Only You: Norman Jewison’s Romantic Comedy

I spent eleven blissful days in Canada, as a guest of the Toronto Film Festival, arguably the best festival in the world in terms of overall quality and program diversity.

As the restored version of George Cukor’s 1964 Oscar winning musical, My Fair Lady, received its world premiere there, I found myself “in demand” by local TV and radio stations, talking about classic Hollywood cinema, of which Cukor was one of the best and most accomplished proponents. My new biography of this legendary director, George Cukor, Master of Elegance (William Morrow) was recently published to coincide with the theatrical and video rerelease of My Fair Lady, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary.

What struck me in these interviews is the asymmetric flow of communication between Canada and the U.S., how much Canadians know about–and how extensively they consume–American popular culture. And, conversely, how little we Americans know about Canadian culture. Quick: Name the last Canadian picture you have seen.

In the Toronto Festival, you can see anything from the most commercial Hollywood films to the most obscure and esoteric Russian or Iranian products. I saw a number of American premieres, shown in the Gala and Special Presentation sections, including Michael Tolkin’s disappointing The New Age, Norman Jewison’s uneven Only You, Frank Darabont’s old-fashioned The Shawshank Redemption, Woody Allen’s entertaining Bullets Over Broadway, Chris Menges’ intimately absorbing Second Best, all of which I will review when they open theatrically.

Only You, Jewison’s romantic comedy, is a well-made fluff, a handsome trifle that is as easily watched, as it’s easily forgettable. In l987, Jewison made the frivolous, but extremely well acted, comedy Moon Struck, which won Cher an Oscar. He is now trying to recapture the magic–and fortune–of that movie.

The huge success of Sleepless in Seattle last year, and the moderate appeal of It Could Happen to You this year, are used by Hollywood executives as “scientific” evidence that the American public is starved for romantic comedies and love stories.

In its romantic determinism, Only You shares the central thematic premise of Sleepless in Seattle, namely that out there, there’s only one true soul mate made for us. In actuality, however, the film is more an homage to–and attempt to remake–classic films of the l950s, specifically William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, David Lean’s Summertime, and Three Coins in the Fountain. All of these movies were fairy tales set in a storybook Italy so gorgeous that after seeing the movie, your instinctive reaction is to call your travel agent and book a flight to Rome or Venice (not a bad idea!).

Like most recycled movies, Only You smacks of self-conscious and calculated commercial considerations, cashing in on the public’s willingness to uncritically swallow cornball romance. The chief problem is that the stars of Only You, the talented Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr., are not exactly magnetic leading actors. While Tomei has excelled in supporting roles (remember her turn in My Cousin Vinny), she lacks the big charisma of the Hepburns, be it Katharine (Summertime) or Audrey (Roman Holiday). This means that the filmmakers have to work harder to win our sympathy for the characters and to rely more heavily on the spectacular scenery–a most effective campaign for Italian tourism.

But what is the movie about? Does it really matter?

All her life, the incurably romantic Faith (Tomei), a Pittsburgh schoolteacher, has believed that her man of destiny will be named Damon Bradley (she was told so by a fortuneteller). As the story begins, Faith is about to marry a dull bourgeois, a podiatrist named Dwayne (John Benjamin Hickey). But an unexpected telephone call from an old friend of Dwayne’s complicates matters. Expressing his regrets for being unable to attend the wedding as he’s leaving for Venice that very day, he mentions almost in passing that his name is Damon.

Without any hesitation, Faith rushes to the airport in her wedding gown, while her best friend Kate (Bonnie Hunt) follows with her luggage. Kate, who’s unhappy in her long-term marriage, suspecting that her husband Larry (Fisher Stevens) is having an affair, flies to Italy with Faith to get away, but also to see if her lifelong romantic dream will come true.

This is all you need to know in order to decide whether you wish to see Only You, a movie that encourages us to hang on to our dreams and to always follow our hearts instead of our minds. I wish I could recommend the picture more heartily. Tomei, who looks here like Liza Minnelli, is adequate, but she is not great. She and her partner, Robert Downey Jr., are ultimately defeated by a sitcom that lacks originality and/or sophistication.

Nonetheless, Jewison is a shrewd director who knows that the only way the public will eat this candy-box is by emphasizing the spectacular production and cinematography of the famed picturesque country–Venice’s bridges and gondolas, Rome’s fabled cityscapes and coffee shops.

While watching this concoction, I found myself reminiscing about my own romantic escapades in Italy, as an undergraduate student, some 20 years ago. Only You convinced me that it’s time to go back. Soon.