Yep, it’s that time of year again… Valentine’s Day. Everyone will surely be busy watching staples such as Casablanca, An Affair To Remember, Pretty Woman, and When Harry Met Sally on this “special” occasion. However, while the aforementioned films are certainly all worthwhile, there are plenty of other solid movies dealing with romance—that may not seem appropriate for February 14, at first glance—that deserve attention. Furthermore, speaking from a man’s perspective, the idea of sitting through a significant other’s favorite like Sleepless in Seattle for the umpteenth time sounds like a sweat-inducing nightmare. Sometimes, it’s perfectly healthy to stray from the usual path, and it’s with that in mind that I’m going to present a handful of unconventional films to share with one’s valentine. Sure, the “offbeat list” of romantic cinematic adventures has been done before, and some those favorites will be repeated here (because they’re that good), but I contend that this compendium stands on its own, especially for the ladies out there begging their man to watch a movie with them. I also purposely included some newer films for folks who would like to see something they maybe haven’t seen before. They may not all be saccharin-sweet (though, a few are), but they’re all definitely thought-provoking. Besides, that’s kind of the point.
Cannery Row (1982): OK, so many out there may not think that sardine factories, marine biology, baseball, prostitution and abject poverty are ingredients for the perfect romance, but guess again. This adaptation of John Steinbeck’s twin novellas “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday” is about as charming as one can get. Critics tend to pan this film, but their cynicism almost uniformly drips from the page. Anyway, the always capable Nick Nolte and Debra Winger are great as the mismatched leads. Nolte is a former pro pitcher with a guilty secret turned marine biologist who prefers to spend his time studying the octopus in the slums of the closed-down cannery plants in Depression-era Monterey, California. Winger is an abrasive but adorable homeless drifter who’s new to town. She becomes a reluctant prostitute to make ends meet, and eventually meets Nolte through his best friend (and her madam), Audra Lindley. Their relationship is initially tense, but soon sparks fly. However, their bond gets tested when the various hookers with hearts of gold and the alcoholic but jovial bums living in the alley keep trying to push them together. The squalid backdrop and odd plot points narrated by the legendary John Huston certainly aren’t Grease material, but couples should still have fun with this one.
Sid And Nancy (1986): That’s right, I’m talking about the power couple of doomed Sex Pistols’ bassist (if one can call him that) Sid Vicious and super groupie Nancy Spungen. Regardless of how anyone feels about punk rock, the musical influence is undeniable and the Sex Pistols were one of the most important bands of the time, even though their story is a pretty tragic one, especially Sid’s. While his life and his relationship with the equally troubled Spungen is certainly worthy of celluloid exploration, this version may not be for everyone, especially considering that cult director Alex Cox (known for Repo Man and Straight To Hell) helmed the release. However, it’s worth a look at the very least for Gary Oldman’s performance as Vicious. One may not initially think “Gary Oldman” when the name Sid Vicious is mentioned, but his transformation into the gloomy punk rocker is incredible. For the uninitiated, the coupling of Vicious and Spungen was a match made in… Well, Heaven wouldn’t quite be the right word. They were madly in love, but they were terrible for one another. One night, Spungen was killed while the couple was staying at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Vicious woke up out of a drug-induced stupor to find her in the room and be charged with her murder. Vicious eventually “overdosed/committed suicide” before he could stand trial, supposedly stating in a suicide note that the couple had a death pact. Hey, despite all of the drama, incessant fighting, and completely fiendish drug abuse, no one can deny that they loved each other.
Wild At Heart (1990): For many folks, the mere mention of quintessential oddball director David Lynch is enough to make their faces contort. Therefore, this is another one the more sensitive viewers out there may want to tread lightly with. However, it’s perhaps the ultimate road movie for cursed lovers, with a little sex and violence thrown in. The couple in question is Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern. Cage wears a snakeskin jacket. It’s a symbol of his individuality and represents his belief in personal freedom… Anyway, after a stint in prison, Cage gets picked up by Dern near Cape Fear at the North Carolina border and the couple decides to go on the run to California through New Orleans and Texas, since Dern’s mother (Diane Ladd) doesn’t like Cage very much. She doesn’t like him because Cage may have seen something he shouldn’t have, so Ladd puts a hit out on him. The fact that Ladd is Dern’s real-life mother adds a nice touch to the film. So, suffice it to state that Ladd’s character is completely unglued, which means that she also unleashes an entire cast of strange humans upon the lovers. From there, it’s a parade of Cage’s Elvis Presley impersonations, endless tributes and references to The Wizard Of Oz, and great bizarre supporting turns from Willem Dafoe, Crispin Glover, Isabella Rossellini, Harry Dean Stanton, and others who paint a yellow-brick road that Dorothy would never recognize. Lynch obviously had great fun with a very loose adaptation of Barry Gifford’s novel.
