Love Happens

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Oh, “Love Happens,” does it? Thanks, movie. Thanks for the evocative and powerful title. Way to show some effort in attracting an audience. Maybe you should have gone even more generic and called it “Two People Fall in Love.” I would definitely pay to see that movie!!!!

“Love Happens” is a quasi-romantic pseudo-comedic semi-drama starring Aaron Eckhart and, sure, why not, Jennifer Aniston. Eckhart plays Dr. Burke Ryan, a therapist whose wife died three years ago, leading him to write a very successful book about coping with grief. He now travels the country doing self-help seminars, teaching people how to overcome their own sorrows. But guess what: Despite being an expert in helping others, Burke is actually still really screwed up himself.

He’s in Seattle for a three-day workshop, and to meet with corporate bigwigs who might help him expand his grief-based cottage industry, when he meets Eloise (Aniston). She’s a florist under contract with several local hotels and is, sigh, unlucky in love. She has a screenwriter-appointed quirk wherein, while visiting her hotels, she’ll occasionally use a marker to write an unusual dictionary word like “quidnunc” on the wall behind a painting. Burke notices this and finds it fascinating; they meet; yada yada.

I believe the precise moment that I mentally checked out of the film was when Eloise avoided talking to Burke by pretending to be deaf, and then he saw her talking to someone else, and he confronted her about it. Then she followed him into the men’s room to give him a lecture of her own. Then they went on a dinner date anyway, during which the major topics of what Burke does for a living and what happened to his wife were somehow never raised. Yes, I gave up somewhere during all that.

Though there are moments of wacky humor (including the theft of a cockatoo that everyone refers to as a parrot*), the film is predominantly a drama. And while the burgeoning relationship between Burke and Eloise is a factor, the focus is really on Burke specifically, and the complicated emotions he has toward his late wife and her father, who lives in Seattle and is played by an orange-skinned Martin Sheen. Eckhart’s giant, handsome face and ever-so-slightly insincere delivery make him well cast as a motivational speaker — in this case, one who earnestly wants to help people but needs to fix himself first — but there isn’t much in the part for Eckhart to sink his teeth into. The same goes for Aniston, who remains plucky and resilient but has yet to find the right movie to match her talents.

What they’re forced to work with is bland, sappy melodrama that barely even tries to imitate the way real people think and feel. Cliches abound, culminating in the most astonishing cliche I’ve seen in ages: the Slow Clap. (You know the one: Someone finishes a speech, there is stunned silence, and then one audience member starts clapping and is gradually joined by the rest of the crowd.) No one takes the Slow Clap seriously anymore. I thought it had died out altogether. Some of us laughed aloud when “Love Happens” used it, but no, the filmmakers weren’t kidding.

It’s the directorial debut for Brandon Camp, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mike Thompson; the two also wrote the 2002 Kevin Costner vehicle “Dragonfly,” which was also about a doctor still reeling from his wife’s car-accident death. In fact, the “Dragonfly” couple had a pet parrot, too. Hmm. Listen, if you write one screenplay and then feel like the next logical step is to write it again with a different title, you might want to rethink your career path. Or at least choose a better title.

(*The cockatoo and parrot belong to the same biological order, so it is not technically incorrect to call the bird in question a “parrot.” But no one does that. If you have a pet cockatoo, you call it a cockatoo. A parrot, in common parlance, is something else entirely.)

D+ (1 hr., 49 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, some mild sexual dialogue.)

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