Movies Without Pity

Endless Love: Dare Not Speak Its Name

by Ethan Alter February 14, 2014 6:00 am
<i>Endless Love</i>: Dare Not Speak Its Name

The latest version of the teen weepie Endless Love departs so completely from Scott Spencer's 1979 novel and Franco Zeffirelli's 1981 film version, it's less a remake or adaptation than a top-down reinvention. Essentially, what writer/director Shana Feste and her co-scribe Joshua Safran (a.ka. the Smash Season 2 mastermind who gave the world the glory that was Hit List) have done is taken the material and run it through the Nicholas Sparks machine, flattening out the wrinkles that made the original story vaguely interesting and delivering up the same glossy, generic pap that passes for big-screen romance these days.

On the other hand, let's not pretend that some classic is being desecrated here. While I haven't read Spencer's book, I did recently catch up with Zeffirelli's movie (which I was too young to see the first time around) and it's awful in its own way: an overheated, poorly acted (Brooke Shields's line readings should be taught in acting classes as examples of what not to do) hothouse melodrama that must have seemed dated and campy even back in 1981. More than anything, it feels like a spiritual sequel to the director's other "Young Idiots in Love" picture, the 1968 version of Romeo & Juliet in which the hormonal title characters frolicked in the buff (scenes that were big hits in my high school English class) and hastened along the end of their doomed love affair with some truly terrible decision-making.

But there are a handful of elements that distinguish it from almost every teen romance made before or since, starting with the fact that the Shields character, Jade Butterfield, is only 15 when she falls for the slightly older and far-less-wiser David Axelrod (Martin Hewitt) and welcomes her into her bed for all-night headboard-rocking sessions that unnerve even her self-proclaimed "liberal" hippie-generation parents. Neither kid proves capable of handling the intensity of their young love, especially David, who responds to being barred from the Butterfield house by setting a small fire that burns the whole place to the ground. Things only get more bonkers from there, as the amateur arsonist is locked up in a mental institution for two years before getting sprung and hightailing it to New York to take one last desperate stab at rekindling the flame of his endless love.

Now, just compare that level of craziness with the yawn-inducing arc that new David (Alex Pettyfer) plays out. The son of a working class stiff in a small Southern town, our passionate hero falls for uptown girl Jade (Gabriella Wilde), the beloved daughter of a tight-sphinctered surgeon (Bruce Greenwood) who has been groomed to follow Daddy into the medical profession ever since her older brother -- and his favorite child -- died. Sheltered for much of high school (that's right, Jade 2.0 clocks in at 17, much closer to the age of consent), Jade immediately succumbs to David's "love before all else" attitude towards life, much to the consternation of her father, who repeatedly tries to break the two up. And while the young lovers are temporarily able to thwart his efforts, eventually he gets the goods on David (he beat up a guy once, but it was the dude who his wanton mother was sleeping with, so you know, totally justified) and uses it to temporarily pry Jade away until love finally conquers all. And while a fire does eventually factor into the narrative, 1) It isn't started by David; and 2) It metaphorically represents healing rather than destruction.

In other words, Feste and Safran have taken a love story that, in its own eccentric way, defied convention and rendered it utterly safe and sappy like a Hallmark card or a kitten poster. It's a cynical, calculated move and it plays that way onscreen, failing to generate a single honest moment between the actors, most of whom couldn't seem less interested in what's going on. (Pettyfer is the biggest offender on that front, followed by Greenwood, who can occasionally be glimpsed waking up, remembering where he is and promptly falling back into autopilot mode. As for Wilde, she benefits from the fact that it would be hard to be a worse Jade than Shields, though Feste's camera still rests primarily on her lithe form rather than her emoting face.) The original Endless Love is a bad movie, yes, but there's a demented passion there that's appropriate to the characters; it's ultimately a film about the insanity of clinging to a person you'd be wiser to let go, as well as a rebuke to the "love conquers all" message that dominates so many teen romances. This new one is about little more than getting a pretty movie where pretty people suck face for two hours into theaters in time for Valentine's Day.

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