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You kinda know what you’re in for when you go to see a movie about an international love affair that’s written mostly in iambic pentameter. Especially one by writer-director Sally Potter, whose previous exercises in pretentiousness include Orlando, The Tango Lesson, and The Man Who Cried. But even those not in love with Love—and its kin, Art and Beauty—may be surprised to find that Potter’s latest, Yes, is thought-provoking, gut-wrenching, and achingly poetic. For about 20 minutes. The rest, in the words of one of its young Irish characters, “is a load of shite.”
And strenuously stylized shite at that. Potter blurs, slows, and staggers movement throughout this story of pseudophilosophical coupling, often as we hear the characters’ whispered inner thoughts. The scenes involving the main couple, preciously named She (Joan Allen) and He (Simon Abkarian), get the most heavy-handed treatment. We see them, both with loose, flowing curls, in a jewel-toned bedroom as they caress each other in postcoital languor and exchange perhaps the most excruciating pillow talk ever committed to film: “Someone invented zeros so that we could count and measure the unthinkably large, unwieldy numbers,” She murmurs. “And it was then, by multiplying the power of 10, we began to measure space, and so too time. You tricked me. You start with one and then give yourself the source of all the numbers!”
You may not know what She, an unhappily married Irish-American scientist living in London, is talking about, but He, a Lebanese surgeon-turned-cook, understands perfectly, and he listens to her with rapt attention. And so Potter then offers a literally nauseating restaurant scene, her camera whirling and out-of-focus as the pair clutch at each other and She whispers, “Hold me! Hold me tight!” He doesn’t hold her, exactly, but he puts his hand to good use anyway, the culmination of which is marked by her big smile—still slowed and blurred—and a blues riff.
Yes isn’t simply a romance, however. It’s framed by a thesis about literal and figurative dirt, put forth mainly by the maid of She (Shirley Henderson), who talks about tidying the well-appointed but sterile household of her employer in a little-girl voice directly to the camera. But occasionally Potter tries to make some other point by training the lens on a member of the janitorial staff at, say, a hospital or workplace after the main characters have exited. The worker will stare at the camera with a severe look; we, apparently, are supposed to feel guilty.
Turns out that liberal guilt is behind the affair as well. Potter allegedly started writing Yes on Sept. 12, 2001, and a heated conversation between She and He about the Anglo and Arab worlds they represent is one of the movie’s most interesting. It’s during this severely written argument that the passion with which Allen and Abkarian spew their couplets finally feels genuine rather than ridiculous.
To be fair, sometimes the verse is as unnoticeable as it would be in a skilled staging of Shakespeare. But mostly it clanks artificially, especially when spoken by the film’s lower-class characters (a multinational kitchen staff’s downright laughable rhymed argument about women), integrated with showy curses (“Do you really think that I’m unclean, a secondhand kind of fucking machine?”), or burdened with unnatural circumlocutions (“You’re not fat” becomes “I did not infer that you are overlarge”). (Wait. “Infer”?)
If Potter is trying to make a point about how language defines individual realities, she’s probably not making it the way she intended to. Potter’s poetry and stylization finally jell to devastating effect, however, in a scene involving the rushing thoughts of She’s comatose, elderly aunt (Sheila Hancock). Expressing all of this woman’s regrets about wasted time as well as her desire for friends and family to wail and self-destruct at her passing, the monologue is about as heart-rending as doggerel can get. (“I want to know I’m dead,” she says.) Too bad it leads us directly back to She and her maddening, iambic navel-gazing, disguised as deliberate living. True thoughtfulness shouldn’t have to work this hard.
Existing in a completely different cinematic universe is Must Love Dogs, a featherweight romantic comedy from writer-director Gary David Goldberg, who last helmed 1989’s Dad. (The correct responses are “Who?” and “What?”)
Based on a novel by Claire Cook, the movie tells of story of Sarah (Diane Lane), a recently divorced preschool teacher who’s hesitant about returning to the dating game. Her annoying family, of course, feels differently, as the opening scene shows: An apparent intervention is taking place, with the 40-ish Sarah getting accosted by her three sisters, her brother, and her dad, all clutching pictures of available men and offering clichés such as “There’s life after divorce, you know!” Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to break up with one’s family than one’s spouse, so Sarah politely humors them, even after her most meddling sister, Carol (Elizabeth Perkins), submits a profile of Sarah to an online dating site.
Sarah soon has all sorts of options in the romantic department, though they’re divvied up into two major categories: Offensive & Charmless and Handsome & Witty. Complicating matters only slightly are the ungentlemanly intentions of one of the latter group, which includes Bob (Dermot Mulroney), the hot father of one of Sarah’s students, and Jake (John Cusack), the cuddly boat builder whose friend answered Sarah’s ad for him.
Naturally, it takes the remainder of Must Love Dogs’ 90 minutes for Sarah to figure out which guy is right for her, with roadblocks including a quasi-wham-bam encounter (he doesn’t want to eat breakfast in bed!) that leaves Sarah sobbing in the shower and a mistaken case of jealousy (“I thought you were different!”) that only in a movie would tear a couple apart. Goldberg’s adaptation also suffers from numerous elements that are sadly de rigueur in romantic comedies: sitcom blandness, widdle kids using big words, and, ugh, a family oldies singalong. (Seriously, does anyone have relatives who actually do this?)
Mercifully, the scenes between Lane and Cusack actually have a little spark, perhaps due to the 35 pages of dialogue rumored to have been rewritten by the recently forgotten Say Anything star. Both actors, as usual, are charismatic and likable, with Lane underplaying the neurotic-beauty-who-doesn’t-know-it role and Cusack doing his trademark loquacious-old-soul routine.
Their performances—and Perkins’, actually the film’s funniest—go a long way toward making this slow sinker remotely tolerable. Yet by the time Must Love Dogs gets capped off by its ludicrous big-gesture ending, it’s clear that the titular requirement applies not only to Sarah’s potential paramours, but also to any potential audience members.CP