The Romantics (Paramount Pictures), a vanishingly slight drama, is remarkable mainly for being less worthy of a punch in the face than it would seem from the plot description. A chamber piece in the vein of the The Big Chill, The Anniversary Party, or A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the movie reunites a group of longtime friends in close quarters for a weekend of mate-switching and soul-searching. And the person whose struggle we spend the most time with is a writer played by Katie Holmes. Really makes you want to punch something, right? But The Romantics somehow skirts utter loathsomeness by dint of its elegant camerawork and a few finely tuned performances. I’m not suggesting you run out to the theater and see this, but if it comes on cable someday and you have a big pile of laundry to fold, you could do worse.
“The Romantics” is, or was, the college nickname of a group of seven friends in their early 30s who gather together to celebrate the nuptials of two of their cohort. Lila (Anna Paquin), the bride, comes from a wealthy WASP family on whose Long Island estate the wedding will be held. (Candice Bergen has a nice small part as her pragmatic Yankee mother.) Tom (Josh Duhamel), the groom, is more a list of qualities than a character. A handsome champion swimmer with a Ph.D. in English, he’s so inexpressive and blandly hunky that it’s difficult to see why he’d become the tug-of-war rope in the struggle between Lila and her former roommate, Laura (Holmes). Apparently, in the years since graduation, Laura and Tom have had an on-again, off-again fiery courtship that ended abruptly when Lila swooped in and snagged Tom for herself. Meanwhile, the rest of the Romantics hang around, commenting on the action like a preppy Greek chorus. These include the party girl and would-be actress Tripler (Malin Ackerman, surprisingly good) and the incipient alcoholic Chip (Elijah Wood, surprisingly not).
It’s all the more amazing that anything in this movie works given the two gargantuan casting mistakes at its center. Simply put, it’s impossible to believe that Josh Duhamel and Katie Holmes ever had incredible sex and memorized Keats poems together. These are not sensuous, introspective actors (though Holmes gives it a good go, and manages to anchor the movie despite her ill-suitedness to the role).
If anything, Holmes’ and Paquin’s roles should have been reversed. We know from True Blood that Paquin can play sexy unrequited longing, and we know from … well, her life that Holmes can play a sweet but unchallenging trophy wife, which as far as I can guess from Lila’s underwritten part is what the bride is supposed to be. Paquin is also an actress with enough finesse to bring layers to her character that don’t exist in the script. When Tom confesses that he’s settling for Lila because she’s the “safe,” conventional choice, we want to say, “Take another look, pal.” She’s got a lot more going on behind her eyes than that girl you just recited “Ode to a Nightingale” to.
Though the movie never overcomes the miscasting of its lead couple, The Romantics does show a surprisingly fine authorial touch. It was written and directed by Galt Niederhoffer (who also wrote the novel on which the film is based) and was filmed by Sam Levy ( Wendy and Lucy), whose camerawork has a distinctive lambent quality. Despite the artificiality of the story (which has every member of the Romantics switching partners with another, do-si-do style), the film has a pleasingly naturalistic feel, with birdsong and ocean waves providing a sonic backdrop to the dialogue. The whole thing adds up to far too little, but if Niederhoffer gets her hands on some meatier subject matter (and fires her casting director posthaste), she’s a filmmaker to watch.