The good news (and it is good news) about Galt Niderhoffer's The Romantics is that come to find out, Katie Holmes didn't forget how to act. One would certainly have been allowed that conclusion after observing her work in Mad Money and The Extra Man, both of which found her once-refreshing natural charisma replaced by a clanging phoniness; she overacted every scene, telegraphing every gesture, pulling faces like a refugee from a silent melodrama. That studied and mannered falseness occasionally rears its ugly head in The Romantics, but for the most part, it's a strong, stripped-down, compelling performance. For a long stretch, it appears as though the movie will match it, and then they absolutely blow it at the end.
The film (adapted by Niderhoffer from her novel) is the story of an extended group of college friends reunited for the wedding of two of their members: wealthy and proper Lila (Anna Paquin) and handsome, intelligent Tom (Josh Duhamel). But the whole thing is a little awkward for Laura (Holmes), who was Lila's best friend and college roommate, and Tom's long-time, on-and-off girlfriend. Also present for the festivities are Lila's alcoholic brother Chip (Elijah Wood), Pete (Jeremy Strong) and Tripler (Malin Akerman), who are married, and Jake (Adam Brody) and Weesie (Rebecca Lawrence), who will be soon. But there are conflicts and buried resentments, and the twelve hours between the rehearsal and the ceremony means there's plenty of time to dig them up.
So basically, what you've got here is a tale of pre-matrimonial dysfunction on the order of Margot at the Wedding or Rachel Getting Married (with which it shares a dingy, digital look). The early scenes are a little difficult; as admirable as it is that Niderhoffer hasn't inserted a bunch of awkward exposition, we spend an awful lot of time puzzling out who exactly everyone is. But there are good scenes here--the casualness of Akerman and Holmes's conversation as they dress for dinner, the funny montage of bad toasts that follows.
The picture's longest and strongest section is its second act, when a cold-footed Tom disappears and the friends pair off to wander around looking for him. The stillness of these late-night scenes is intoxicating; Niderhoffer and her cast nail the atmosphere of a long night in which drinks are shared, secrets are told, and bad decisions are made. The director's got a sure sense of montage as well, intermingling the scenes just enough to pique our interest without overusing anyone. The pairing of Brody and Akerman is especially solid, their bing-bang rhythms giving their scenes a quick blast of dirty energy. Holmes and Duhamel don't fare quite as well in their two-scenes; he's no doubt a nice guy and handsome, but strikes me as something of a poor man's Tim Olyphant. That said, the dialogue (here and throughout) is refreshingly literate and high-minded, though the fence between that and natural conversation is a tough one to straddle (when Laura finally lets Tom have it, the whole thing sounds written--too written).
Duhamel's best scene is shared with Paquin, terrific as a porcelain doll perpetually on the verge of breaking to pieces. He's having second thoughts, and goes to her room to tell her so; she tells him why she loves him, and then asks him why he loves her. He can't say. Niderhoffer lets the scene play in a long two-shot, giving Paquin an uninterrupted opportunity to morph from barely-suppressed desperation ("I'll tell you why you love me...") to full control of the situation, and then hold on her, just a beat or two, after he leaves, as the blood drains from her face. It's a tremendous piece of acting.
The brutality of the harsh morning light hits the characters like a bad hangover; unfortunately, the third act plays like one. Niderhoffer is a female writer/director, so one probably shouldn't cry sexism at how she chooses to wrap her story up, but there certainly seems to be some subtle and troublesome sexual politics happening in the resolution. She simple-mindedly tries to shift the audience's ire towards what is indisputably the wrong villain, and we're apparently meant to shrug and giggle and go along with it, "boys will be boys" and all that. And then we proceed to an awkward and entirely unsatisfying ending, and the film cuts to black, presumably because they couldn't come up with anything better to do. The Romantics has its moments, and several performances are top-notch. But boy does it go right off the rails when things get complicated.