AT THE HEART of any Romance is some inexplicable vacuum where reason breaks down and some long-forgotten innocence takes over. If the elements are right one will go to any extreme, ignore any improbability in its pursuit: Witness the Taj Mahal or Flaubert's letters, witness Wallace Simpson, or Mailer's many wives.
In some respects, then, a classic screen romance has an awful lot going for it even before the lights go down. Audiences are ready to forgive far more than in other forms; they want to feel naive. People still sigh when they see Olivier in Wuthering Heights speak some desperately improbable lines, and act out one of the silliest (ah, but oh so wonderful) endings in screen history. The awkward moments, the stutters and stumbles, the slow buildup of courage, all add to the movie. Rarely does a director find a more willing audience. There probably isn't a more universal human desire than to live life constantly on the precipice of a love affair.
Of course it never lasts. Still, it always comes as something of a shock when it suddenly hits you that romance is based on calculation, on practicality, on fraud. This is what drives lovers to the edge. It is the stuff of razor blades and diatribes against the hated sex. It is what drives people to break car windows late Saturday night when the last bar is closed and possibility is dead for another week. It hits all the harder since you go into the thing with deliberate tunnel vision. It is ultimately the slow drying out, the embitterment that separates the men from the boys.
It is also what characterizes Somewhere In a movie which does more than any other recent film to make you want to give it all up, to cry and then find a nice practical mate.
The fundamental idea behind Somewhere In Time is that true love can overcome any obstacle from social boundaries to the ultimate trump card, time itself. The film chronicles the supposedly magnificant obsession of one Richard Collier, a milk-fed Midwestern playwright marked for success by the gods for his overpowering goodness. Collier seems to come roaring out of the pages of Grit, but no matter, he is successful and stylish with a fancy glass office in Chicago, a foreign sports car and expensive clothes. And yet, he is not satisfied. He has broken up with his girlfriend, he needs to get away, he needs to sort thing out.
All of which he does in a short stay in the Grand Hotel, a turn of the century lakeside resort, a place heavy with the gaiety of turn of the century America slowly turned to dust. Collier falls in love during his stay, not as you might expect with a woman, but with a photograph. Elise McKenna, famed actress and recluse, smiles her elusive smile across seven decades to Collier and he is hooked. What follows is an obsession which will take Collier into local libraries and archives, on visits to the actress's old friends, and ultimately, to a local professor who reveals to him the astounding news that time travel may be possible, that he may after all be able to follow this woman, to track her down in the sinkhole of history.
All of which is a decent premise. The possibilities offered a screen writer by the subject of time travel are many--one of the very good short-lived movies of last year featured H.G. Wells travelling to modern day San Fransisco where he fell in love with a modern daywoman. And yet, very shortly into this film, it's clear the movie will not explore any of the possibilities the device offers. This film was conceived almost solely as a vehicle for Reeves, a great big lumbering semi with all the surprise and delight of deisel mechania.
It is too kind to say that something goes wrong with the film; instead it slowly dawns on the audience that the entire concept behind the movie is rotten, corrupted and contemptible. Slow fades, sudden silences and softly focused scenes are so calculated that they sour as soon as they hit the screen. One is left less with wonder than with the "romance" of lower Washington St. where you can touch live naked women for a quarter as they writhe in the obligatory high-heeled shoes and Victorian garters. Someone, somewhere wants to make Reeves a star, and it seems that they will stop at nothing.
All of which is odd considering that Reeve's singular trait is hyperkinetic innocence Reeve bounds his way through the movie like a retrieve pup, always deferential, smiling at widows and being nice to children. He seems to be a snidely conceived modern-day Horatio Algier hero, neatly market-researched--the ultimate triumph of American Boyhood.
Such trails helped Reeves in Superman, where he managed to be somewhat charming in spite of himself. Forced to do more than stand in front of fabulous sets, though, Reeves becomes a positive embarrassment. The man can smile but he cannot act. A director must go wild: "Now you're mad, right, look mad. Good. You're frustrated. Now, crumple up that paper. Pick up the phone. Put it down." He seems hopelessly, pitifully, out of place. He's so big. He's so pretty. He's so dumb. Christopher Reeves works better as a still life.
Which is really what this film is all about--a long slow tableau of a beautiful man and a beautiful woman doing beautiful things. But it is contrived, painting a tortured tableau. This is not a fantasy out of Bronte, it's a photo essay out of Penthouse. Jane Seymour, as the actress Collier loves, is hauntingly beautiful--but she spends most of the movie in soft focus, always on the verge of letting her hair down, ringlets playing about her ears, draped in lace. That old fantasy of Victorian women with all that fancy lingerie. Set against Reeves' incompetence, the set-up is obvious. Reeves practically slobbers--the American boy becomes adolescent. Not romance, just sad, love caught once again in the hormonal undertow.
ULTIMATELY, THEN this film is a high-tech attemp at naivete. The more the director tries to cover up Reeves with swelling music and "magical" sepia sequences, the more frustrated the audience becomes. Enough manipulation. Enough manufactured emotion. Enough preying on private fantasy. Enough of the self-congratulatory "love" of beer commercials and snide movies. It is best to leave this sort of film to future generations who, after they master time travel, may also devise the necessary base for a high-tech future;--the cryogenic suspension of disbelief, wonder, and surprise.