True Romance (1993): OK, so it’s rare that a script from Quentin Tarantino would make a list for Valentine’s Day, but bear with me. Sure, the film is primarily violent and action-packed, but all the chaos stems from the desire of Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette to be together. They’re a Bonnie-and-Clyde-type couple, though a bit more innocent and less calculating, that comes into possession of the mob’s cocaine and plans to sell it so they can run away together. He’s a comic book nerd and she’s a hooker, so obviously they’re an ideal match. Throw in talented director Tony Scott (Top Gun, The Last Boy Scout), tremendous performances from an ensemble cast that includes Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, Tom Sizemore, Michael Rapaport, Bronson Pinchot, James Gandolfini, and many others, and Tarantino’s snappy dialogue, and couples have a recipe ripe for “true romance” that will surely beat watching Dirty Dancing for the 431st time.
High Fidelity (2000): Defy any music geek not to be touched by this film, and they will not be able to say they weren’t. However, even for non-music snobs, chances are if you don’t recognize yourself in the movie, you’ll see someone you know, to paraphrase Roger Ebert’s review. Director Stephen Frears, primarily known for more serious fare such as The Grifters and Dangerous Liaisons, took a break from his norm to make a more light-hearted affair, based on Nick Hornby’s book and adapted by star John Cusack and a few others. Cusack is the owner of a used, mostly-vinyl record store (quaint on its own in the bastardized age of digital downloading) who isn’t particularly happy with his lot in life, and is constantly wondering why his relationships fail. He’s particularly distressed over his latest breakup with Iben Hjejle and proceeds to discuss all of this with the audience by breaking the “fourth wall” throughout the film. What’s amazing is that the tale uses Cusack’s complete misery to actually illustrate the positive aspects of love, music, and especially growing up, and it does it in the most charming way. Sure, a corner is eventually turned, but it’s done subtly through Cusack’s character’s self-mocking and wryly analytical tone. Additionally, another great cast including John’s sister Joan, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Lisa Bonet, Tim Robbins, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and yes, even Jack Black and a cameo from Bruce Springsteen, helps to buoy the film’s zest. (Are we noticing a trend here? It turns out that good actors can elevate a production… What a shocker.) Some people will be shocked with how much they enjoyed this film. Look for the great deleted scene with Cusack and Beverly D’Angelo.
Secretary (2002): This is perhaps one of the obvious choices for an offbeat romance list, but the production certainly fits the bill, and even for its non-conformist tone and somewhat shocking behavior of its characters, the film remains an effective one. While the world of sadomasochism can be seen as absurd for many outsiders, it’s important for viewers to understand that the leads in this tale find something very real in a world that often rings incredibly false. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the title character. She’s troubled, to say the least, and is also fresh out of a mental institution where the affliction of self-mutilation was her biggest struggle. Gyllenhaal eventually learns that she needs to do something to be productive, and she ends up at the law offices of James Spader. Spader is a controlling and manic obsessive compulsive who understandably has a tough time keeping a secretary. Once Spader meets Gyllenhaal, however, it becomes kismet, and the pair immediately locks into one another. Gyllenhaal gets the job, and she enters into a working relationship with Spader where the word “inappropriate” wouldn’t even begin to describe it. When Gyllenhaal makes a mistake, she must endure punishments that involve spanking, bondage, and more… and she loves it! It gets to the point where Spader even tells Gyllenhaal what to eat, leading to a hilarious scene with Gyllenhaal’s family. Her new role and relationship gives her a renewed confidence, but it winds up driving Spader deeper into depression. When he cools things off, Gyllenhaal becomes increasingly distressed. As the plot follows her efforts to repair the relationship, the film evolves into an engaging commentary on self-acceptance.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004): … And this would be the other obvious selection for the list. However, that doesn’t make it any less valid. Director Michel Gondry and scripter Charlie Kaufman’s time-fragmented (and mind-fragmented) journey is a feast for the eyes and soul. It seems that love can survive anything, even when its memory is erased! That’s right, in Gondry’s world, it’s entirely possible to have all memory of a particular person completely wiped from one’s brain through a medical procedure. Jim Carey and Kate Winslet are a couple (or, they were a couple). Their relationship eventually went sour, and Winslet had Carey erased from her mind. Filled with sorrow, Carey decides to “take revenge” by having her removed from his psyche. However, he changes his mind in mid-process, and struggles to hold on to memories of Winslet, hiding them in the deep recesses of his brain while fighting the intractable mind probe. The result is a story that’s visually and emotionally arresting (if not disorienting, but that’s kind of the point), with a thoughtful and restrained performance from Carey who finds a hopeful, soft center after cracking through the plot’s initially cynical and hard candy shell.
