It’s a dim picture for romantic movies

Los Angeles TimesFebruary 14, 2014 

Joaquin Phoenix stars in the romantic drama 'Her.'


Just when did “date night movie” lose its place on studios’ release schedules?

Dinner and a movie.

Yes, I realize it represents a profound failure of imagination, but this was the date I had proposed to my wife for Valentine’s Day this week. But sometimes life’s obligations (not to mention two kids) limit your options for an evening out, so you flail around, punt and resort to an old standby. It still beats takeout and loading the dishwasher, right?

Maybe not. A cursory glance at the theater listings reveals a slate of movies not exactly geared toward anyone whose age or IQ exceeds 30. “That Awkward Moment”? Pass. “The Lego Movie”? I believe that’s currently playing on our living room floor. “Labor Day”? Did you read the reviews? No reason not to skip ahead, enjoy a slice of peach pie and call it a night.

And we’ve already seen “About Last Night” and “Endless Love” back when Lionel Richie and John Waite ruled the charts and Rob Lowe looked … well, exactly as he does now. Maybe that Valentine’s dinner should include kale and a brisk power walk back to the car … that we parked five miles away.

My point is: Somewhere, somebody is at this very moment asking: Where have you gone, Garry Marshall? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo, woo, woo. (Or, eew, eew, eew, depending on how you feel about “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve.”) Just when did “date night movie” lose its place on studios’ release schedules?

Typically this time of year, there’s still some awards-season leftovers hanging around in theaters, movies aimed at grown-ups and among the biopics and historical epics and serious-minded whatnot, you might occasionally get a whiff of love in the air.

Last year we watched those two kooky head cases in David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” fuss, feud and dance and give each other renewed purpose in life to the strains of Stevie Wonder and the White Stripes. It had us at “Hey!”

This year there’s another movie from Russell, “American Hustle,” but the emotional connection between its con artist lovers, played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, feels like it’s hidden somewhere beneath the elaborate comb-over that Bale’s character sports. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of sex in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” even some between a husband and wife, but not much in the way of romance unless you broaden the definition to include a candlelit dominatrix.

Among the other best picture nominees, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney never have the chance to pair off in “Gravity,” while, thankfully, nothing of that sort ever happens between 79-year-old Judi Dench and Steve Coogan during their trip to our nation’s capital in “Philomena.”

Bruce Dern and June Squibb give us a glimpse of long-standing love in “Nebraska.” It’s not always pretty, but it also proves considerably more affecting than you’d expect from the way the movie begins. Like Tom Hanks’ Capt. Phillips, you might even think that, in his younger days, Dern’s character might write a goodbye note to his wife in the event he was captured by Somali pirates.

Then there’s “Her,” the Spike Jonze romance about Theodore (the great Joaquin Phoenix), a lovelorn man with a “tiny little hole” in his heart falling for his computer’s sexy, sentient operating system and as a result, finding himself reengaged with his life and other flesh-and-blood people. “You always wanted a wife without the challenge of dealing with anything real,” Theodore’s bruised ex tells him. But she’s speaking out of spite. After their breakup, Theodore had isolated himself and retreated into technology. It was the mechanized world that allowed him to feel again and shed his solitude.

Jonze was jokingly asked at the Toronto Film Festival whether “Her” was his way of getting rid of all the real women in the world and replacing them.

“The movie, to me, is about our desire to connect or the need to connect,” Jonze answered, “and how quickly technology has changed our lives in this newest incarnation – the Internet and digital technology. But I was also always trying to make a relationship movie and a love story and examine relationships.”

It’s arguably the most interesting look at love attempted on film in ages. And as such, my wife and I have already watched “Her.” Twice.

In the end, we decided we’ll return on Valentine’s night to a movie possessing all the elements of a great romance – friendship, fun, a little sex and Nina Simone singing Duke Ellington.

That’s right. I’ll be watching “The Big Lebowski” with my Special Lady Friend. You’re not dealing with morons here.

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