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February, 2009 : Essay:

Love in the Time of Paradox

Romantic comedies are a hardy genre, as I explore in my recent book I'll Have What She's Having. It's been crossbred with everything from mysteries ("The Thin Man" movies) to coarse fratboy comedies ("There's Something About Mary," "Knocked Up"), but what about the science fiction film? Putting aside the movies where the "love interest"—meaning the hero's girlfriend—is put there just to have someone to scream at the monster, SF films where we have to take the romance seriously tend to be dramas, like "Time After Time" or David Cronenberg's remake of "The Fly." These are films where the romance is important, but not the primary thrust of the film. In "Time After Time" the hook is H. G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) traveling to the present day of 1979 in pursuit of Jack the Ripper (David Warner). In "The Fly" the doomed romance between Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) adds to the tragedy of the story, but our focus is Seth's mutation into "Brundlefly."

Is there a film where the romance is front and center that is also undeniably both a comedy and science fiction? It turns out there's at least one, although readers are welcome to offer up their own nominations for discussion. The movie I'm addressing is "Happy Accidents," a charmer that passed quickly through theaters in the summer and fall of 2001, and now awaits rediscovery on DVD.

(Note to the "no spoiler" fascists: If you are the type who screams at someone for telling you that Hamlet dies or that the Allies won World War II because now the story has been "spoiled" for you, stop reading now. While not revealing the big surprises, I will be discussing something not revealed until about twenty minutes into the film. It's also revealed on the back of the DVD cover. Life must be very difficult for you.)

Ruby Weaver (Marisa Tomei) is a thirty-something living in New York. She's just broken up with her latest loser boyfriend. She and her girlfriends put pictures of their rejects in a shoebox they call the "Ex Files," which should already be a tip-off that writer/director Brad Anderson is one of us. Ruby doesn't ask much out of the men she meets, just that they not be drug addicts or Jesus freaks or fetishists who wear rubber gloves … In short, she wants someone she can have fun with, enjoy talking to, who's engaged with her and with the world.

One day in the park she meets Sam Deed (Vincent D'Onofrio), who's all that and a bit more. On the one hand his taste in music is a bit strange (he likes polkas), but on the other hand he follows her to her new job as an English as a second language instructor and introduces himself to each of the students in their own native tongue. There's clearly something odd about Sam, but he's kind and sweet and obviously adores her. Ruby loves being with him but she keeps waiting for the shoe to drop. When he finally reveals why he seems different, Ruby has to decide whether to believe his outlandish story or simply throw him out.

See, Sam is from the future. Not only is he from the year 2470, but he was born on the Atlantic coast of Iowa, so you know things are quite different from the world as we know it. He explains that one day he found a picture of her in a curio shop and fell in love. Naturally he decided that he had to go back into the past to meet her. Is this a love story that spans the centuries, as he wants her to believe? Is it an elaborate, intimate role-playing game, as her friend suggests, where she's being invited to share in his fantasy? Or is Sam really from present day Iowa, despondent over a family tragedy and seeking refuge in a delusion? The film keeps dropping hints first one way and then another, before tying everything up in a satisfying bow at the end. How Anderson accomplishes that you'll have to see for yourself, but suffice to say that couples with a shared fondness for SF who rent this for Valentine's Day will not be disappointed.

What makes this work as a hybrid is that the film fulfills the requirements of both the romantic comedy and the time travel story. In the former, the classic plot outline—boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl—is followed, but more importantly so is the emphasis on character. In most of the best examples of the genre, we want the couple to learn from each other and discover they belong together. Ruby has been drifting from job to job and from boyfriend to boyfriend in a fruitless pursuit of perfection. When it doesn't fall into her lap she gets restless and moves on (or gets fired). As she learns from her mother (Tovah Feldshuh), perfection is not to be had in this world. In an illuminating conversation about her father (Richard Portnow), a recovering alcoholic, her mother is glad he's stopped drinking but then adds ruefully that he was a lot more fun back then. So what if Sam is a little strange? If he makes her happy isn't that enough to stop her from tossing him aside?

As for Sam, the story he tells Ruby keeps shifting and changing, but just when she thinks she's caught him in a lie, he has a perfectly rational—for him—explanation. He is looking for stability and family, something he has lost in the world of 2470. With Ruby's help, he's ready to settle down and commit. Is he stable enough to do it? Her therapist (Holland Taylor) isn't so sure, and so Ruby is at a loss what to do.

While all this is going on, the SF elements are not getting short shrift. The discussions of time travel lead to several conversations about the paradox of traveling into the past and whether it is possible to change things once there. One hilarious scene at an art gallery has actor Anthony Michael Hall (playing himself) convinced that Sam is having a great "improv" moment as he explains how scientists have solved the apparent problems inherent in, say, going back and killing one's own grandfather. One odd side effect of time travel is that he occasionally experiences brief spasms of time flowing backwards as if his body had still not come completely to rest in the "present."

There's the additional problem that Sam could not bring anything back with him so he has no "proof" of what he says except his own memories. The details that are dropped about the future and how time travel is managed all play out, such as the idea that rival factions in the future could be working at cross-purposes in our time. One character even claims to have moved to the past "for tax reasons."

"Happy Accidents" manages to succeed as both a romantic comedy and as an SF film without any special effects necessary. It's such an unusual hybrid, however, in a field where SF is pigeonholed as movies with robots or aliens or mad scientists, that IFC Films (the company that released it) had no idea what to do with it. It was sold as a straight-up romantic comedy, and though both excellent actors, neither Tomei nor D'Onofrio were big enough names to attract much attention. It was too mainstream to get much of a launch out of the Sundance Film Festival (where it premiered in 2000) and too weird for general audiences to get any appreciable word of mouth going. It was a flop, grossing less than $700,000 in its theatrical run.

As readers of my past essays know, I am a regular at the annual SF Film 24 Hour Marathon held President's Day Weekend in Somerville, Mass. After "Happy Accidents" died I urged the director of the festival to book the film for the next event. It ended up playing at the marathon in February 2002 to enthusiastic response from an audience that was barely aware of its brief run in general release. This is a small, quirky and delightful movie ready to be discovered.

There's an interesting P.S. to the story, which the fest director shared with me and which tells you a lot about the way the movie industry works. He had contacted the distributor to book the film, which was already at the end of its theatrical run. He explained this was for a single showing at a science fiction film festival. According to the director there was a long pause at the end of the line.

Finally the person on other end said, "Hmm… science fiction. Maybe if we had sold it that way..."


Copyright © 2009, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at rottentomatoes.com. He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

COMMENTS!

Feb 5, 04:35 by IROSF
"Love in the Time of Paradox"
Feb 6, 00:39 by Daniel Salvo
Don´t forget movies like "Somewhere in time" and "What planet are you from?"
Feb 6, 02:33 by Daniel M. Kimmel
"Somewhere in Time" strikes me as more fantasy than science fiction and not very much of a comedy. It's also a romantic drama, not a comedy. I know it has its partisans.

"What Planet Are You From?" is science fiction, no question, and it does try to be funny but it's also not very good.

If someone can come up with something that is a decent film that's both romantic comedy and SF I'd be happy to consider it for a future essay. (The limitation is based on the subject matter of this particular essay. I tackle all kinds of SF films here.)
Feb 9, 07:13 by Dave Goldman
Earth Girls Are Easy?
Feb 9, 13:15 by Daniel M. Kimmel
Good one. Not a romantic comedy in the classic sense -- more of a farce -- but it's definitely got the elements.

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