dvd review: WHAT LOVE IS

Writer-director Mars Callahan’s romantic comedy is, on one hand, far more than you would expect it to be, while on the other hand, less than you would expect it to be. The DVD packaging makes the film look light-hearted, and perhaps even a little sweet—just the sort of film I love to decimate for its syrupy sentimentality. Surprisingly, the film is anything but syrupy sweet, and cynicism outweighs most of the romantic sentiments, making What Love Is a very different film from what you might expect from reading the back of the case. And while that is a good thing—because the back of the box reads like the most maudlin of crap—the film does have problems it never quite gets past.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. stars as Tom, a love-struck sap that plans on asking his girlfriend to marry him on Valentine’s Day at a late-night party he has planned at his apartment. But when he comes home, he finds the place is empty. It seems that his lady doesn’t love him anymore—if she ever loved him at all—and now she needs her space. She has packed up everything, leaving behind two suitcases which she plans on picking up later. Reeling from the devastating news, Tom tries to keep his composure as his life-long friends all arrive one by one at the apartment. First there is Sal (Matthew Lillard), a womanizing pig with so much pent-up hostility towards the ladies he can make even the most confirmed misogynist say, “Aren’t you being a bit harsh, dude?” Then there is Wayne (Andrew Daly), who has just recently come out of the closet, and is now the constant target of Sal’s go-for-the-jugular homophobic tirades. Next there is Ken (Calahan), a former womanizer who is now the only one of the group that is happily married and seemingly well-adjusted. Finally, there is George (Sean Astin), the stereotypical “nice guy” that can’t seem to catch a break with the ladies.

The film starts out at the bar owned by Sal, but by the time the opening credits are over—just under four minutes in—the action moves to Tom’s apartment. And for the next 36 minutes, the entire film takes place in Tom’s apartment, where the five men exchange a long stream of profanity-lace diatribes about sex, women, relationships and homosexuality. And just when it seems like there is nothing more to add to the mix, right as we are hitting the 40-minute mark, the ladies show up. It seems Sal has invited a group of women back to Tom’s for the party, and in walks Rachel (Gina Gershon), Laura (Anne Heche), Katherine (Tamala Jones), Debbie (Shiri Appleby) and Amy (Judy Tylor), who all retreat to the bathroom for ten minutes of what amounts to a condensed girl’s version of the male rantings that make up the first 40 minutes of What Love Is. Once the ladies emerge from the bathroom, the movie has passed the half-way mark, which means we get approximately 38 minutes of watching ten people you would not want to know, interacting for approximately 37 minutes longer than you care to.

One of the problems with What Love Is, is that by the time the ladies show up, the film itself has gotten old. The guys, who started out as moderately interesting stereotypes and clichés have degenerated into a quintet of assholes who seem to have been created with the sole intention of annoying the crap out the audience. The women are not much better, as they even more quickly degenerate into nothing more than a quintet of assholes, only with titties.

As an experiment in low budget filmmaking, What Love Is gets certain things correct. Mars Callahan wisely utilizes a small cast and limited locations, which, when used in the right way, is all a filmmaker needs to make an entertaining and compelling movie. But the problem here is that What Love Is has trouble finding its own distinctive style. It comes across too much like a stage play one moment, and then the next moment it comes across like a sitcom; but very rarely does it come across like an actual movie. And if that were the only shortcoming with the film, then it might be excusable, but there are other forces at work against Callahan’s film, namely his script, that become a bit problematic.

Callahan has written a screenplay that reads well enough, but there is a problem that can be hard to pinpoint at first. That problem is the fact that the characters in the film seldom engage in anything that resembles real conversation. Callahan has written some interesting things for his characters to say, but they never really say them so much as they give these mini speeches. It isn’t too noticeable at first, but eventually it becomes this repetitious pattern of one character offering some heartfelt, articulate witticism, followed by another character offering a heartfelt, articulate witticism, followed by another and then another, until you are left with nearly 90 minutes of people making speeches at each other, but never really conversing with each other. This is especially frustrating, because Callahan is not a bad writer, and his actors do a good job with his dialog, but this lack of sincere interaction creates a disconnect from any real sort of humanity the film seems to be striving for.

What Love Is isn’t a terrible film, and even Gooding—one of the worst, most annoying actors in the history of motion pictures—is not all that bad. But at the same time, neither Gooding’s character, nor any of the other characters, is so interesting that you really want to spend that much time with them. The lack of characters for an audience to care about, coupled with Callahan’s writing style, makes recommending What Love Is a tricky proposition. Still, the film is worth watching in that it has some entertaining moments, and it is an interesting study in what works and doesn’t work in character-driven films of this nature.



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