Truly, Madly, Shitty

March 22, 2010

Why did I watch a mostly forgotten high concept romantic comedy from 20 years ago last night? I don’t know. Curiosity about Anthony Minghella’s first feature film, maybe, although I’m not really a fan of his writing. More likely it was curiosity about this particular high concept – I am a sucker for a good supernatural romantic comedy. Unfortunately, despite several BAFTA awards and an excellent performance by Juliet Stevenson, this is not a good supernatural romantic comedy.

I’d been meaning to watch it for awhile now based on I can’t remember whose suggestion. One of the plays that is bumping around my noggin trying to get written is about a woman who falls in love with a ghost, so I figured it might be useful to see what else is out there based on a similar theme. If you haven’t seen Truly, Madly, Deeply, it’s about a woman (Juliet Stevenson) who is grieving over the (recent? The film never makes that clear) death of her beloved cellist boyfriend (Alan Rickman). Despite a loving and supportive group of acquaintances, she is unable to move beyond her grief, and one night while she is sadly playing the piano, Rickman reappears after playing a duet with her. At first it’s all great, she’s thrilled to have her man back, but then he starts doing weird ghost stuff and she falls in love with a guy who teaches disabled kids instead.

The first twenty minutes of the film are an extraordinarily moving portrait of Stevenson’s grief – she’s wonderful. But once Rickman shows up, the film goes off the rails. First of all, the parameters of their relationship before his death are never explained: how long had they been together? How long has he been gone? At first, she’s thrilled that he’s back, despite a couple of cruel ghost-y jokes he plays on her (disappearing and then sneaking up on her), and they have a few adorable scenes together. Then it just gets stupid. Rickman starts inviting over weird ghost friends to watch old movies. They move the furniture around and are generally annoying, and the relationship between Stevenson and Rickman begins to suffer, mainly because he acts like a ghostly buffoon. In the meantime, she meets a cute non-dead dude and begins to see him, except she feels guilty and awkward because of her jerk ghost boyfriend at home. Maybe it’s all meant as a British parody of Ghost, but considering the emotional first twenty minutes, it certainly doesn’t work that way.

It’s all very frustrating, because it’s such a promising premise, and there is quite a lot to like about the film. But Minghella’s script is trivial where it should be poignant, and rather than being charmingly quirky, its zanyness only serves to diffuse the film’s themes. He’s too busy filling his movie with distracting nonsense when he should be developing the relationship between Stevenson and Rickman.

It would not be difficult to turn Truly, Madly, Deeply into a good movie. The themes are there. The premise is there. The performances are there. The point is that Stevenson needs to move on and love again in the world of the living – presumably, Rickman comes back to help her make that transition. But what’s with all the weird ghost buddies? There are plenty of challenges and constraints to be found in a relationship between a dead man and a living woman – why did Minghella feel the need to clutter up his script with all kinds of stupid business? Why doesn’t he trust and respect his characters or, for that matter, people who may actually be grieving for a loved one? If I watched this movie after losing a loved one, I wouldn’t feel moved, I’d feel furious and insulted.

Oh well. At least it’s a lesson in how NOT to write a romantic comedy about a ghost.

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