Woody Allen has a lot to answer for. His two great romantic comedies – Annie Hall and Manhattan – were so startling in their reinvention of the romantic comedy that they’ve managed to derail the genre. These are films of such nonchalant grace that they trick young filmmakers into thinking they were as easy to make as they are to watch, when in fact it took Allen nearly ten years of directing to learn how to achieve such effortlessness. It’s not his fault, of course, but he’s become a terrible influence. He’s inadvertently spawned a crop of Annie Hall manques: sloppy, unstructured, vaguely autobiographical little movies about high-strung neurotics fumbling in and out of love.
Valerie Breiman’s debut Love & Sex is this year’s model. Famke Janssen stars as "relationship leper" Kate, a dauntingly self-absorbed magazine writer. Under deadline to produce a feature on changing erotic mores, she mines her own experience, dictating her sexual history into a tape recorder.
She starts young, with a soul-crushing elementary school betrayal. Kate never really recovered from that blow: though she’s both intelligent and a stunning beauty (Janssen began as a Bond girl), she hooks up with loser after loser. Foremost among them is Adam (Jon Favreau), an insufferably arrogant painter. He’s her great love, and the bulk of the movie recounts their unlikely union.
Breiman’s screenplay is ambitious, swapping comic tones from scene to scene in an attempt to recreate the varied emotions of a love affair. It careens from broad sitcom farce in the opening scenes with Ann Magnuson to attempts at the brittle girl talk of "Sex in the City," with wry voice-over contextualizing it all.
The strengths of the screenplay don’t translate to the screen. Well-written one-liners lie dead, killed by the lax timing. Everyone tries so hard to be ingratiating and witty that the charm curdles into smarm. Breiman hits the jokes too hard and forces most of the quieter scenes, so that the director is felt as an insidious presence, tugging at our elbows and nudging us to make sure we heard the jokes. It takes all the wrong lessons from Annie Hall, aping its structure and self-consciousness and substituting neurosis for character development. At times it resembles the scenes in the last third of Allen’s film, where Alvy tries to evoke the magic of his days with Annie by walking hapless new girlfriends through recreations of their best times.
Favreau suffers most. Breiman aims for complexity in his characterization, rounding out the character by making Adam both attractive and difficult to like. She succeeds all too well at the latter. Adam is an obnoxious ass, his first meeting with Kate a pickup scene that would leave any sane woman dialing 911. Since Favreau plays up the abrasiveness, his charming side gets lost. The more he struggles to appear cute and funny, the more aggressively unpleasant he becomes. And Breiman doesn’t make his job any easier, saddling him with muttonchops and, later, the ugliest goatee ever recorded on celluloid. That beard gets one of the movie’s biggest laughs, but it undermines the character – you can’t hear his lines for staring at the lifeless clump on his chin.
Breiman’s real talent appears midway into Love & Sex when the movie takes an unexpected dark turn. Stripped of the prattling banter, her directing gains force and simplicity. Once the actors quit pushing so hard for effect, we have an entry into their story. In these few minutes Kate and Adam quit being writer’s conceits and become people. Breiman handles this material beautifully, never forcing her hand or pushing the audience. There’s a stillness and grace in this scene that the rest of the movie never approaches. It suggests that Breiman is a director of enormous potential.