Friday, January 4, 2013

Save the Date Review

[Update: I finished revising this review at about 1PM; it needed a few tweaks, so the six of you that read it early today might want to come back.] Save the Date is about two contrary and complex sisters, as well as their relationship with each other and the men in their lives. As you can see by looking over my recent on-site Reviews (this is the 99th), I haven't had a lot of time to watch thoughtful pictures aside from my Reviewing with Others indie movie entries. I can say that even if I wasn't starved for some "real" cinema, I would have enjoyed this film greatly; and I don't care about the kiddie, blockbuster, and Oscar-bait flix that are in theaters now - Save the Date definitely deserves to be in wide release, too.

At the start, we see the artistic Sarah (Caplan) as she works on her black and white drawings. We learn that she's uncomfortable about moving in with her guitarist boyfriend, Kevin (Arend). Her sister, Beth (Brie), is helping her move. The tension that Sarah feels over such a relationship "big step" is overt, but we also pick up on the dynamic between Sarah and her sister: Beth is clearly the upbeat, sort of vanilla, sibling who has her act together, whereas Sarah is just living her life with no real plan or goal. Their interaction doesn't just provide plot exposition, it sets up the realistic vibe of the relationships - a realism we will see play out between all of the characters over time.

Beth, conveniently enough, is getting hitched to Kevin's drummer, Andrew (Starr), and all of them help Sarah and her man move in together. The problem comes at the next scene between the two men... Kevin wants to marry Sarah - when Andrew sees the ring, he suggests that Kev propose on stage, at their next gig. After a series of failed warnings, the guitarist pops the question in front of everybody, and the flighty, barely-reading-for-cohabitation Sarah just walks away.

The next part of the movie follows the aftermath: Kevin is a slowly-collapsing trainwreck, but he hasn't left the band - he and Andrew are still trying to work together; Beth is annoyed that her sister runs away from "responsibility" and "adulthood;" meanwhile, Sarah just wants to keep living her life the way she wants to. After all this trauma, she tries to reconnect with Jonathan (Webber), her potential stalker, and we follow everything that comes after this...

When I was choosing how to watch it, I checked out Amazon, iTunes, Youtube, and cable. The off-site indie films I review are guaranteed fairness, but I will give whatever links there are to buy/rent it online. I knew where to go, but I never use iTunes anymore. I was surprised, then, that they snagged Rotten Tomatoes' reviews; it's a really smart move, and I figured they'd promote their own "reviewing community" exclusively.

I was surprised by something else: one reviewer, Lisa Schwarzbaum, of the literary titan Entertainment Weekly, wrote that this film is "plotless." She was one of three review quotes highlighted by iTunes, and when I went over to RT, she wasn't even in the first dozen reviews on the main page for Save. As I read on, seems like few critics flat-out loved it, and a surprising number bagged on it. At least, in ET I have to think that they don't know what a character study is.

I've been looking forward to Save the Date for a little while. AV Club, a site I read regularly, was promoting the movie, and I liked what I heard about it. I was familiar with just one of the leads - Martin Starr - and had only heard great things about the rest of the cast: Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Mark Webber...

Wait, that's wrong, I had seen the second/third male lead, Geoffrey Arend, before - but it took a while for me to realize it.

My three/four jobs kept me pretty busy as 2012 wound down - lawyering 60 hours a week, then my photography, then my writing, and then this blog. So I looked forward to going to the theater and to see Save on New Year's Day. You may know already that it was out of NYC-area theaters just two weeks after its December 16th release, and that I angrily promised to watch it by other means and provide a review.

In fact, I was a little foolhardy when I did, as I started late on the night of the 1st, and had to race to watch the picture again after working at my lawyer job until 9PM the following night. I don't usually get so tired that my standards drop or that I don't notice problems in pace, tone, character, predictability, style. So why do I bristle at the 44% on RT, a site I alternately use, ignore, or actively dismiss?

Because saying this was plotless... Steel Magnolias doesn't open with narration about how a mother wants a grandchild, or how she's worried about the lives of people who work in a local salon, or how her [SPOILERS] daughter is struggling with diabetes and a desire to live a normal life (e.g., have a baby) [END SPOILERS]. In Mohan's film, as with other pictures, something big happens in the first 15-20 minutes. Some pictures play out the result of that big event, for example: 20m into Die Hard, we know the cop has to save his wife.

