Galt Niederhoffer deconstructs love in 'The Romantics'

Film Critic

On the eve of Sundance, writer-director Galt Niederhoffer was redefining "down to the wire," working on the wedding scene in her first feature film, "The Romantics," which premiered at the festival on Wednesday. It's a significant dramatic moment when groom Tom, played by Josh Duhamel, receives something close to a message from on high. Lord knows he needs help, the dude may be at the altar but he's still conflicted.

On the one hand, there's his bride Lila, a golden girl played by Anna Paquin; on the other is his ex and the maid of honor Laura, played by Katie Holmes. The man in the middle, meanwhile, is a mess of complications and contradictions, and the weather report calls for rain.

"The wedding scene is difficult to cut and not lose any of the growing tension as you move toward Tom's epiphany," said Niederhoffer, sitting in a stairwell talking on her cell during a rare break from the editing room where she'd been holed up for weeks. "The goal has been to cut for pacing and movement and entertainment; it's getting better in every way and the third act," that would be where we find the wedding scene, "has gotten terrific."

Niederhoffer has a lot on the line. She started a production company when she was just 19, so, roughly 15 years ago. Since then, she has graduated from Harvard, written two novels -- "The Romantics" is an adaptation of the most recent one, which she finished in 2007 while pregnant with her second child. And that producing gig? Well, it's substantial, with some 24 films to her credit, including "Prozac Nation" and "Grace Is Gone." Failure has just never been part of the plan.

The cast she pulled together for this film is substantial as well. Besides Duhamel, Holmes and Paquin, there's Malin Akerman, new "Glee" star Dianna Agron, Adam Brody (probably best known as Seth from "The O.C."), Elijah Wood and Candice Bergen, among others.

The story is steeped in the philosophical tradition of the romantics, the age of enlightenment brand, so a more intellectualized version of things rather than the syrupy stuff that "romantic" tends to mean in film today. Though it is set in modern times -- East Coast, perfectly weathered seaside retreat, Ivy League kids -- it has that feel of old money, beautiful and bored youth, great clothes and gin-laced conversations, which gives the proceedings a Gatsby-esque style.

Niederhoffer's drops an esoteric examination within a concrete form that everyone could relate to, a way to look at love through different prisms that would seem neither overly important nor vapid. So, she's not only a romantic but a dreamer too.

"The film is about reclaiming the idea of inspiration, taking romance back from the commodified version," said the director, "like Beethoven taking what had been a religious euphoria in music and deconstructing it in the most modern ways."

Though she is playing with the philosophical underpinnings of love, the story is an age-old one. Laura and Lila were college roommates, once best friends, now they find they are uneasy around each other since Tom has chosen his forever with Lila over Laura. But Tom turns out to be not the only broken link in the chain. As the old college crowd gathers for the "I do's," what unfolds over the next 12 or so hours is really a debate about the relative value of emotional and rational love, the visceral versus the pragmatic, and which should win out in the end.

Within the building thunderheads, Laura is the storm, Lila the calm.

The film unfolds in three acts -- dusk, night, morning. There will be much drinking and talking and sex -- both of the romantic and not so romantic sort -- and a wedding dress ripped and repaired. But the relationships tested by the night? Well that's something else again.

"There was a point when my life was all emotion," Niederhoffer said, "and what I am trying to get to here is whether that is merely the folly of youth or is that pure, true emotion. Human beings are forever torn between head and heart."

That head-heart battle, those two opposing forces, found a way into the filmmaking process. "I had that experience with my actors and collaborators, I keep falling in love with them again and again," and, no doubt, the inverse -- falling out of love at times as well.

Her years in the producing trenches helped. "You are schooled and hopefully skilled in the variables of management and business acumen, the puzzle of it all, the gamesmanship," she said. "I think a strong director is able to have complete awareness of that but also be totally myopic." To take in what you need to, to let go of the rest.

The film itself has a dreamlike quality to it, an elegance coursing through the dialogue, the performances, the look. There is a particularly telling scene early in the morning of what is supposed to be Lila's wedding day. Holmes and Paquin's characters finally face off, all the past conflicts and the current woes laid bare. It's mesmerizing to watch, infused with all the heat of a catfight and all the cool of an academic debate, you can imagine it as the manifestation of a debate that has raged in the director's head for years.

By now, "The Romantics" has spent a few days in the hands of the Sundance audiences, Niederhoffer has ridden out the director Q&A that follows the screenings, the distributors who will decide whether to buy the film have started to weigh in. The producer side of Niederhoffer knows the challenges she faces, knows that getting a film made is only the beginning. She's as philosophical as ever.

"Filmmaking can be the best job in the world, you get to use every part of the brain, all your heart," she said. "Now if it just doesn't kill your soul."

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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