It’s always awkward if Valentine’s Day rolls around when you’re in the delicate early stages of a romance. A fancy dinner seems too official, so you look to the multiplex or your Netflix queue and plan a low-key movie night to mark the occasion. You try to choose something that will create the proper ambience. Often this means a movie with the familiar love narrative of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Most of the films included on best date movie lists— Say Anything, Pretty Woman, Jerry Maguire—follow this comforting, if clichéd, plotline.
Sometimes, however, a seemingly innocuous love story can give you more than you bargained for. Take the new Nicholas Sparks love-fest Dear John. It seems like the perfect second-date choice: Watching wide-eyed Amanda Seyfried and chiseled Channing Tatum cavort would make any heart flutter. But then someone dies, and the vibe goes from sultry to sad-sack. A grizzled couple, months or years into a relationship, can survive this sort of thing. A fragile new love might have more trouble weathering an unexpectedly weepy evening.
How can you know when a movie might stunt the growth of a young romance? At first blush, the hallmarks of a terrible date movie might seem rather obvious. Such a movie might feature multiple instances of projectile vomiting, like the Sam Raimi horror flick Drag Me to Hell. It might graphically depict genital mutilation (and cause the audience to projectile vomit), like Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. Or it might involve aliens emerging from human rectums, as in Dreamcatcher, a movie a Slate colleague was taken to on a first date. (The relationship, miraculously, survived.) But these movies wear their unsuitability on their sleeves. You know exactly what sort of bizarro dystopian nightmare you’re getting into when you purchase a ticket to a Lars Von Trier movie—if your date walks out of the film, and your life, you’ve got no one but yourself to blame.
There might even be a case to be made that a movie like Antichrist is a good bet for a date. It’s probably not going to get you any nooky, but a shocking, divisive movie like Von Trier’s can often act as a useful litmus test. Maybe you don’t want to date someone who can’t stomach the occasional on-screen log to the groin in the name of avant-garde cinema. One Slatewriter brought a prospective beau to see the morbidly erotic In the Realm of the Senses, which also involves genital mutilation and which happens to be one of her favorite movies. She never heard from him again. “Just as well, since anyone who can’t roll with Realm O’ isn’t my type anyway,” she said.
Even if it isn’t a litmus test, per se, a controversial movie can still be a fruitful choice in the first few outings. I saw the documentary Capturing the Friedmanson a third date. Through a combination of interviews and home-video footage, it tells the story of a Long Island father and son who are convicted of multiple counts of child molestation. Did my date and I want to snuggle after seeing it? God, no. Did we have an engaging discussion about family and memory afterwards? We sure did.
Movies that are just plain bad aren’t necessarily the worst date movies, either. Like a controversial movie, an actively awful one can be a bonding experience. Perhaps you live in a one-theater town and the only movie playing locally is the rom com When in Rome. You and your date would have to be lobotomized to enjoy such fluff, but you can make each other giggle by inventing better dialogue for the usually delightful Kristen Bell and lobbing the occasional Goober at the screen. And unlike the anti-sexual viewing experience of Antichrist and Capturing the Friedmans, watching this sort of fiasco can lead to the bedroom—if your quips about Dax Shepard and his stupid face are funny enough.
The real worst date movies are bad because they’re unexpectedly upsetting. The slightly morbid edge to Dear John makes it a mild example, especiallycompared with surprises art house films often have in store. A Slate colleague saw the French film Baise-moi on a first date because something was lost in translation. “The guy thought Baise-moi meant ‘kiss me,’ ” she says. In fact, it means “fuck me”—the movie is about a pair of best friends who go on a sex-fueled rampage after one of them is raped. I had a similar experience when a friend recommended the ‘70s classic Don’t Look Now, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.All he said was that the sex scenes between Donald and Julie—then a real life couple—were realistic and riveting. He failed to mention the dead children and creepy murderous Italian dwarfs who also haunt the film. That evening ended on a distinctly sour note.
Like Don’t Look Now, The Comfort of Strangers is another good example of the European penchant for slipping an icky je ne sais quoi into what looks at first glance like a good old fashioned steamy thriller. The movie’s trailer makes it seem like a sexy romp through Venice—with the beautiful young Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett starring as insatiable newlyweds. The voice-over asks, “When does a simple vacation … become an erotic Odyssey?” Then Christopher Walken shows up and a vaguely sinister undercurrent is perhaps suggested—but still! Sex! Venice! He’ll be turned on, you’ll toss off an effortless line about your admiration for Thomas Mann, and badda bing! But no. The movie is harrowing, a violent story of sadism and murder.
The Comfort of Strangers is a shade too obscure to wear the crown of worst date movie ever. In my book, that dubious distinction belongs to the Julia Roberts/Natalie Portman/Clive Owen/Jude Law psychodrama Closer. The movie isn’t gross like Antichrist, or menacing like The Comfort of Strangers, and no one gets raped. But the movie is deeply cynical about love—each character uses romantic connection as fuel for his or her ego. Fans of Pretty Woman or even Erin Brockovichmight have gone to see the filmbecause it starred Julia Roberts. They were expecting the toothy grin of America’s sweetheart and the happy ending that usually follows her around. But in Closer, Roberts and her dashing lovers (Owen and Law) are selfish and manipulative. It’s an alienating viewing experience, one that diffuses, rather than facilitates, romantic connection.
Closer gets my vote for worst date movie of all time, but perhaps the good looks of its all-star cast were enough to get you past their depressing message about the narcissism of love. If you have a better suggestion for the worst movie to watch early on in a relationship, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will post the best nominations in a follow-up. In the meantime, stay away from movies featuring Christopher Walken this Valentine’s Day, and make sure to read up before you try to impress your new honey with an obscure Swedish romance from 1970.