by Matt Levine
Endless Love might best be described as “harmlessly bad”: there’s no question it wallows in a glut of lukewarm melodramatic clichés, but its dullness doesn’t inspire the same indignation as a pompous message movie or misogynistic action flick. Watching the third Hangover movie instills in me a revulsion at Hollywood and its heartless regurgitation; watching Endless Love, on the other hand, can only inspire some periodic cringing and, once its over, an indifferent shrug.
Director: Shana Feste
Producers: Pamela Abdy, Stephanie Savage, Josh Schwartz, Scott Stuber
Writers: Shana Feste, Joshua Safran, Scott Spencer (book)
Cinematographer: Andrew Dunn
Editor: Maryann Brandon
Music: Christophe Beck
Cast: Gabriella Wilde, Alex Pettyfer, Bruce Greenwood, Joely Richardson, Robert Patrick, Rhys Wakefield, Dayo Okeniyi
This is the second adaptation of Scott Spencer’s 1979 novel of the same name, though it has little in common with either the significantly harsher book (whose title is meant almost sarcastically) or the 1981 Franco Zeffirelli version starring Brooke Shields (which was notoriously derided upon its release—Leonard Maltin called it “one of the worst films of its time”). One wonders why this property was deemed ripe for an update, although given Hollywood’s propensity to remake or adapt anything with even a glimmer of name recognition, perhaps it was inevitable that Endless Love would be reintroduced to the world in all its lugubrious glory. It’s obviously a marketing gambit to release the remake on February 14, though it’s more fitting than even the movie’s marketers may have realized: Endless Love is to cinema what Valentine’s Day is to holidays, a blatantly consumerist construction that plays into viewers’ fear of loneliness.
Instead of the previous film’s suburban Chicago setting, this time we’re outside of Atlanta, where a seemingly upper-class high school is holding its graduation. David (Alex Pettyfer), a kid from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, has been pining after Jade Butterfield (Gabriella Wilde) for years. She has all the privileges in the world—young, wealthy, beautiful, practically guaranteed a medical career (facilitated by her cardiologist father)—but has made few friends, shutting herself in after the death of her brother several years earlier. She and David finally meet the summer of graduation, when David valets at her family’s country club; he helps her pick up the dropped contents of her purse, which is just about the lamest meet-cute in the history of romance movies. She holds a graduation party in a desperate attempt to connect with her peers; he plots to divert the entire senior class to her celebration; the two of them are caught making out in a closet, and the rest is history—an Endless Love was born.
There’s only one problem: Jade’s mulish father Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), who dislikes David from the moment he witnesses him punching an arrogant snob at their country club (though, of course, he deserved it). The entirety of the dramatic conflict in Endless Love is built around the animosity between David and Hugh, which is only explicable to a certain extent. The Butterfield family has been in disarray since the death of Jade’s elder brother Christopher, the shining scion of the family; Hugh and his wife Anne (Joely Richardson) have drifted apart and his son Keith (Rhys Wakefield) has grown to hate him. David’s arrival invigorates all of them, not just Jade; his optimism and sense of romance (conveyed, of course, in syrupy proclamations of true love) readmits joy and hope into their household.
So it’s somewhat understandable that Hugh would be jealous of the irresistible David—especially with the added discomfort of observing his teenage daughter become a sexualized woman practically before his eyes. Even so, though, Endless Love becomes tiresome (and occasionally ridiculous) as it conceives of every possible way Hugh can impede David’s bright future—neglecting to mail in a college recommendation letter, hiring a private eye to perform a background check, taunting him into a physical altercation, even swinging a baseball bat at him frenetically—as the young lovers’ otherwise blissful romance must be challenged somehow, if only for the sake of a neat-and-tidy story outline. (The screenplay, written by director Shana Feste and co-screenwriter Joshua Safran, clearly adheres to the bible of Robert McKee’s Story.) Will Jade interpret a visit from David’s ex-girlfriend as a sign of infidelity? Will a tearful farewell lead David to sprint after Jade’s car as she drives away to college? Will David impulsively meet Jade at the airport months later to profess his undying love for her? Will Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’s “Endless Love” tragically be missing entirely? (Sadly, yes to all of the above.) Endless Love basically spends 103 minutes delaying the inevitable.
The original 1981 adaptation may have been ridiculous, but at least its narrative contortions were a little more salacious. Drugs, arson, lustful jealousy, insanity, incarceration—in that case the torrid storyline was crammed with absurd contrivances, making the film as entertaining as it was ludicrous. The 2014 remake is more sensible but also more timid, as the sole reason for Jade and David’s separation—her father’s bull-headedness—isn’t terribly compelling. Hugh Butterfield’s distrust of David is meekly posited as a reflection of his morose withdrawal from the world after the death of his son, but that tragedy is only treated as a convenient plot point; the family’s attempts to grapple with Christopher’s death are insensitively treated only as expository dialogue. It’s hard to care about a group of characters whose thoughts and crises are simplistically conveyed through hurried backstory, rather than visually or emotionally presented.
The only thing that partially salvages Endless Love—a film with a connect-the-dots screenplay and an absolutely lifeless visual style (“point and shoot” seemed to be the only aesthetic direction)—is several unexpectedly touching performances. As Anne Butterfield, Joely Richardson exudes a charming naturalism, somehow uttering a great deal of wooden dialogue with a vestige of believability; a former author, at one point we see Anne move her novel to the display shelves at the end of a bookstore aisle—a nice, gently chiding moment. More prominently, Gabriella Wilde brings effortless magnetism and ingratiating subtlety to the character of Jade, who easily could have been a histrionic stereotype; after lending a surprising amount of sincerity to the character of Sue Snell in last year’s Carrie remake, Wilde seems poised on the verge of a breakout. To the extent that Endless Love is successful (which is not much), it’s primarily thanks to her. (Magic Mike’s Alex Pettyfer is a little less successful as David, though it’s not exactly his fault: he has little to do but glower from beneath his disheveled hair or spout heartfelt greeting-card proclamations of love.)
The film’s attitude towards Jade and David’s relationship is also refreshingly non-judgmental. Though these two characters fervently believe in soul mates, “the one,” a love fated to eternity, and all the usual romantic-melodrama dogmatism, the movie is not as monogamously preachy as one might assume. No mention of marriage (except as a possibility in the distant future) is even made in the film, and it is Jade—eager to reconnect with someone intimately—who initiates their first sexual encounter. Though the 1981 Endless Love’s plot is more interestingly over-the-top, it’s also morally conservative, as the protagonists’ teenage romance catalyzes a string of travesties which views premarital sex as something practically catastrophic. In the remake, on the other hand, the serenity Jade and David experience in each other’s company suggests that their love for each other, if not necessarily endless, is a positive experience anyway—something passionate and intimate, a memory they inextricably share. This open-minded view of young love may not necessarily make the movie more unique or emotionally powerful, but it at least makes it an inoffensive diversion—about as sugary and meaningful as a heart-shaped box of chocolates.
US Theatrical Release: February 14, 2014
US Distributor: Universal Pictures