movie Review: Love Happens (2009)

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As someone who feels that the self-help industry is in need of self-help and seminars are just a larger version of Paul Dano making Daniel Day Lewis shout "I've abandoned my child" in There Will Be Blood, needless to say I was a tad skeptical about the prospect of a love story set amidst a self-help seminar.

Yet, while I don't believe in the moral and ethical implications of the backdrop of "open your wallet and we'll help you with common sense" or wondering about what happens when someone leaves said seminar and is away from workshops, I do believe in one of the most criminally underrated actors working in American cinema today, Mr. Aaron Eckhart.

Curiously driven to flawed and downright ugly roles perhaps as a determined effort to refocus attention he's no doubt received all his life for his Robert Redford-esque looks whether it's in his tour de force turn in Thank You For Smoking or via vile characters portrayed in Nurse Betty or In the Company of Men or switching up his appearance to win Julia Roberts' heart in Erin Brockovich, the bottom line is there's nothing false about Eckhart when he's onscreen.

This film is (mostly) no exception as he tackles an externally perfect, internally struggling self-help guru who, having tragically lost his wife in a freak traffic accident a few years earlier, took his day job writing columns for Psychology Today and worked through his grief by chronicling it in book form. When his friend and manager, Lane (Dan Fogler) read the book titled A-Okay and gave it to a publisher, it became a phenomenal bestseller earning Eckhart's Dr. Burke Ryan legions of fans before it evolved into sold-out seminars where he helps others grappling with the death of a loved one.

Guilty about the perception of cashing in on his wife's death and not actually managing to have followed his own advice to avoid alcohol since it's like putting a bandage "on a bullet wound" or forcing himself to smile for five minutes every day until it becomes natural, privately Burke is a wreck. Ritually, he puts himself through impossible trials of running up and down several flights of stairs at the hotels he visits around the country and looks ready for a panic attack each time after enlisting the help of liquid courage before he puts on a happy, confident face for the paying participants.Simply put, when we meet Burke, he visibly feels like the other four letter word that usually precedes "happens" in pop culture. Thus, it's quickly evident upon his arrival to host a grief workshop in Seattle where he's confronted by father-in-law Martin Sheen he's avoided for years that Love Happens is not going to be the feel great date movie of the year.

Yet despite its many, many contrivances, it gets much better as it continues as-- to his amazement-- Burke finds himself attracted and fascinated by Jennifer Aniston's free-spirited florist Eloise who provides the hotel with gorgeous, fresh arrangements. The unlikely and charmingly awkward courtship of the two gets off to a very rocky start as, coming off another romantic letdown with a philandering ex (Joe Anderson), Eloise tries to dodge the Seattle visitor first by pretending she's deaf and then by telling him off in the men's room that she isn't going to be a local girl he can just have a fling with... yet in much more colorful language.

Aniston and Eckhart spark well together which is refreshing to see for Aniston who has struggled in the past with unconvincing chemistry opposite Clive Owen in Derailed and Mark Ruffalo in Rumor Has It and sure enough, this is one of her strongest roles since The Break-Up and Friends With Money as she elevates the film from its Nicholas Sparks air of depression with a fun Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail mixed with Natalie Portman in Garden State vibe.

In fact, I was reminded of Garden State and its influence Harold and Maude numerous times as similarly in Happens, the life-affirming yet slightly screwed up, unconventional woman helps lead the path for a man to heal with love. While the choice to make her a florist is definitely symbolic as romance blooms and flowers die just like people and arrangements are used in times of sympathy and celebration and one of her unique quirks is making copies of "life on a 3x5 card" aka notes that are sent along with flowers that have stuck out in her life, the movie itself brightens whenever Eloise or her flowers are onscreen.

The balance between love and death and moving forward while being stuck in the past is important and emotionally charged since everyone can relate yet at the same time it makes the film slightly uncomfortable viewing if you're getting over a loss yourself. And while I applauded its ambitious nature, ultimately it's way too much to pack into a movie.

Moreover, as Burke tries to own up to the guilt he feels and work through the pain, it never feels authentic and I couldn't help wishing it had done away with the seminar stuff or retooled it somehow since the relationship is more of a flirtation than love and the grief is so rushed, you get through all five stages in two minutes near the end which may work in a self help book by fake doctors but would never have been published as truth in Psychology Today.

This is especially obvious in a confessional scene literally onstage with Martin Sheen that sparked a couple of surprised laughs in the audience because it just didn't work. Likewise you could sense that even Eckhart knew it was too mixed of a bag in not only in this scene but a few other "group therapy" moments involving a terrific turn by Zodiac and Gran Torino actor John Carroll Lynch wherein Eckhart works overtime to try and make us believe that a man can be healed by one shopping trip to Home Depot.

Overall, the film marks an admirable effort that's half successful and more worthy of a rental than a ticket price aside from the fact that it's undeniably bolstered by the always watchable Eckhart and Aniston in two terrific roles. Unfortunately, the characters weren't served well and neither was the audience as in addition to the strange bedfellows of plot-juggling such polar-opposite events, the fact that part of Burke's road to recovery involves a multi-million dollar sell-out leaves us with a sour aftertaste of greed instead of the deliciousness of healing with love.

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