By a strange turn of events, I ended up seeing the film The Lake House the other night — we had bought tickets for Nacho Libre but as I was being led to the theater, I pulled up and could not be haltered. The thought of watching Jack Black prance around in tights while babbling in a Mexican accent was too much to confront. Like a drowning man I reached for anything that might save me — and that was The Lake House playing in an adjacent theater and starting at roughly the same time. If you don’t know (and I hope you don’t) this film reunites Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, in hopes of conjuring again that chemistry that made Speed so magical, this time in a romantic comedy so hackneyed and incoherent, I’m not sure I can adequately summarize it without your assuming I’m kidding. In the film, Reeves, the son of a famous architect (played by Christopher Plummer, who’s forced to intone such cliched “visionary artist” lines like “It’s the light. Always the light!”) moves into an absurdly incovenient house his father built on stilts over a lake — later the house becomes a leaden metaphor when Reeves discusses it with his brother (played by a bugged-eyed actor who looks like a cross between Andrew McCarthy and Miss Jane from The Beverly Hillbillies and who seemed to think he was in a diffferent sort of film — a serial-killer thriller maybe — working on a gonzo, coked-out level of intensity and reading his lines with a loony overwroughtness — think Pacino in Heat). Reeves explains that the house is about “containment and control” and points out how it’s isolated. Really? It stands on stilts in the water in the middle of nowhere, I think we get the isolation. And when you feel the need to explain your visual metaphors to the filmgoing audience, you’ve pretty much telegraphed the fact that you think they are stupid and inattentive and you don’t trust them to get anything. Some viewers probably respond to this with relief — okay, now I can be as relaxingly stupid for the duration of the film as the producers think I am — but others probably decide to stop paying attention altogether. I wanted to walk out at that juncture, but alas, was not at liberty to do so.
Anyway magic is afoot at the house, because he discovers that through the mailbox he can have exchange letters with a woman — Bullock, who has the pasty blandness apparently deemed appropriate for romantic comedies; like Aniston, Zellweger, Meg Ryan and so on, she’s bland enough not to threaten the women who these films are made for with any kind of real attractiveness (I found myself wincing during close-ups) — who will become a future occupant of the house but who thinks he’s the future occupant. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and in the pantheon of lovers separated by time, their two-year gap falls somewhat short of the cheeseball grandeur of Somewhere in Time, which is one of the films wildly misappropriated to make this movie.
Now, confronted with the ability to communicate with the future, Keanu doesn’t immediately request a Wall Street Journal or information about who wins the Super Bowl or anything to make himself a millionaire, instead he does boring things like ask about her dog and draw her a map of his favorite sites in Chicago to look at buildings. We know already that they are supposed to fall in love, and we know that he’s going to be run over by a bus, because this was foregrounded rather overtly in the first reel when Bullock, a doctor, fails to save the life of some victim whose face we are pointedly not shown. Anyway, the magic mailbox’s powers seem to extend in incoherent ways — suddenly the time-crossed lovers sit in Chicago diners having stichomythic exchanges with each other’s ghost despite the fact the are supposed to be writing long letters to each other, not having IM exchanges. Maybe that’s the mystical power of love at work; that all-purpose excuse can explain many a plot inconsistency or failure in continuity. And the sentiments they exchange are rote and lame even by romantic comedy standards, things along the lines of “I remember your gentle eyes” and a contrived scene where they are supposed to be having a lover’s quarrel. Then the plot seems to borrow from any number of previous films — Keanu dies but then doesn’t die after Sandra marries the wrong man, but then doesn’t, and the dog they both own through a wrnikle in time works assiduously to bring them together and make important coincidences occur. And of course, Keanu’s father dies, and their troubled relationship is healed by Sandra’s thoughtful consolations.
The formula must be pretty rigorous for these films — the couple needs some quirky friends/parents to talk about the budding relationship with; they must have a phony fight or two, they have to have some contrived obstacle to surmount after a courtship full of whimsical selfless gestures and epiphanies about how much the lovers have in common. When these things becomes so predicable and so shallow, when the substance of their relationship is reduced to ultra-general signifiers of these formulaic signposts (do you like dogs? Wow, me too! We’re perfect for each other!), the films end up making the whole project of “being in love” seem like an exhausted, outdated product. If love exists, you end up thinking, it is other than this tired routine. Still there are probably enough similar moments in the general course of real love that you can compare your own relationship to the pale imitation on the screen and feel convinced of how much more idiosyncratic and true your own love affair feels. This is probably pretty reassuring, if you are not busy vomiting at the soundtrack’s sappy cues — as when Reeves and Bullock do a little dance in the street while a saccharine song from McCartney’s latest album plays.
To cleanse my mind of the horror, I watched Roman Holiday later on, to remind myself why romantic comedies ever were able to thrive. (The Lake House did itself no favors by showing scenes of the characters watching Notorious or reading aloud from Austen’s Persuasion — why invite comparisons of your horrible product with examples of romance that are far far more convincing? It just reminds the audience of everything thats missing — charming actors, a compelling story, sympathetic characters, emotional investment — I felt like I was suppoed to care about Bullock/Reeves because the formula called for it, and the film did nothing to earn it. I was expected to make the effort to see past the woodenness, to inflate the gestures toward poignancy into something genuine. I ended envying the characters and resenting the filmmmakers, wishing deeply that I was watching Notorious myself.) By contrast to Reeves and Bullock, Peck and Audrey Hepburn are extremely easy to watch, and they are appealing enough that their being together seems to matter not as a symbol of relationships in the abstract, but as a specific relationship — it’s pleasant to see these two attractive people interact with each other. The plot of the film, while wildly implasuble, is far less incoherent and cluttered, probably because it’s not trying to absorb every successful romantic-movie plot line of the past 10 years. The conflict is efficiently drawn — Peck is exploiting Hepburn to make some money but then develops real sympathy for her and must find a way to be honest with her so that his real feelings can also be expressed openly. This conflict seems much more compelling because it derives not from some arbitrary circumstance (the lovers are mysteriously living two years apart while falling in love; one of the lovers is unfortunately already dead; etc.) but from human weakness — Peck’s greed, Hepburn’s vulnerability. But the nature of the love was very different — it was clearly modeled on a father/daughter relationship rather than a relationship between putative equals. Part of this was militated by Hepburn’s persona, no doubt — she ended up doing a whole series of films with geriatric leading men (Grant, Astaire, Cooper, Bogart, etc.) But the paternalistic romance was probably much closer to culture’s most pervasive notion of the ideal course of love then; an innocent girl is taken under the wing of a wise and protective man who guides her comfortably through her rite of passage to womanhood — i.e. marriage and motherhood. Now romance movies seem to be about women balancing careers with relationships — about being patient and finding the time to have relationships (even if that means dropping letters into a two-year time warp).