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By David O'Grady
When Valentine's Day rolls around, romantic movies like Casablanca, An Affair to Remember, and When Harry Met Sally are often checked out at our neighborhood video stores. But if you're up for something a little different, you might try some movies where Cupid doesn't shoot so straight.
In this month's movie picks, love's combatants spar on a variety of battlefields. Like the prototypical Adam's Rib, starring dueling spouses Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, these films prove that, in the end, love indeed conquers all--but not without a fight.
Up, Sideways, and Down with Love
Playboy Catcher Block, the "man about town" reporter for a men's magazine, blows off the wrong woman in the retro-styled comedy Down with Love (2003). That woman is Barbara Novak, author of a bestselling book instructing women to abstain from sex until they can enjoy it without love, as men do--or, as Barbara puts it, "à la carte." When Catcher's tomcatting forces him to cancel several interviews with Barbara, her wrath soon becomes the wrath of all women, leaving Catcher with an empty dance card.
Catcher decides to get even by disguising his identity in an attempt to seduce Barbara--not into bed, but into falling in love with him. As Catcher's scheme unfolds over a series of dates, he may not be the only one with a surprise up his sleeve.
In the lead roles in Down with Love, Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger do a good job of delivering witty wordplay as they inhabit the over-the-top costumes and sets of a mythical 1960s New York. Clearly inspired by the Rock Hudson Doris Day vehicle Pillow Talk (1959), Down with Love even exploits the split-screen phone chat, turning it into a clever --and naughty--visual double entendre. Sophisticated and silly, Down with Love goes down like fizzy champagne.
It Didn't Happen One Night
A hanging bed sheet kept Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable from jumping into each other's arms--momentarily--in the famous shared-bedroom scene from the screwball classic It Happened One Night (1934). In The Night We Never Met (1993), the "Wall of Jericho" is a calendar that determines which nights of the week each of three subletters of a New York pied-à-terre can use the apartment.
Brian, the leaseholder and architect of this unusual arrangement, has moved in with his fiancée and can no longer afford the rent on the place, but he wants to keep it as a clubhouse for his overgrown, frat-boy buddies. For Sam, played by Matthew Broderick, the apartment is an occasional sanctuary where he can cook, read, and recover from his busted romance with Pastel, a performance artist (a side-splitting performance by Jeanne Tripplehorn). For Ellen, a dental hygienist played by Annabella Sciorra, the apartment offers an escape from suburban married life and gives her a chance to paint.
Although they haven't met, Sam and Ellen develop an affinity for each other through the art, music, and food they each leave behind in the apartment. When Brian switches nights with Sam, however, no one updates the timeshare calendar tacked to the kitchen wall--leading Ellen to believe that Brian is the object of her affection. A case of mistaken identity soon leads to bigger consequences, as Ellen makes the first move to follow her heart.
A distinctly "New York" kind of movie, The Night We Never Met charms viewers with its quirky story and surprise casting, including Garry Shandling as Ellen's lecherous dental patient and Justine Bateman as Brian's tightly wound fiancée. It's a great date movie for anyone who has survived the search for love in the wrong people and places.
All's Fair in Love and Divorce
Sometimes, surviving the search for love isn't the problem--it's surviving the relationship afterward. Such is the story of The War of the Roses (1989), a deliciously dark divorce comedy. Danny DeVito plays a divorce lawyer relating the cautionary tale of Oliver and Barbara Rose, whose marriage tracks a tragic but common arc: the couple slowly grow apart as Oliver mortgages his life to his law firm and Barbara dedicates herself to decorating their trophy home.
An emblem of everything Oliver and Barbara sacrificed, their home becomes the literal battleground in their divorce. Refusing to move out or relent, Oliver and Barbara turn increasingly vicious, with Oliver trashing Barbara's gourmet dinner party and Barbara crushing Oliver's collectible car, among many other slapstick casualties. Just how far the war will go has to be seen.
As the two adversaries, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner demonstrate they still have the combative spark they mastered in their Romancing the Stone movies of the 1980s. Unlike those fun but forgettable films, The War of the Roses doggedly bites into its subject and never loses its way. Speaking of doggedly, after this movie, paté will never taste the same.
Cursed Beast Seeks Spell-Breaker
Disney returned to animation glory (and shortly thereafter lost its way again) with Beauty and the Beast (1991), the only animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and one of the first to expertly blend hand-drawn and computer animation.
The story is a timeless classic: An enchantress turns a selfish prince into a hideous beast, condemning him to a life alone in his castle unless he can find someone to love him and break the spell. When a local inventor, Maurice, wanders onto the neglected castle grounds, he's imprisoned by the Beast for trespassing. But when Maurice's beautiful daughter, Belle, arrives at the castle and asks to trade places with her father, the Beast sees some hope that the spell might be broken.
What gives Beauty and the Beast its luster are the wonderful songs, and the inspired animation that accompanies them. The tune "Be Our Guest," featuring a whole pantry of dancing dishes, is worth the rental fee alone. But it's the supporting characters, a hodgepodge of servants whom the enchantress transformed into household objects, that stay with you. Who can forget the teapot Mrs. Potts and her young teacup Chip, the practical clock Cogsworth, or the candlestick lover-boy Lumiere, whose amorous embrace of a dishy feather-duster causes her to remark: "I've been burned by you before."
Beauty and the Beast, which is also available in an extended special edition, ranks among the best in animated stories and is a delight children and adults can share over and over again.
Equals in Love--and Revenge
In the 1990s, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski created his masterpiece trilogy of films, Blue, White, and Red, based on the colors and themes represented in the French flag. Though Blue and Red often receive the most play, White (1994) is worth a second look for its darkly comic meditation on the meaning of equality between partners in a broken marriage.
Tired of her husband Karol's sexual timidity and dysfunction, Dominique convinces the French courts to grant her a divorce, leaving her ex homeless and penniless on the streets of Paris. Karol returns home to Poland smuggled in a suitcase, and eventually becomes a successful businessman. But he still loves Dominique, and hatches a deceptive plot of love and revenge to convince Dominique to come to Poland.
Kieslowski's film is exquisitely shot--one dazzling scene has Karol and a friend sprawled on the ice of a frozen river after a vodka binge, the winter morning blindingly white--and that alone would make it worth seeing. But White also succeeds in capturing the subtle and poignant mysteries of love, found not only in the stormy relationship of Dominique and Karol but even in the happiest and most stable of couples.