Two Lovers (2008): Is it possible to fall and be in love with two people at the same time? That’s the question at the heart of this tale, and while the “love triangle” is something that’s been done countless times in the movies before, what’s intriguing here is that it isn’t handled in a tongue-in-cheek way. This film is far from a romantic comedy. In fact, it’s unlikely that anyone could even call it romantic. But, it is heartfelt, and it is loving, and it is ultimately positive. Joaquin Phoenix is a man who has moved back home with his Jewish parents in Brooklyn after receiving mental treatment of some sort after a bad breakup. His mental state is a somewhat fragile one. Almost simultaneously, Phoenix meets Vinessa Shaw, the pretty, sweet, and safe Jewish daughter of the family who’s venturing to buy Phoenix’s parents’ dry-cleaning business, and Gwyneth Paltrow, an impetuous and charming, but troubled neighbor living in an apartment paid for by her married lover. Phoenix genuinely falls for both of them. However, Paltrow is much more unattainable. Additionally, Phoenix’s parents are mostly unaware of her. They want him to marry Shaw. Phoenix becomes Paltrow’s shoulder to cry on, and he carries on a secret obsession with her that eventually reaches a chaotic level. Without giving too much away, it can be said that the film is a stirring take on what one must go through to discover what’s right for them.
The Invention Of Lying (2009): One of my current favorites… The film, co-written and co-directed by star Ricky Gervais imagines a world where lying truly doesn’t exist. Everyone brutally states exactly what they think, and everyone believes everything that everyone says. There’s no fiction, no false advertising, and no religion. Gervais is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter (movies, by-the-way, consist of men sitting in chairs reading historical accounts) who gets fired for failing to turn the boring 13th century into box office gold. Gervais is equally unlucky in love. He’s infatuated with Jennifer Garner, but when the two go out on a date, she matter-of-factly states that she isn’t attracted to him and is only seeing him to appease others… and so it goes. It eventually occurs to Gervais to magically tell the world’s first lie after being evicted from his apartment. He tells the bank he has $800 in his account instead of $300 and is given the money without question. From there, he invents the concept of Heaven and “the man in the sky” to comfort his dying mother. However, all this power isn’t without its trouble, and Gervais refuses to lie to Garner to win her affection because that wouldn’t count. Will Garner be able to see past the “truth” that Gervais is “genetically undesirable”? This is one of the more creative and insightful “rom-coms” to come along in quite some time.
Cyrus (2010): What is perhaps most striking about this film is that it’s billed as a romantic comedy, but it’s far from such a vehicle. Sure, there are some chuckles, but for the most part the movie deals with some very serious and true-to-life subject matter. In fact, a great assignment for a film class would be to figure out how to properly market this movie, but whatever. John C. Reilly is a lonely man who has been divorced for seven years, and is having trouble moving on from his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), who’s still his best friend. At her urging, Reilly accompanies Keener and her new beau to a party where he meets Marisa Tomei, who has also been single for much too long. They hook up, but Reilly soon meets her incredibly needy and possessive 21-year-old live-in son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill). Hill’s relationship with his mother is incredibly unhealthy, and he doesn’t take kindly to Reilly’s intrusion. This begins an epic struggle for Tomei’s attention, and the film ultimately postulates that while any romantic entanglement may not be totally ideal, maybe trying is the important thing.
HONORABLE MENTION: Harold And Maude (1971): I had to throw this in because it’s the film that inspired this piece and it’s the ultimate offbeat romantic film. Sadly, it’s currently unavailable on video, but the extreme May/September romance between the young death-obsessed Bud Cort and the vivacious 79-year-old Ruth Gordon may be, to quote Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary, “the greatest love story of our time,” no matter what Roger Ebert says. Throw in a soundtrack from Cat Stevens, and daring audiences will have anything they ever need in a movie. It’s understandable that film manufacturers don’t keep films available because it affects their bottom line, but it’s always a shame when good art isn’t accessible to the masses. But, that’s life, as absurd as it may be, just like sending dead flowers to a funeral, as Maude would say.