The modern romantic comedy is a joke. The genre fosters the fantasy of charming men who stalk ex-lovers through airports (creepy), come to the church to break up your wedding (annoying), and Peter Gabriel fans who are willing to stand stoically in the rain with boom boxes all in the name of undying love (also creepy).
Twenty Million People, an independent comedy that will show at BendFilm in October, asks the next intuitive question of the rom-com: What happens after the big kiss? After the music swells and the leads finally admit their quirky flaws and their love for each other? With a healthy dosage of jaded cynicism and what nearly every rom-com lacks (e.g., reality), writer, director, producer and actor Michael Ferrell asks how it can be that in New York City, a metro area of nearly 20 million, it's nearly impossible to find someone you're genuinely interested in—and the mess that can come after you do.
The film follows Brian (played by Ferrell), an ironic mustache-hating coffee shop barista and aspiring filmmaker (definitely no Hugh Grant), who finally meets a girl nearly as apathetic about love as he is—Ashley, a waitress and stand up comedian with an easy-come easy-go sense of relationships (definitely no Julia Roberts). When she disappears into the abyss of New York without so much as a returned text message (see another John Cusack movie, Serendipity), Brian enlists the help of his recently heartbroken best buddy and his alcohol-induced imaginary friends—two characters from the last lovesick romantic comedy he watched—who serve as an an unattainable standard for the perfect relationship.
Borrowing from the "Friends" and "How I Met Your Mother" model of serial dating in New York City, Twenty Million People attempts to subvert the clichés of the typical romantic comedy while still providing a romantically happy ending. It is a tall order, and one that the film serves up hurriedly, but decently well.
In fact, what the film does well, it does excellently. Capturing the letdowns, the booze-induced stupidity and the epic hangovers that come with the modern world of dating. The film tries to be honest, especially in its lead character, Brian, who often becomes the antagonist in his own story.
Moreover, when I think the film was made in 12 days on a budget of nearly nothing, it takes on a new charm, one that most independent flicks try for, but don't always achieve. The film also takes on the very real and very relevant topic of technology and romance. The film is peppered with the appropriate semantics of texting, Facebook un-friendings and the boredom that comes with being overconnected.
While there are moments of reality-based brilliance—mostly in the casual and sometimes truthfully awkward dialogue—the world of the film fluctuates between the relatable realities of dating and, as Brian would say, a world of fictional assholes. The film generally has good intentions, but loses some of its charm to clichés and overwriting.
That's the downfall of trying to portray "real" people in fiction: If they don't turn into caricatures it's easy to get bored. When a film starts to feel too much like reality, it starts to lose its attraction, and Twenty Million People is trying to subvert the wish fulfillment of the cliché rom-com, while still trying to provide it. Ferrell floods the screen with quirky characters and clunky jokes trying to show us that the rom-com format is not realistic, but gives up half way through, playing out the predictable relationship hindered by only a few minimal personality flaws and hiccups.
"Twenty Million People"
Dir. Michael Ferrell
Screening at BendFilm
The 10-year anniversary of the BendFilm Festival is fast approaching, a weekend celebration that brings some of the nation's best independent films and filmmakers to our theaters. During the next month, the Source staff will be reviewing docs, shorts and feature films in writhing anticipation of the weekend-long festival. BendFilm takes place Oct. 10-13. For the full festival lineup and to purchase tickets, visit bendfilm.org and stay-tuned to the Source for our continuing film reviews.