Monday, January 10, 2011

Love Story (1970) & Oliver’s Story (1978)


          The cinematic equivalent of Wonder bread, this by-the-numbers tearjerker somehow became one of the defining hits of the early ’70s, earning $100 million at a time when few movies ever hit that milestone, much less low-budget melodramas. Weirder still, when screenwriter Erich Segal was asked by Paramount to create a novel of his script as a means of drumming up pre-release hype for the film, the book became a runaway hit, eventually moving more than 20 million copies. That’s a whole lot of marketplace excitement for a movie whose opening voiceover reveals the vapidity of its narrative: “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” The answer to that question is, apparently, little more than is actually contained within the question itself, because Love Story is 90 minutes of foreplay leading to a bummer ending. Obviously millions of people bought into the thin premise of excitable rich kid Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) falling for saintly working-class girl Jenny (Ali MacGraw).
          The repetitive, plot-deficient first hour comprises chipper scenes about young love set against the rarified backdrop of the Harvard campus (trivia lovers dig the fact that Oliver was partially inspired by two of Segal’s real-life Harvard homeys, Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones). The promising glimmer of a subplot about Oliver’s uptight dad (Ray Milland) disapproving of Jenny doesn’t amount to much; after papa detaches the couple from the family teat, Jenny works as a teacher to pay Oliver’s way through law school, after which he lands a cushy job at a law firm. The only inkling of drama arrives two-thirds of the way through the film, when Jenny’s unnamed fatal illness is discovered. Yet even the main event is all hearts and flowers, because Jenny slips away without so much as a cough.
          It’s to director Arthur Hiller’s credit that the picture moves quickly even though it’s running on fumes from start to finish, because he doesn’t get much help from O’Neal or MacGraw, neither of whom summons believable emotion (O’Neal is marginally better, but MacGraw is quite awful). Only the melancholy piano theme, by composer Francis Lai, really connects, especially in the movie’s one cinematically interesting scene: After Oliver gets the bad news, he wanders city streets in a montage set to car horns and snippets from Lai’s theme. Still, it’s hard to genuinely hate Love Story, in the same way it’s hard to hate Wonder Bread: Neither pretends to be anything but a spongy mass of empty calories.
          Seven years after Love Story conquered the box office, Segal published a follow-up novel, Oliver’s Story. In the 1978 film adaptation, O’Neal and Milland reprise their roles for a threadbare narrative about Oliver trying to love again two years after the events of the first film; meanwhile, Oliver’s dad tries to draw his son into the family textile business even though Oliver is satisfied with his work as a do-gooder attorney. Poor Candice Bergen gets the thankless job of playing the woman who tries to romance grief-stricken Oliver. In trying to generate believable relationship obstacles, Segal and co-writer/director John Korty rely heavily on soap-opera tactics. Marcy (Bergen) is a rich girl who accepts class divisions without guilt, whereas Oliver is a bleeding-heart type who feels anguished about coming from money. Although Korty shoots locations well, particularly during an extended trip the lovers take to Hong Kong, he can’t surmount the absurdly contrived narrative or the severe limitations of the leading performances. Handicapped by trite characterizations, Bergen and O’Neal seem robotic. And just when the film’s portrayal of Oliver as a saint becomes insufferable, the plot contorts itself to ruin Oliver’s second chance at love. Yet whereas Love Story earned enmity by being manipulative, Oliver’s Story merely earns indifference by being pointless.

Love Story: LAME
Oliver's Story: LAME

No comments: