by Zack Smith
Today, millions will celebrate Valentine’s Day with their spouses, significant others and loved ones. Millions more will celebrate it alone, and some will wonder why their lives aren’t like those of Audrey Hepburn, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, or (in my case) John Cusack, at least the characters they play on screen.
Though Hollywood has provided many pairs of rose-colored glasses when it comes to relationships, there’s a number of lesser-known films that are perfect for those finding themselves lonely and/or bitter on Feb. 14, that depict everything from the complexities of commitment to what becomes of the broken-hearted. Here’s five of our favorite picks.
If you’ve ever just not been that into him (or her), we recommend last year’s Save the Date (available on demand and through streaming services on YouTube, Amazon and elsehwere), which takes a number of ideas seen in countless indy films—uncertain 20-somethings, sisters with different takes on love, impulsive relationships—and finds a take that’s darker, more honest, yet still funny.
Co-written by the cartoonist Jeffrey Brown, whose autobiographical cartoons often deal with the small, sometimes biting moments of relationships, it casts Lizzy Caplan as Sarah, a woman who’s so uncertain about moving in with her musician boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend) that she doesn’t even bother washing the dried food off her plates before they go into her moving boxes.
Kevin is in a band with Andrew (Caplan’s Party Down costar Martin Starr), himself the fiancé of Sarah’s more grounded sister Beth (Alison Brie from TV’s Community), who’s perfectly happy planning her own wedding and a future of double-dating amongst the two couples. When Andrew gives Kevin the idea to publicly propose to the already-wavering Sarah, their relationship has a public meltdown.
This is the grist for many a rom-com, but co-writer/ director Michael Mohan gets as much mileage out of Kevin’s raw pain and humiliation from the breakup as Sarah’s rebound fling with Jonathan (Mark Webber), an overly-nice guy with a crush on Sarah from her day job at a bookstore. He claims he isn’t into marriage or being overly serious (every other character sees through this right away). The film pushes things to a moment where both Sarah and Beth’s relationships are in crisis, and Andrew’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but it never loses sympathy and understanding for its characters.
Sarah herself is somewhere between sympathetic and monstrous as she commits such social faux pas as drunkenly showing up at her shared residence with Kevin while he’s still vulnerable over the breakup, or in an amorous moment pushing an uncertain Jonathan to reveal some flaw from his past ("There's GOT to be something wrong with you, you're so nice”). Caplan’s very good at conveying that this doesn’t come from a place of malice or manipulation but rather youthful uncertainty, a fear of the ecstasy of a romantic fling curdling as it becomes something more permanent.
Save the Date is a raw, open wound of a romantic movie, about the inverse of the emotional violence found in a John Cassavetes flick. It's about the ugliest truth of most relationships, which is that they can exist in a state of perpetual "now" that can be shattered by even the slightest movement forward. Sometimes people make it, sometimes they don't, and sometimes they just have to acknowledge that this is the case to have any hope. And the worst perpetuators of this violence are the ones who don't even intend it, who want to be nice, and not to hurt anybody, but wind up hurting almost everybody because they just can't accept themselves, and by extension anybody else.
It’s also damn funny.
If you’ve ever been the one the other person was just not that into, we recommend 1979’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, now available for streaming on Netflix Instant after being out of print on VHS and never available on DVD. This cult adaptation of Ann Beattie’s 1976 novel is in many ways a product of its time (neon-looking lighting and a saxophone score), and its depiction of a man pretty much stalking his ex is even iffier today than it was back then. But it still strikes a painfully realistic core, and like Save the Date, is also damn funny.
The always-intense John Heard gets a rare leading role as Charles, a Salt Lake City civil servant who breaks the fourth wall to tell us about his obsession with Laura (Mary Beth Hurt), a recently-separated co-worker with whom he had a brief, intense relationship before she went back to her estranged husband, an A-frame house salesman nicknamed Ox (Mark Metcalf, who co-produced the film with Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson). Without her, he’s in a dreadful funk, one that includes watching her house from a distance, keeping a model dollhouse of her and her family, and finding ways to insert himself into her life through a mutual co-worker.
Laura knows about most of this, and is pretty much okay with it.
Charles is, well, a creep. He can be both spontaneously romantic one moment and terrifying in his irrational jealousy the next, and the way he lashes out at well-meaning friends, family and co-workers makes you want to smack him, or at least tell Laura to get a restraining order. But the sneaky thing about the film, directed by Joan Micklin Silver, is that his weird, unhealthy actions come from a relatable basis: Laura was something bright and warm in his dull, drab life, and for him, everything would be just perfect if he could only have her again.
Laura, meanwhile, is the worst person someone like Charles could fall for, uncertain of what she wants and leaving emotional damage in her wake — and the fact that she doesn’t completely discourage Charles’ sociopathic affections makes things worse. The relationship is best summed up in a late scene where Charles and his unemployed roommate Sam (Peter Riegert) get invited into Laura’s home by Ox, who mistakes them for a gay couple looking to buy an A-frame. Rather than being horrified, Laura’s amused by their show, up until Charles decides to drop the act and declare his true intentions to Ox, who takes this revelation a sight better than most men would. Even afterward, she’s only mildly annoyed with Charles’ home invasion, and says they should talk on the phone soon. The film’s trailer sums it up best: “Charles loves Laura. Laura…likes Charles.”
So why on Earth does a movie about two such awful people deserve its reputation? It’s in part because of the quirky-but-not-cartoonish cast of characters surrounding Charles and Laura, including Charles’ depressed, bathtub-bound mom, played by former femme fatale Gloria Grahame, his Turtle Wax-endorsing stepfather, and a boss who wants him to help give his college-bound son sex advice, which Charles responds to by suggesting Janis Joplin’s song “Get It While You Can” as a motivational tool (later, hearing the song on the radio while parked by Laura's house, Charles yells in frustration, "How am I supposed to get it, Janis, if she won't come out of her A-frame?").
And it’s in part because Charles’ longing and frustration come from a relatable-if-ugly place. He knows what he’s turning into, makes half-hearted efforts to turn his life around by making a date with an infatuated secretary he previously used to get to Laura (he goes to her for help making a guest list for a fake party, and she repeatedly comes back to him with numerous recipes for dips she’s researched), but regresses when there’s even a slight possibility of Laura being back in his life. This isn’t about whether the guy will get the girl, but whether he’ll get over the girl, and there’s no quick out like Mila Kunis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall to ease this bitter pill.
(Spoiler Alert: Ignore the next two paragraphs if you don’t want the movie’s ending ruined): It’s perhaps not surprising that Chilly Scenes found its audience after a brief, unsuccessful run as Head Over Heels in a 1982 re-release under the novel’s original title designed to cash in on the raised profile of its stars and Beattie’s work by cutting the original ending (the whole strange story is online in this New York Times article) . There, Charles, who’s finally cut Laura out of his life for both their sakes, comes home to find her waiting for him and they romantically reconcile.
(Spoilers continue) The original ending is on YouTube and it’s as phony as it sounds; the revised version, a mere two minutes shorter, actually made my chest feel tight in recognition as I saw it, with Charles going on a breathless, energetic run on a bright, sunny day while his voice-over offers the film’s message about heartbreak: “It’s not that it stops hurting, but that you learn to live with it.” Charles might have flirted with darkness, but he pulls himself out of the abyss, and that’s a message anyone festering in the aftermath of a breakup could stand to hear. At worst, you can at least comfort yourself by saying you’re not like him…yet.
For a more upbeat look at recovering from heartbreak, we suggest Jill Clayburgh’s Oscar-nominated performance in Paul Mazurky’s 1978 film An Unmarried Woman, which follows an arc that’s now predictable but was pretty daring in the 1970s — dumped by a philandering husband (Michael Murphy) from a marriage she thought was good, Clayburgh’s Erica manages to rediscover sex and self-esteem through trial, error and a dashing artist (Alan Bates).
Mazursky dealt with strange, sometimes unhealthy relationships in many of his films, from the couples experimenting with open marriage in Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice to the obsessive estranged husband played by George Segal in Bloom in Love. Unmarried was perhaps his most broadly-appealing work (Clayburgh’s last film role as Kirsten Wiig’s mother in Bridesmaids felt in some ways like an acknowledgement of that film’s debt to this film).
