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You Call This Love?

In the compromise between art and commerce that is modern filmmaking, it is a given that a director would have to be a man of great stature and confidence to unleash upon the world a film whose title includes a word like “stinks.” After all, there are too many snarky critics out there ready to make the obvious joke, unless you’re Marcel Ophuls and are fairly certain that you won’t be seeing any blurbs reading, “It’s a Sorrow and a Pity this thing ever got made!”

So Love Stinks stinks. There, I said it. Writer-director Jeff Franklin is no auteur, although his comedic treatise on the manipulative methods of hysterical, marriage-hungry women is frighteningly competent—the gags work well enough. The film is full of cliches about the rapacious babe who’ll put her man through anything to ensure his commitment. It distinguishes itself by being one of the few non-African-American entries into this bewildering genre. Blacks have had to endure plenty of recent battle-of-the-sexes cheap shots like Woo, The Players Club, and A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, but here the black couple—Tyra Banks and Bill Bellamy—are the bait, and once the switch is in place they withdraw modestly to the wings. It’s kind of interesting that newlyweds Holly (Banks) and Larry (Bellamy) have these white best friends, and it’s really interesting to watch Banks…hell, just stand there and breathe. (She can act, but she’s not asked to.) But once Seth (3rd Rock From the Sun’s French Stewart) meets Chelsea (Bridgette Wilson) at Holly and Larry’s wedding, we’re off to the Coliseum for the unarmed-innocent-vs.-ferocious-cat smackdown of the century. And guess who’s got the manhood to lose?

Love Stinks is an anti-date movie for the era of The Rules, that excruciatingly coy playbook for the gold-band-seeking female. Chelsea uses a time-tested combination of sexual acquiescence and emotional withholding to bamboozle Seth into complete eunuchy compliance; their courtship is breathtakingly absent of moral qualms. After locking eyes at the wedding reception, they ditch their respective dates—a great sign of fidelity to start off a relationship, don’tcha think? Chelsea insists that she won’t sleep with a man until they share three meals. Whereupon he stays up all night pushing snacks on her, and they fall into bed, although the feast that any passing male could make of the sight of her lifted and exposed bosom—the focus of almost every shot—should be enough to sate a guy.

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Because Chelsea’s shown to be nuts from the get-go, Seth is the unqualified victim. She strews her coffee table with bridal magazines, lying to him about their provenance, and keeps photos of women in wedding dresses stuck in her mirror frame. Sure, she’s sassy and modern, riposting male come-ons with demure feminine cynicism, but the scales are tipped dangerously in Seth’s favor. After the first of many strenuous sex bouts, Chelsea starts in with the commitment stuff. “You want an exclusive relationship after six hours?” Seth asks helplessly, but you can’t help thinking, Gee, you wanted sex after two hours, and she gave you that.

But enough moralizing. As Chelsea batters away at Seth’s backbone, the film unfolds in the prescribed manner—she has him parading about in a new wardrobe (shopping montage), introduces him to her beloved, spoiled cat, which he hates (withering allergy-shot scene), and announces “I love you” with perfect assurance that it’s his turn to say it back. That she is content, even insistent, on hearing the words repeated as a polite obligation and not a heartfelt confession is the true measure of her own single-minded romantic debasement. Chelsea believes that once she snags that ring—of her precise wallet-busting specifications—from a man, presumably any man, the happily-ever-aftering will fall into place. She is certifiably insane and serenely evil, yet Seth keeps coming back because…man, they’re like pale mounds of flan, spilling atrociously from various lacy red thingies whether she’s grocery shopping or hooking up the Valentine’s Day corset-and-garters getup. Never mind that her face looks like a police-drawing composite of a fugitive model, and she got her teeth from Starlet Choppers ‘R’ Us.

Eventually, the misery caused by Chelsea’s convoluted mind games begins to outweigh the pleasures of her sheet-rumpling man-trap powers, the situation goes from bad to very much worse, and things get so unpleasant even the comic push-pull of Chelsea and Seth’s commitment squabbles is lost amid extravagantly rotten behavior. By the time Chelsea moves herself blithely in to his fancy, Spanish-style house, decorating the guest room as a nursery, all the guys in the audience are thinking, reasonably, Run, you demoralized fool! and all the women have their heads in their hands, moaning, I swear we’re not all like that. Pretty soon, they call it quits, and the movie’s weird last third is taken up with stalking, death threats, property damage, lawsuits and countersuits, and, no, Brittany, we are not in Sitcomland anymore.

Just in case you might think that this scenario is specific to this relationship, Franklin gives us a dinner party that proves that all women, however beautiful, are demented. At said party, Holly proposes a toast to a “special anniversary” and is outraged when Larry can’t remember the occasion—their first plane ride together. A bimbo actress also wants to commemorate her and her date’s one-week anniversary.

It’s tough to have sympathy for anyone on screen, although Stewart does a manful job of playing the sap, and he deserves better. Chelsea is a wee bit more psychotic than her successful counterparts, but her comeuppance strikes a blow for all the greedy hos and bitches out there with diamonds and orange blossoms in their eyes. Love Stinks is a tough sell for young men, who don’t want to see relationship movies even if it is one that sets out to affirm a certain romantic sang-froid, and young Rules-obeying women won’t want to see one of their ambassadors fail in her efforts, despite having followed the film’s cynical edicts: “Just keep dropping hints, screw his brains out, and never underestimate the power of tears.” Grasping bitches…next thing you know, they’ll want the vote. CP