DVD Review: References (2009)

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While we can all relate to bad blind dates-- the one benefit of the set-up is that you're meeting someone who received an earnest recommendation from someone you trust-- therefore, as an old colleague joked, the chances are far less likely that the guy will be Jack the Ripper.

Comparing dates to a job interview that lasts all night as Jerry Seinfeld once did or suggesting that perhaps instead of having to repeat the same stories of our lives again and again, it'd just be easier if we swapped resumes before ordering dinner to see if we're even remotely interested (as shared on TV's Frasier)-- it was only a matter of time before the idea of auditioning, interviewing, or sharing a resume found its way into a romantic comedy.

Model and musician turned actor Michael Jason Allen had such an epiphany while running a company and constantly checking references-- wondering what it would be like if a potential mate had to serve up a bevy of character references to convince someone their relationship (much like hiring someone for a job) was worth taking a chance on.

A likable premise crafted in a refreshingly wholesome and upbeat approach by Allen who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film-- aptly named References-- provides a sweet and genuine escape from the raunchy or ridiculous antics thrown our way in most commercial rom-coms.

The movie was filmed completely in Allen's adopted home state of Arizona as an entirely independent Arizona production (financed, distributed, and handled solely by Allen's company He Said She Said Productions which also released the film's terrific companion soundtrack exclusively on their website).

And although the film ultimately doesn't have enough conflict to comprise three distinct acts as the same "can I trust him?" question lingers throughout its eighty-five minute running time, it's bolstered by an appealing young cast. With incredibly beautiful cinematography by the D.P. and editor Austin Nordell-- ironically Nordell also brought something completely unique to References when his lovely girlfriend Laney Smith tagged along one day and helpd Allen audition actors by reading the other side of the given conversations. As she explains in an interview-- one of many that comprises the hour long bonus feature on the Blu-ray high definition capable disc that also works as a regular DVD-- Allen asked her to audition as well and much to Smith's surprise, she was cast as the film's heroine, Marla.

As the film opens, the responsible employment agency worker declines yet another dinner invitation from her concerned mom that in the eight months following her divorce from a man who moved on long before the ink was dry on the legal end to their nuptuials, her daughter has become much too sheltered. When her feisty Aunt Helen's arthritis (sustained from roller derby injuries as a younger woman) puts her out of commission, the dutiful Marla jumps at the chance to escape the loneliness of city life to run her aunt's mail store in North Lake, Arizona.

Working at the cutesy trinket filled Helen's Postal-- Marla soon meets the attractive Jesse Collins (Michael Jason Allen) whose charm and humor helps let down her guard enough to accept an invitation to dinner. Although they get off on a slightly awkward foot when Marla realizes he has a mysterious reputation as he's dated numerous residents of the small town, the two begin spending increasing amounts of time together in a musical montage that seems like it was inspired by a wholesome '50s movie as he sends her cute cards, takes her to his farm, carves a pumpkin with her and holds her hand until after what seems like a decade the two share a kiss that leads into a night of passion.

Still-- having been spurned before and given Jesse's popularity in town with the women-- including his unstable skanky ex Cora (Joanna Ke) who drives a convertible with a "Princess" license plate and is a walking cliche of too much lip gloss and tank tops who makes it her mission to try and sabotage Marla's blossoming romance, Marla soon starts to withdraw from the relationship.

Desperate to clear his name and eager to win her over, Jesse compiles a list of exes (Cora excluded) to whom Marla should consult to get the full story on whether or not he's boyfriend material. Admittedly, a few of the wrenches thrown in the young lovers' path seem like they could've been easily cleared up with one simple phone call or a slightly longer heart-to-heart chat with Aunt Helen (Laura Durant) and essentially it's a one conflict premise that needed some stronger character devlopment since overall-- despite his leading man looks-- Allen's Jesse is a tad on the bland side and we needed to learn more about both Jesse and Marla to feel much more invested in the outcome which obviously we assume will find them in each other's arms.

While possibly another subplot may have also been an answer to make the film truly compelling all the way through-- it's still a great rainy Saturday afternoon romantic comedy. In the end, References is rescued and elevated by the film's sheer Arizona beauty, a truly fresh sounding collection of songs on the film's soundtrack, Smith's perpetual smile (she looks as though she could be Sofia Coppola's younger sister), and Allen's ultimate dedication to make an uplifting film that its flaws are easily forgiven including an overdone hissy fit by Ke's "diabolical bitch" Cora and a degrading final shot that finds her having to undergo a rabies shot (don't ask).

Still, despite these small misfires, it's nonetheless a great first effort from Allen that will be of particular interest to Arizona residents as it shows off its prominent Peoria location shoot to gorgeous effect and manages to evoke the small town charm of its likable fictitious setting of North Lake, Arizona.