But he doesn’t shy away from the emotional messiness of Clayburgh’s decline and rebirth, especially in the scene where she’s dumped by her husband; silently imploding, she staggers down the street and vomits into a trashcan. Even if her story has become fodder for a thousand book club selections and Lifetime movies, it’s still a joy to see Clayburgh’s character return to life, still uncertain but in many ways stronger than before.
Or if you want a reminder of why dating and marriage sometimes happen for all the wrong reasons, we recommend the original 1972 film of The Heartbreak Kid, which is out of print on DVD but available via disc on Netflix…or you can watch the entire thing on Netflix for free in what is probably an illegal upload, but we won’t tell. Just please, please watch this and not the godawful remake with Ben Stiller from a few years back.
Though I am not of the Jewish faith, it isn’t hard to see the mountain of Jewish neurosis and guilt behind this film: It’s based on a short story by master dry comic Bruce Jay Friedman, was adapted by Neil Simon, directed by the great comic writer/director/actress Elaine May, and stars perpetually sleazy schlub Charles Grodin. A few years before, Grodin had been the first choice for the lead in The Graduate, directed by May’s longtime comedy partner Mike Nichols, and this sometimes feels like a black mirror to that film — rather than a character trying to reject traditional values, you have a man pursuing the dream of ideal love and marriage, in the most ass way possible.
Grodin’s Lenny Cantrow is first seen rehearsing canned lines for a singles bar, and rapidly finds himself in a depressing martial ceremony with nice Jewish girl Lila (May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin, who was Oscar-nominated for her role), who’s been less-than-willing to go to bed with Lenny before her wedding night. The fact that Lila has trouble getting down the aisle of her living-room wedding ceremony because both her parents have her by the arm and can’t fit between the folding chairs should have been his first warning.
En route to their Florida honeymoon, Lenny discovers Lila is the most annoying human being alive, from repeatedly singing the same song aloud to smearing egg salad she’s trying to get off her nose all over her face. After she’s hotel-bound by a nasty sunburn, Lenny’s free to pursue a Shiksa goodess played by Cybill Shepherd, whose parents (Audra Lindley and an Oscar-nominated Eddie Albert) are properly appalled by the calm, straightforward way he announces his plans to divorce his new wife and marry their daughter (as seen in the trailer), but discover Lenny’s single-mindedness is a force of nature unto itself.
May lets the action unfold in long, painfully awkward takes, none more so than when Eddie tries to let Lila down easy at a dumpy seafood restaurant, becoming enraged when they don’t have the pecan pie she wants. The hilarity of Grodin’s performance is despite being a self-centered man-child, he always remains open, even apologetic as he explains/justifies his appalling behavior — and brings just as much misery unto himself as others.
Once Lenny’s followed Shepherd and her WASP family back to the freezing landscapes of Minnesota, you wonder just what he’s hoping to find at the end of his pursuit — and as the Graduate-esque ending makes clear, he’s not certain himself. By the time The Heartbreak Kid is over, you’ll have sympathy for this devil — and realize putting a ring on it won’t make you feel less alone.
The Heartbreak Kid’s Jeannie Berlin was mostly absent from the screen after that film, but she returned like a lion in a crucial supporting role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, the last film on this list. Shot for release in 2007 but finally dumped in theaters for a week in 2011 after numerous conflicts and lawsuits over its proposed run time, Margaret became one of those films that attracted a small cult of the curious, even prompting a #teammargaret hashtage on Twitter to get a proper video release. (Here’s an LA Times story chronicling the film’s troubles three years into its battle — and three more years before it’d get a wide video release).
The cut two-and-a-half-hour version that briefly played theaters is available on demand, but for the true Margaret experience, go for the three-hour-eight-minute version available only as a bonus DVD with the Blu-Ray through Amazon. The two-and-a-half-hour version is a flawed but fascinating gem; the three-hour-plus version is a goddamn masterpiece, and has one of the best looks at the disconnects and miscommunications of modern relationships amongst its many subplots.
“Okay,” you might ask. “Why should I pay $30 to buy a three-hour movie about a teenager that didn’t even get a theatrical run and is called Margaret even though there’s no actual character in it named Margaret, and what the hell does this have to do with Valentine’s Day?” Bear with me.
Margaret’s main plot involves its main character, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin, reminding why she won an Oscar before TV’s True Blood came a-calling), dealing — or rather, not dealing — with her guilt over distracting a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), causing him to run a light and kill a woman (Allison Janney), and her subsequently lying to the police about the light being green. Lisa eventually seeks out the dead woman’s friend (Berlin) and attempts to tell the truth and get the bus driver fired. Neither task, she finds, is as easy as it seems.
The extended cut of Margaret often plays like a Robert Altman-directed film of J.D. Salinger’s classic angsty-youth novel The Catcher in the Rye, if Altman had isolated Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in the teeming masses of NYC and let the self-absorption of his interior monologues shine through.
Many of the scenes involve conversations where the characters can’t say what they mean for one reason or another — they stumble, are interrupted, interrupt others, and ambient noise from the city and other conversations constantly sneak in on the soundtrack. One scene slowly zooms in on a conversation in a deli that’s completely drowned out by the other patrons, while other scenes play the characters’ dialogue on the soundtrack while cutting to long shots of the exteriors of buildings.
Other lives are going on while this drama plays out, and it’s Berlin’s character, a snippy, ferocious, sometimes emotionally violent force (she’s the sort of woman who will spit an astonished, angry “What? What?!” out while someone is trying to explain their POV), who has to remind Paquin’s Lisa that while she’s the hero of her own story, she’s not the center of the universe.
But where this film comes in on this list is how it shows that this isolation and disconnect don’t just come from trying to figure out how to do the right thing, but carry over into relationships of all ages. Lisa has three males who pursue or are pursued by her in the story, and none are suited for a relationship. She calls up Paul (Kieran Culkin), a drug-dealing too-cool classmate, to casually lose her virginity, which only proves Paul’s seemingly worldly demeanor doesn’t carry over to the bedroom (as he explains, she probably won’t get AIDS from their brief, unprotected encounter “because of my demographic”). She throws herself at her math teacher (Matt Damon), who’s not so much a pedophile as a weak, pathetic man who fails to realize this willful girl is not yet an adult (the extended version fleshes out this plot point, which becomes frustratingly vague in the shorter version).
And then there’s Lisa’s platonic male friend Darren (John Gallagher, Jr. of HBO’s The Newsroom), who sends her into giggles when he fumblingly attempts to ask her on an actual date, breaks down in tears when she blows him off on the phone, and yet prompts tears from her in a student bonding session where she admits how much she “needs” their friendship. The poor boy’s going to be in the friend zone for the rest of his high school career, because Lisa doesn’t understand his feelings for her are more than she can comprehend. I was Darren more than a few times, and as Lisa hugged him after her confession, I was torn between wanting to hug him myself and screaming “Run!”
Lisa’s own misadventures are contrasted with those of her mother Joan’s (J. Smith-Cameron, real-life wife of writer-director Lonergan, who has a small role as Lisa’s father). A stage actress in a small comedy, she’s wooed by a Columbian businessman (Jean Reno) infatuated with her from the audience. He’s rich, handsome and treats her like the only woman in the world, but she’s never quite certain just why he’s so crazy about her. Typical for the film’s themes, his job is teaching computer systems in different countries to communicate with each other, but he leaves Joan bewildered when he shuts down her neuroses about her play and their long-term potential. He’s from a different, less open and more laid-back world, and can be in the moment with their relationship in a way she can’t. The pay-off to this plotline is both moving and ironic.
Margaret is a reminder of the difficulty of E.M. Forster’s famous admonition, “Only connect!” Though it’s set before social media and smartphones conquered the world, its greatest achievement is showing how people can be isolated in their own heads, struggling to resolve passions and guilt that they can’t even articulate.
And yet, it doesn’t suggest that connection is impossible, but rather that it’s challenging. Classical music plays throughout the extended version, leading to a climax at an opera that suggests the elevated emotions of art can sometimes communicate what words can’t.
And that’s what’s lovely about movies, from the idealized world of the classic romantic comedies to ones like these, that deal with the more painful, complicated emotions of bad or failed relationships. In a movie, the emotions of life are writ large, and we see ourselves in the screen — from what we secretly hope might happen to us to what we pray never will.
And films like these, far from being depressing, are reminders that even in our darkest, loneliest moments, we’re not alone. The worst feelings you’ve ever had have been felt by millions of people before you, and will be felt by millions more after you’re gone. And, most likely, someone will make a film about them. Hopefully, it’ll be as good as one of these.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all you singles from INDY Week.