With a semi-unknown writer-director adapting her own novel, you'd be forgiven for assuming that The Romantics is some kind of vanity project for writer-producer-director-author Galt Niederhoffer. Sad to say, it sort of looks like one, too, with often-hideous camcorder-grade cinematography smudging the actors into digital blur. Or maybe that's the writing, which must assemble seven college friends, mostly paired off, for the wedding of Tom (Josh Duhmael) and Lila (Anna Paquin). The group, dubbed the romantics for their "incestuous dating history," also includes odd girl out Laura (Katie Holmes), also Tom's ex, something everyone else seems to be thinking about in their every conversation with her.
As the wedding events (and the movie) warm up, the tension looks like it might simmer, especially during a parade of awkward rehearsal-dinner toasts that suggest an agreeably even-lower-fi Rachel Getting Married. But when the conflicts come to the surface, yikes—it gets awkward for everyone involved, not just the characters. Poor Holmes has to play a writer (published in The Paris Review, of course; that's one of the two literary magazines in the world, along with the New Yorker) in a movie written and directed by a writer, and then she has to play a long, long scene with Duhamel talking about their relationship in ridiculous and punishingly articulate detail, reducing the movie's emotions to petty argument. Then she has to do it again with Paquin!
Holmes has been fine in a variety of supporting roles, but she wilts under intense focus, telegraphing every would-be-little gesture that's supposed to signify internal conflict. This creates an unlikely opening for Malin Akerman: the much-maligned star of Watchmen and Couples Retreat, who has previously done much of her acting with her hair and Cameron Diazy voice, becomes, for the firs time, the best thing about a movie. Unburdened by angst, she sets her inner (and outer) ditz free, which winds up making her seem smarter and savvier than most of her friends, even when she's doing blow off of a family photo frame.
The little ensemble moments, like Elijah Wood's drunken stumbling as the bride's mess of a kid brother, make The Romantics tolerable in patches, but the dramatic compression squashes a lot of potential subtlety. Niederhoffer's most interesting idea—a group of friends struggling with the sense that they may have paired off arbitrarily and could be happy in any number of combinations—gets downplayed in the face of Laura's epic confrontations. Is this dramatic catharsis, or is it just personal?
Opens September 10