Let's focus for a moment, if we can, on the positive things about The Romantics, an otherwise unremarkable and, at times, aggressively formulaic film about young adults saying farewell to their college selves at the wedding of a friend.
Never mind, for a moment, how it pales in comparison to two other recent films: Rachel Getting Married (2008) and Margot at the Wedding (2007), to be precise. And forget, if you can, how thoroughly predictable so much of The Romantics is.
No, let's home in on its best moments: specifically, the long scenes involving either Katie Holmes or Anna Paquin. They're meaty, emotionally truthful and surprising, thanks to the alternately raw and supremely contained performances by Holmes and Paquin.
The actresses play best friends, Laura and Lila. Lila (Paquin) is getting married at her parents' Long Island spread; Laura (Holmes), her long-time roommate, is her maid of honor. One catch: Lila is marrying Tom (Josh Duhamel), the guy that Laura was deeply involved with in college, before Lila swept him away with both her charms and the promises of her parents' fortune.
The catch (and it is wholly unsurprising) is that Tom, the groom, isn't sure he made the right decision. He still has feelings for Laura. Once that's established in the script that writer-director Galt Niederhoffer adapted from her own novel, the potential paths this story can take seem pretty limited. But then so is the film.
But there are moments: like the one in which Laura confronts Tom after the rehearsal dinner, the night before the wedding, about why he broke her heart. Duhamel's Tom is the kind of pretty-boy jock who is used to getting what he wants and who believes it's his prerogative to have it both ways if that's what he desires. But Laura sets him straight in a scene that's blistering, thanks to Holmes.
The same is true when Tom reveals his indecisiveness to Lila. Paquin calmly flays him with words; she makes it clear that this is not something she'll put up with and that he needs to get his head on straight and get on with it.
And, eventually, there's the showdown between Paquin, secure in her rightness, and Holmes, who's been playing second-fiddle to Lila for as long as they've known each other. It's a terrific encounter, full of snap and bite as real feelings lead to sharp, pain-inflicting words. These two young actresses might as well be quietly spitting razors at each other. It's not a screaming fight - but it definitely is war.
Unfortunately, there's little else in The Romantics that rises to this level. Too little of this film deals with this unhappy triangle.
Instead, Niederhoffer spends far too much time on the interplay between the rest of the wedding party, two married couples played by Adam Brody, Rebecca Lawrence, Jeremy Strong and Malin Ackerman. After the rehearsal dinner, much drinking and a half-assed skinny dip (half-assed in the sense that they swim in their underwear), they switch partners for easily predicted hijinx - except that none of them wind up in bed.
Paquin is also given a black-sheep brother played by Elijah Wood, who assays the role as though he expected there to be more bad behavior for him to enact. She also has a sister who has an unsurprisingly destructive encounter with Paquin's wedding dress. And her mother is played by the comically inventive Candice Bergen, who is given criminally little to do.
So, yes, The Romantics has its minor pleasures. But they are too few and far between to warrant sitting through the entire film.