Can one hugely misguided scene ruin an entire film? Writer-director Brandon Camp and co-writer Mike Thompson (2002's "Dragonfly
") test this query out in "Love Happens," a surprisingly thoughtful romantic drama saddled with a bad titleits original name, "Traveling," would have been more appropriate and meaningfuland a climactic scene so cloying, artificial and cliché-filled that one can hardly believe he or she is watching the same movie. And yet, what surrounds this roughly five-minute faux pas is really kind of great, blending a soulful relationship that develops cautiously and organically with one man's coming-to-grips with a grave loss in his life.
Burke Ryan (Aaron Eckhart) is a rising author and motivational speaker who travels around the country teaching seminars and leading workshops for people looking to regain control of their lives after the deaths of loved ones. His latest week-long tour stop in Seattle is one he really doesn't want to make; for one, it is the place where he used to live, and two, it is where his own wife died in a car accident three years earlier. When his now-estranged father-in-law (Martin Sheen) shows up after one of his seminars and angrily calls him a hypocrite, Burke cannot deny the accusation. For all of his words of wisdom to his clients, he still hasn't been able to properly come to terms himself. When Burke literally bumps into floral shop owner Eloise (Jennifer Aniston) at the hotel where he is staying, he catches her finishing up writing an obscure word behind a hallway painting. It is far from a meet-cute, though, with Eloise feigning deafness when he attempts to ask her out. By the time they do start hanging out together, Burke sees in her a chance to be happy again, while she sees in him a good man whose personal demons are becoming increasingly apparent the more she gets to know him.
"Love Happens" is a pandering title that suggests a film bred from the cobwebbed archives of the romantic comedy genre. It is better than that. The love story between Burke and Eloise is striking in its subtlety and sweetness. There are no trifling misunderstandings that cause conflict between them. There are no last-minute dashes to the airport. Their relationship is not the result of some kind of bet or faked identity. Instead, the time they spend together sheds light on both of them as people, and as acquaintances who are spending time together and may eventually become more than that. A scene where Burke accompanies Eloise to her mom's (Frances Conroy) house and she proceeds to gush all over himclearly she's read his bookhelps to get a sense of his audience and the notoriety he is beginning to build up, while his almost gracious bashfulness signals that he is a normal guy not yet used to the limelight. Likewise, Burke's discovery that Eloise not only leaves words behind in places she has been, but has made copies of her favorite flower card messages, helps to show her love of knowledge and life and her soft spot for sentimentality. She has so far been unlucky in the guys she has dated, but has never given up hope that the right one is out there.
As Burke and Eloise spend time together, the plot broadens and becomes about more than expected. Burke, clearly lonely and not knowing what he wantshis agent Lane (Dan Fogler) must cover for him when he starts missing meetings with a marketing company interested in making a brand out of his workgrapples with his dishonesty with the people he coaches day in and day out. He also finds himself drawn to a blue-collar guy, Walter (John Carroll Lynch), who has begrudgingly arrived and isn't sure the workshops and seminars are for him. A former contractor who has seen all the pieces of his life crumble since the sudden death of his young son, Walter is in desperate need of turning things around. His slow crawl back to the world of the living could have been pat and mushy, but feels genuine. As Walter, John Carroll Lynch (2008's "Gran Torino
") is exceptional, heartbreaking in his failed ability to remain stoic and torn apart by the guilt he has over his son's fatal accident.
Director Brandon Camp, making his feature film debut, exudes a natural filmmaking prowess. Seattle, becoming a welcome third main character, is exquisitely depicted in all of its beauty and uniqueness. From downtown streets and high-rises to the suburbs to the outlying wilderness, from the cemetery where Bruce Lee and Brandon Scott Lee are laid to rest to the Fremont Troll, from the Space Needle to Pike Place Market to the above-ground metro system, no film in memory has done a better job of bringing this glorious city to life. Adding to the atmosphere is memorably lush cinematography by Eric Edwards (2007's "Knocked Up
"). Director Camp is also astute in his use of music to compliment the story's emotions and atmosphere, from a Rogue Wave concert Eloise unconventionally takes Burke to, to lovingly placed song tracks by Explosions in the Sky, The Postal Service, Priscilla Ahn, John Hiatt, Badly Drawn Boy, and Helen Stellar.
Aaron Eckhart (2008's "The Dark Knight
") and Jennifer Aniston (2009's "Management
") are a charismatic team, and just as good individually. As Burke, Eckhart softens the outer edges of his intensity, making his character likable and sympathetic, but also someone whose hang-ups leave him on the verge of a meltdown. He also must avoid appearing cheesy in the moments where he is delivering his motivational talks. It's a tricky role to pull off, and the actor gets it just right. As Eloise, Aniston continues her reign as one of the top stars working in the romantic genre today. No matter how many she does, Aniston always brings to her parts such a freshness and vulnerability that the act of watching her is irresistible. In supporting turns, Judy Greer (2008's "27 Dresses
") continues to corner the "best friend" market of roles as Marty, Eloise's pal and coworker; the usually over-the-top Dan Fogler (2009's "Taking Woodstock
") is impressively straight and reeled-in as Lane, Burke's agent; and Martin Sheen (2009's "Imagine That
") is powerful as Burke's shut-out father-in-law.
"Love Happens" leads to a pivotal third-act sequence where Burke comes clean about a secret he has been hiding and reaches several catharses in his own growth and his relationship with his audience and a key family member. Until this point, director Brandon Camp had barely stepped wrong. Then he does. Haphazardly thought-out, too reliant on coincidence, and ending with a dreaded slow-clap moment, this segment is so misguided one has to wonder what Camp could have possibly been thinking. The rest of the film exhibits restraint and exudes eloquence, but then topples over in a sticky layer of schmaltz. After the scene is over, however, the movie returns back to its former self, finishing things off on a high note.
There might be rare cases where one false note can destroy an entire motion pictureespecially if the offender is a film's very last scenebut "Love Happens" is too good ninety-five percent of the time to hold it too accountable. The solid final moments lessen the blow, as do a preceding hour and a half that touches the viewer in a way few love stories nowadays do. Gifted with a terrific sense of location and a concentration on honest character interactions over formula plotting, "Love Happens" is hopeful in its point-of-view and rather magical in the aura it creates. All that is missing is a plane ticket to Seattle.