As Galt Niederhoffer's comedy of no manners begins, seven college friends, now closing in on their 30s, come together for the wedding of two of their clique at the bride-to-be's beachfront family home. Once dubbed "The Romantics" for their share-and-share-alike dating patterns, the pals reunite for a flashback to sophomore-year bad behavior.
Their odd number is the problem. Some — Malin Åkerman and Jeremy Strong, Adam Brody and Rebecca Lawrence — have coupled off, accustomed to each other if not noticeably blissful. Maid of honor Laura (Katie Holmes) arrives solo. The bride's brother, Chip (Elijah Wood), attempts to edge in, but she barely notices, gazing past the speck of a bow-tied toper to fix her sights on Alpha Tom (Josh Duhamel), her on-again, off-again beloved and the reluctant groom preparing to walk down the aisle with her former roommate, Lila (Anna Paquin).
A rehearsal dinner scene, with cuts from speakers leading toasts and making asses of themselves to routine, "Um, awkward" reaction shots, is a relief — the movie can't get any worse from here. After the grown-ups are tucked into bed, the house and grounds belong to the "kids" for one last bacchanal before "I do"; liberation is signified in a sudden round of drunken PG-13 night swimming.
Up to here, these Romantics have been charming enough to make one wish them, collectively, the fate of that other Romantic, Percy B. Shelley. Returning to land, characters start to distinguish themselves from the mob organism, switching partners and drifting through the adjacent properties. Holmes and Duhamel are the center of the movie, but Åkerman and Brody's duet is the best — she's very funny as the actress who has squandered her close-up years in straight-to-DVD horror movies, acquiring a déclassé slouch and a weekend coke habit. Watching them turn each other on by pretending they've still got everything ahead of them is a pleasure.
This is Niederhoffer's directorial debut. An established film producer and novelist, she published The Romantics in 2008 — it's now back as a tie-in paperback. Her story is after something — the way that the memory of college freedom haunts our attempts at "settling down," specifically in the privileged classes. (The Romantics' pedigree is clearly Ivy League.) It is uncertain, though, how this material is served by disheveled cinematography, shooting handheld on the Hi-8 camcorder I had in high school, apparently editing on two VCRs, and flooding the mix with Forever 21 dressing-room music.
When you're driving Candice Bergen to the North Fork set from East Hampton for a wholly useless walk-on, the murky visuals can only be a pose, just like the costuming, as the film's celebrity cast models the "raw, distressed" look of mumblecore overstock (they were all better handled in their recent J. Crew catalog shoot). Niederhoffer — who writes sharper dialogue than fellow Harvard slummer Andrew Bujalski — is subverting her material; a movie called The Romantics, about friends falling in love with and over each other, needs exultant images to seduce us into their mess and to ennoble the decisions they're up against.
Foremost of those decisions is how important, and supportable, romance is — if pursuing it is necessarily a decision between the passionate-but-finite love affair (De Vigny's "Let us love what we shall never see twice ...") or the pragmatic relationship, tended to like paying the bills. This question about the possibility of adult Romanticism is reduced to Tom waffling between his comfortable future with dowried Lila and nights of tempestuous sex with Laura — the sex rather easily equated with True Love (it apparently "inspires" Laura to write submissions to The Paris Review).
The only case for Lila is security, but though Tom's poor-boy-with-his-nose-against-the-glass position is discussed, it doesn't register in anything Duhamel does; nor does Laura's alleged force-of-nature wildness — not Holmes' forte, presuming she has one. None of this keeps The Romantics from playing as an elementary game of who-gets-whom musical chairs, involving nasty behavior among pretty and thoroughly unconvincing aesthetes, but it's fatuous dinner theater next to, say, James Ivory's The City of Your Final Destination, where the high-culture references were used to reveal souls, not as accessories. When Tom holds up the text of "Ode to a Nightingale" on his iPhone as a mating call, the reference registers as John Cusack, not John Keats.