They can't all be The Matrix, opening with dialogue that tells you that the characters played by Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Ann Moss are people with powerful enemies. Not even every romantic comedy starts like When Harry Met Sally, where the beginning tells you that you're watching the end-point that you'll be returning to in 90+ minutes. So calling Save the Date "plotless" is to miss the point of the movie itself - and of all of this type, of which there are many.

And Save the Date was very funny. More importantly, it was actually touching. The atmosphere had far more of an indie mentality than I am used to from romantic comedies, much more so than I could have expected. I was never bored, nor felt talked-down-to, and I never felt like the film-makers were bullshitting me with the situations and roles it presented.

All the characters are treated respectfully. Kevin does get the least of it. He might even come off as a joke, but I guess it's fine to sacrifice one part when you write the others with sufficient depth. And, honestly, haven't all of us in real life either dated or known somebody who completely handles heartbreak in the worst possible ways? In terms of believability or fairness, then, Save the Date was an honest, refreshing, balanced work about relationships. This pic and Sironia have, together, renewed my faith in the romantic comedy as a genre - and that's saying a hell of a lot...

Throughout its 90-odd minute running time, Save impressed me with very smart dialogue. Many pictures stumble when they're dialogue-heavy, but this pic did as good a job as my favorite film noir works in providing people with snappy banter that also develops even the minor characters.

I haven't watched a minute of Community or Mad Men, so I only know that lots of internet geeks adore Brie to pieces. she's clearly very good at her job. I like her performance a lot - beyond her looks - and I love that her role is one that typically is a vehicle for unite the audience in dislike.

Again, the folks in this film - even the screw-up guitarist ex - aren't reduced to simple villain status. Rather, they are each portrayed as real people. Instead of seeing the attractive woman that you want to watch fall down, we get a genuine sense of Beth's best and worst qualities; she both pushes and tries to nurture her sis. StD matches the way that real-life people tend to know their lovers, best friends, or siblings. Cracks in the character are sort incidental: like Beth is the only cast member without a job, that I remember... I guess it's either edited footage, or they didn't mind hitting cliches with her.

One odd thing I noticed, though, is that sometimes Brie's delivery feels like it's meant for the stage. It's not something that happens often, nor am I complaining, and it's seldom at play in any moment with Caplan (or the fantastic scene with her and Andrew at a Jewish temple)... Whether or not you pick up on my personal observation, as well, the whole film wouldn't hold up well if a less-skilled actress had taken the role.

I also haven't seen Lizzy Caplan in anything before. She's very charismatic, and does fine work as the main female lead that this story focuses on. Whether it's her efforts to stay out of a family fight, or the fact that she's now single and deeply looking to "reconnect" with someone, Caplan sells the hell out of Sarah's confusion, hurt, fear, and turmoil. Lizzy is asked to do a lot here - everyone is, which is as much a pleasure as the fact that this pic is not about two dudes - and she pays it off brilliantly in scene after scene.

Martin Starr is in great form, as well. The last time I saw him was in 6 Month Rule, and Save gives him a role that feels more fleshed-out and "free" than what he got in 6MR. It's surprising, because he was largely marginalized in Rule, whereas Date gives him much more impact, in a role where his part has to frequently have difficult/awkward "real" conversations with people.

I also like that the relationship drama is never overplayed. There are no sudden changes that just drag the picture on, or worse, breakups for the sake of creating drama for the final act. I suppose the proposal scene might be the most "typical" romantic dramady scene - it (and Kevin's progression) reminds me most of High Fidelity, in fact - but this moment still fits the genre and is used in the same way that exaggeration is used to tell a joke: there's one lynchpin that holds it all together, and it's over-the-top, but (as with a good joke) it sets up everything that follows and also plays off of everything that came before.

There's a nice contrast between the actions of the two lead females - the real subjects here - and the three men who are caught up in their stories. Better still, they're handled in a way that doesn't feel untrue to any of the characters and their respective situations. Again, the proposing boyfriend who gets dumped is left on the sidelines, and he follows many bad choices and shame-spirals afterwards. But he's there more as a plot-starter than as a real person, so I'm fine with it...

Save the Date is also one of the few romantic comedies that actually shows mature relationships in a believable way. It's not her fault if she can't commit to someone, and it's not his fault if some other guy gets angry or jealous or cocky. What we see is simply the way that people interact with each other - not always Cary Grant-style smooth, and not always flawed to the point of cinematic stupidity or villainy. StD never feels inauthentic in how strangers and siblings play off each other.

In short, the people herein (as in real life): make odd sexual compliments to each other; embarrass themselves in public and try to cover it up; tease and annoy each other on purpose; get into fights while also trying to handle each other appropriately; and/or give up ground because they're drunk, or shy, or scared, or tired...

Save is also beautifully-filmed, whether it's in the shot composition or the camerawork. The picture I use below: Caplan in her dark clothes, with Brie in red, over a grey sky... many moments here look quite beautiful. I'm a photographer, I seldom shoot video, so I can only comment on this so much, but I do think it's a standout strength of this picture. In particular, the shots of the big dog - and Sarah's lingering stare when she's told "good luck!" in between them - are excellent. I was equally surprised and impressed by the set of potent bombshells handed to the two sisters' parents.

The very end was also nice, not explaining for a purely narrative purpose what the outcome is. Instead, we are shown everything that we need to see about the characters as they approach that moment. And from that point on, we can figure out what follows because of the careful attention given to this character story and these specific roles...

Flaws? Well, as stated above, Beth needed to have a job. Everyone knows a band will tour and record music, and everyone else has clearly has a profession. It's not quite clear if Sarah is really drifting through life - that's my guess - but it would've been supported better if Beth complained that Sarah never submits her work anywhere. Or if we'd seen more signs of Sarah not growing up than her fear of commitment. Certain moments in scenes could've been cut, though I'm not complaining much about that since this is a character piece; I'm just saying that Sarah is really into complimenting Jonathan's c--k. And Kevin's long absences and scenes of pathos nearly make you wonder why he's still in the story at all. None of these are massive issues, just little flaws/issues I noticed along the way...

The music overall is very good, but the closing song, "Wolfbird," is freaking great. It's worth sitting through the credits to hear it. You will surely, as I was, flash back to the first band scene where we see Jonathan try to pick up Sarah, not knowing that Kevin is her live-in boyfriend. I'm glad Jonathan wasn't a cardboard cut-out, but that was par for the course, here.

Speaking of Kevin, Geoffrey Arend is the same guy who was in the very beginning and very end of Super Troopers. Yes, Arend was the poor "College Kid 3" who ate all the drugs in the stoners' car. It's odd that the picture gives him a near-total downward arc, but he and the script at least do a fair job of not dehumanizing all his loserific decision-making. Kevin is, from the start, a background character, and never gets enough time to give him real importance.

I know that the cast is made up of 5 people and I'm leaving out Mark Webber, but he fits the role so well, I honestly need give him no further compliment. Everyone involved in Save the Date should be proud of themselves. They created a realistic, fun, funny and effective romantic dramady/character piece. I really liked it, and I'm willing to claim that many professional reviewers are idiotic for passing this over, and I suggest you go enjoy it, too.


  1. I'm not the kind of guy to be my own commenter and whatnot, I just thought I'd add that I might trim this review down a little over the weekend. I did not expect to write just shy of 2400 words for this review!

  2. Thank you so much for writing this - we made this film for people like you, and it's great to hear that people are still discovering it. I also totally agree with you regarding their jobs, etc. In earlier versions of the film there were references to the fact that Martin's character was a graphic designer, but I could never find a way to weave in their professional lives in with their personal lives in a way that didn't feel sandwiched in. Regardless, I'm so glad you enjoyed the film + thanks so much for spreading the word!

    1. It was my pleasure! I gladly stump for movies that are different, show a certain care for artistic sensibilities, and that don't talk down to the audience. The movie had all those qualities and more! I wish you, the crew, and the cast great (if delayed) success for this picture, and your work in the future...


Chime in!