There's no doubt a therapist would have a field day exploring my twisted notions of love and romance, and certainly those views have sent more than a woman or two running for the hills, but when push comes to shove, I'm just a guy caught in the contradictory reality of having actually dated in a real world that is informed by insidious romance films that create skewered perceptions and desires. My self-inflicted torture of watching romantic comedies is, if anything else, a form of trying to better understand the silly notions that fill the heads of the women out there that are recklessly dating. In the on-going battle of the sexes, one of the best ways to understand the female adversary is to watch the films that fuel their unrealistic fantasties. This is part of the reason I decided to watch a little film called Novel Romance.
My other reason for watching Novel Romance is lead actress Traci Lords. For over twenty years I have had a soft spot in my heart (not to mention a hard spot in my pants) for Lords, who stars as Max Normane, the workaholic editor of a popular literary magazine who has had no success in the romance department. Tired of waiting for her life to unfold like a fairytale romance, and convinced it won't anyway, Max decides to bypass finding a soul mate (which she doesn't believe in), and go directly to having a child (by way of artificial insemination). When Max reads a short story submitted to her magazine by unpublished writer Jake Buckley (Paul Johansson), she recognizes not only the potential talent lurking beneath the surface of his trite, often maudlin writing, she also comes to believe that he will be the perfect sperm donor. And thus begins the bizarre relationship between the aggressive Max who refuses to give in to her sensitive side, and Jake, who may or may not have a sensitive side, but is still dreamy enough for Max to want his sperm fertilizing her egg. As things begin to play out, as they almost always predictably do, emotional complications arise and things between Max and Jake become...well...complicated. Somehow, through the magic of a screenplay that depends more on the audience's willing suspension of disbelief than it does character development, Max falls for Jake (keep in mind they never date or have sex, and most of their time together is sent fighting). And while Max's unmotivated yet predicable affection for Jake grows, she fights it by pushing him away, which further complicates the matter of him deciding he wants to be an active part of his child's life.
Nearly all films start out on a journey of noble intentions, but it is somewhere along that journey that most either go down the "good" path or the "bad" path. Some films, however, go down neither path, and instead sort of languish at a cinematic fork in the road, incapable of being good or bad. Novel Romance is one of those films--the sort you may watch several times on cable without ever managing to see all the way through, but never really being upset that you haven't seen the whole picture, because what you have seen is predictable enough that you're never left wondering what's going on. And that is not to say that Novel Romance is a bad film, it is just dangerously average and unexceptional.
Writer-director Emily Skopov displays enough skills that it seems like she has some serious talent. The problem with Novel Romance is, first and foremost, that Skopov never really takes any chances. For whatever clever touches and flourishes she occasionally brings to the screen, she has ultimately made a movie that never deviates from the standard Hollywood fare. Even when she appears to throw a wrench into the potential relationship between Max and Jake, there is always supreme confidence that things will end up happily ever after. And that's part of what makes Novel Romance frustrating: Skopov expends too much creative energy playing by the rules that govern traditional romantic comedies, when her talents could have been better utilized breaking some of those rules.
On the surface, there is not that much wrong with Novel Romance, and it mildly succeeds as being something of a lighthearted comedy that never really challenges the audience. But that is ultimately the film's greatest weakness, for there is very little beneath the surface. Both Lords and Johansson give competent performances, but neither seems like a real person, their dialog seldom sounds genuine, and they fail to create any sort of romantic spark. For the audience it is difficult to grasp exactly what either Max of Jake sees in the other, because we are never given more to see than what's right there on the screen. Lords gives one of her best performances, but at the same time the character never comes to life. We never see enough of her social life to understand why she's so frustrated and willing to go the route of test tube pregnancy, likewise we seldom see that much of her as a career-driven women (at least not enough to buy her as such). And as far as Jake goes, he is just kind of there.
It is difficult to tell if the shortcomings from Novel Romance are a result of Skopov's writing, or is she simply didn't give enough attention to directing the actors. Or, maybe it's a bit of bother. Either way, Novel Romance is far from being a bad film. It doesn't ever make you want to hit the fast-forward button, or worse, simply turn it off. But the same time, it isn't the sort of film that makes you get on the phone to your best friend and say, "I just saw this movie, and you've got to see it." Instead, it is the sort of film you watch, check the time about 40 minutes in to see how much is left, wonder if people are really this stupid in real life, and then slowly forget as the days pass.