Good Grief: A Heartfelt 'Love Happens'
By Dan Kois
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Sept. 18, 2009
More thoughtful than its cookie-cutter marketing campaign implies, and better than its awful title promises, "Love Happens" is the rare Hollywood romance concerned with emotions other than love at first sight. Sure, its mismatched partners -- Jennifer Aniston as Eloise, a florist unlucky in love, and Aaron Eckhart as Burke, a best-selling author of self-help books with titles like "A-Okay!" -- meet cute, trade barbs and have several quirky dates in rainy Seattle's most photogenic locations.
But there's a deep vein of grief running through "Love Happens," and first-time director Brandon Camp (who wrote the movie with Mike Thompson) takes very seriously the anger and sadness of his characters. Burke leads seminars in which he helps the bereaved deal with the deaths of loved ones, based on his experience of losing his wife in a car accident. But behind closed doors, he's falling apart -- lonely, drifting, drinking in the morning. (Such is the depressing ubiquity of product placement these days that even Burke's incipient alcoholism comes courtesy of a prominent vodka company whose labels are beautifully photographed.)
Now his manager, Lane (a surprisingly soulful Dan Fogler), has him back in Seattle, the city where his wife died -- and where his angry father-in-law (Martin Sheen) lives -- for a week of truth candles, trust exercises and walking across hot coals. It speaks well of "Love Happens" that it treats its central self-help guru, and the lost souls who come to him for help, with compassion rather than contempt. So "Love Happens" features long scenes of characters working through grief, many of which are quite affecting -- but after 15 minutes straight of all that, you might wonder, "Where's that Jennifer Aniston again?"
Oh, there she is, being adorable! Aniston brings a lot of heart to "Love Happens," filling in the center of a role haphazardly outlined (bad boyfriends, great job) by a script more concerned with its hero than its heroine. Perhaps realizing how undercooked her character is, Camp and Thompson pile on the quirks. Eloise secretly writes SAT vocabulary words on hotel walls; she saves index cards with her favorite floral greetings written on them; she smokes hookahs at slam poetry readings.
Eckhart, for his part, is solid: not that great at playing Burke's cheery motivational-speaker side but fully committed to his character's doubts and troubles.
Unfortunately, he's saddled with a Big Secret regarding the death of his wife, which is telegraphed clumsily throughout "Love Happens" and revealed disappointingly at its climax. In a movie that admirably preaches against shortcuts in life, it's a shame that Camp and Thompson resorted to this lazy narrative device, which feels like it's transplanted from another, much worse, film. It's a real misstep in an otherwise well-crafted, if downbeat, drama that might catch you by surprise.
Love Happens (109 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some language, including sexual references.