Love Happens

Dir Brandon Camp (Universal) -- 2.5 STARS

As an up-and-coming self-help author in “Love Happens,” Dr. Burke Ryan encounters many unorthodox ways of dealing with grief. A woman bakes her late husband’s favorite oatmeal raisin cookies garnished with his ashes. Another makes a mold of her dead husband’s penis. Unfortunately, these moments of humor in the midst of tragedy are set against a backdrop of an utterly predictable romance.

“Love Happens” traces a hackneyed storyline—complete with dramatic slow-clap in the final scene—but ultimately entertains thanks to the strength of its dead-on humor (literally). While the title was clearly meant to attract a lighthearted crowd in search of a happy ending and a few laughs along the way, the main character’s struggle to overcome his own grief emerges as the central, and most compelling, narrative.

The film opens as Burke arrives in Seattle to lead a grief seminar. He is on the brink of a huge multimedia deal with Unicom, an entertainment conglomerate that wants to promote him as the next Dr. Phil. But his penchant for solitary shots of Grey Goose quickly reveals that he has yet to confront the issues through which he guides his audiences. His wife’s death in a car accident three years before continues to haunt him.

In his hotel, Burke literally runs into Eloise Chandler (Jennifer Aniston), a beautiful florist with an odd habit of writing obscure words on walls. As their relationship progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that Eloise, despite her own destructive tendencies (falling for men she knows will love her and leave her), may be the only one capable of pushing Burke to deal with his past.

Yet the film establishes Eloise as more of a friend that Burke needs to look out for him than a love interest who completes him. Their chemistry suggests a strong camaraderie rather than a burning passion, and their romance seems tacked on in the eleventh hour. By pushing Eloise out of her friend role, the movie abandons its thoughtful exploration of coping with tragedy in favor of a generic boy-meets-girl setup.

Much more interesting than this tired romance is the story of a man who helps others deal with loss while staunchly refusing to even begin dealing with his own. Burke hasn’t even spoken to his in-laws since their daughter’s death. Watching Burke help the struggling Walter (John Carroll Lynch), a contractor whose young son died at his construction site, is particularly moving because of the fine balance Walter strikes between tough-guy pig-headedness and desperate vulnerability.

Given the subject matter, it is somewhat surprising that the movie shows a knack for perfectly timed humor. Some of Eckhart’s best scenes involve him stealing his old pet parrot from his in-laws and then imitating the movements of the bird in order to inspire it to fly away free. In another scene, Unicom’s advertising executives pitch a weight loss powder that promises to be “finally a loss you can feel good about.” And Judy Greer is fantastic in her small supporting role as Eloise’s feminist, slam-poetry writing employee and friend; when we first meet her, she is reciting graphic poetry to a shocked elderly woman buying flowers.

While Eckhart is not quite so striking in his portrayal of Burke as he was as Two-Face in “The Dark Knight,” he is convincing as the outwardly charming, inwardly troubled hero. And though she doesn’t stretch too far from her other recent romantic roles in “He’s Just Not That Into You” and “The Break Up,” Aniston is genuinely funny as Eloise. Ultimately, the weakness of the movie is exemplified by the misleading title; Burke and Eloise never approach a plane where saying “I love you” would seem natural. The romance of “Love Happens” seems out of place, even inappropriate, in the midst of an otherwise clever and touching examination of sorrow and hope.

—Staff writer Anna E. Sakellariadis can be reached at asakell@fas.harvard.edu.