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Is Romance Dead at the Movies?

December 19, 2017


Maybe this is why I’m still so single, but the most romantic movie I’ve seen in 2017 is The Shape of Water, a love story between a mute woman and a fish-man. In an attempt to remedy that situation, I saw two new films touted as great romances, Call Me By Your Name and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Unfortunately, both felt even longer than their complete-sentence titles.

That’s because I didn’t buy the central relationship of either story. Sexual chemistry, both on-screen and off, is a highly subjective business. I was swept away by the lighter-than-air dynamic between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in last year’s La La Land, but my fellow Cranky Guy Bret Watson thought they struck zero sparks.  (He also found The Shape of Water “soggy.” Remind me why we’re friends again?)

So despite all its critics’ group awards and Golden Globe nominations, I call bullshit on Call Me By Your Name. Director Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic mega-turd A Bigger Splash was my least favorite film of 2016, and while this is an improvement, it’s mostly because of two actors — and they’re not the love interests. As a 17-year-old American spending the summer of 1983 in Italy with his family, Timothée Chalamet builds on the promise of his performance in Lady Bird; he’s a young actor of rare sensitivity. And as his professor father, Michael Stuhlbarg (who’s also great in The Shape of Water — have I mentioned how much I love that movie?) proves he can render even the most ludicrous dialogue believable. Not only does he have to give a speech about the etymology of the word “apricot,” but he tells his boy, who has a fling with a grad student (Armie Hammer) staying at their villa, “Feel something you certainly did.” Who is this guy, Yoda? Oy.

We’re supposed to believe that the bond between Chalamet and Hammer is one for the ages. Why, because we see them riding bikes and swimming endlessly? Sure, it looks like fun, and Chalamet captures the exquisite pain of first love, but Hammer is as bland and colorless as baking soda. (Full disclosure: I may have disliked him so much in this movie because he reminded me of Todd, my roommate on a class trip to Mexico I took in 1983, when I was the same age as Chalamet’s character. Todd never took off his Walkman, and when you asked him what he was listening to, he’d always say, “Yaz, of course” in the most obnoxious way imaginable.)

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I have no problem with gay movies. I was in a gay movie. Admit it, that’s an even more convincing argument than “Some of my best friends are gay.” Which they are, by the way. My issue with Call Me By Your Name is that it’s sooo sloooow and boring and pretentious. The guys don’t even get it on until an hour and a half into this 132-minute slog. Then Chalamet has sex with a nectarine, which Hammer later fingers. I try to be an open-minded guy — I had no problem with the butter lube in Last Tango in Paris or the pastry-shtupping in American Pie — but this is a peach too far. (Did I mention I was in a gay movie? Okay, good.)

That leads me, somehow, to Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which runs only 106 minutes but feels twice as long. Annette Bening and Jamie Bell do technically solid work as Gloria Grahame, the Oscar-winning actress from 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, and Peter Turner, a much younger actor who fell for her in the late ’70s. Sadly, this movie is more bad than beautiful, as director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) lets the pace lag and lingers on far too many close-ups of Bening’s face. (“Ooh, look at all those lines!” we’re meant to say. “How brave! Give her an Oscar!”) And again, it’s subjective, but I felt more sexual heat between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude than I did between Bell and Bening.

Maybe that’s why I’m still so single.

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