Sundance 2012: Modern romance bites back in bittersweet 'Save the Date'

save-the-date

Five young people trying to make heads or tails of love, life, and their place in it. There’s the conflicted heroine dating the lead singer of a rock band. There’s her older sister, who’s totally absorbed planning her dream wedding to the band’s long-haired drummer. And there’s the super-nice guy who wants our conflicted heroine all for himself. It almost sounds like something from Reality Bites, but Save the Date, which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival, is the movie Ben Stiller’s 1994 paen to Gen-X neuroses could and should have been. Director and co-writer Michael Mohan’s mined his own love life for this grounded tale of biting reality. “I really identified with the characters because I found myself tending to run away from relationships that are good because I’m afraid that things are going to go sour,” says Mohan, who, it should be noted, is now happily married. “My own personal fear that relationships that are good will turn out bad is not just my fear; it’s the fear of our generation.”

Lizzy Caplan plays Sarah, a happy but uninspired book-store employee whose rapidly accelerating relationship to Kevin (Geoffrey Arend) causes her to put on the breaks, opening the door for Jonathan (Mark Webber) to attempt to sweep her off her feet with random acts of puppy-dog kindness. Community’s Alison Brie is Beth, the responsible sister obsessed with obtaining the marital bliss and emotional security she thinks her parents enjoy, and Martin Starr is her put-upon fiancé staring down the barrel of Forever. “The next time I’m going to be alone will be when Beth dies or I die,” he laments to his music buddy. “Bummer.”

There’s not an Ethan Hawke or a Winona Ryder in the cast, but that’s also Mohan’s secret weapon. “They’re real people,” says Mohan, referring to the collection of familiar faces previously most famous for playing quirky sidekicks. “They look like my friends. In every other role I’ve seen them do, they brought a sense of nuance and real specificity to something that could be otherwise flat. You look at Martin in Adventureland and Geoffrey in films like 500 Days of Summer. This is my dream cast. To me, they are giant stars.”

Brie, who drew upon her own older sister’s nuptials to inform her character, loved the script, which Mohan collaborated on with graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown and Egan Reich. “The relationship you have with your sister is so different than even your closest girlfriends,” explains Brie. “You can really be cruel to them because they know that you love them unconditionally. You’re probably your worst and best with them.”

Save the Date captures authentic depictions of both extremes, showcasing each characters’ foibles but endearing them to the audience to the extent that there’s no true antagonist. “You can relate to different characters upon different viewings,” Brie says. “I know that even from the point of when I read the script the first time to when we were shooting it, I was already maybe identifying with a different character. ‘That reminds me of so and so.’ Or ‘That reminds me of me at this other time in my life.’”

That’s no accident. Mohan intentionally “softened the edges of the characters” — confident that the actors would fill in the gaps. As the lovesick marine biologist who cooks lasagna and finds lost cats, Webber took that as a challenge. “On the page, there was the risk of him being that super-sweet nice guy,” says Webber, who has three films this year at Sundance, including The End of Love, which he wrote and directed. “You have to walk the line between being too saccharine or too adorable. So it was fun to bring a certain quality to the character and I feel like everyone did that in the movie and maybe that’s why it’s resonating with people not like a typical romantic-comedy or dramedy.

Oh, but please don’t call it a romantic comedy, and definitely don’t call it a dramedy. “I don’t like romantic comedies [because in them] girls are not supposed to feel complete unless they’re with a man,” says Mohan. “And the word ‘dramedy’… [shivers]. I’d like to just consider it a modern love story.”

Well, there still is a certain amount of bold comedy, but it’s not broad, even if Webber was asked to play it big in one particular scene. When Jonathan and Sarah decide to take their blossoming relationship to the next level, he clinches the title of perfect boyfriend when Mr. Happy announces his presence with authority. Settle down, ladies: Webber’s boxers-concealed co-star resides in the props department. “Look, getting and maintaining an erection on cue is pretty impossible in a room full of people, including some of your close friends,” laughs Webber. “So there was stand-in boner for me that I had to strap on. It was slightly painful and totally embarrassing. Let me just say that was one of the most interesting moments in my career.”

At the end of Reality Bites, Ethan tells Winona that he loves her, just as you knew he would, but Mohan’s “modern love story” isn’t inclined to submit to our romantic whims or untangle the messiness of life. So who does Sarah end up with — if anyone at all? Will Beth and Andrew get married? And will the band stay together, man? Well, don’t expect happily-ever-after. “I am extremely happily married, but one thing my wife taught me was that there’s no The One. I believe there’s multiple. And ultimately, I think the message of the movie is that you just have to stay open. You can’t close yourself off to the really amazing things that falling in love provides.”

Read more:
Sundance: ‘V/H/S’ has scary real-life moment
Sundance star portraits: Day 5
Sundance 2012 lineup


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