Imagine Me & You is a frothy British romantic comedy that starts out promisingly and then gradually self-destructs. Scene by scene it’s witty and cute — almost too cute — like an unusually clever sitcom, but its structure undermines its central conceit. It stars Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) as Rachel, the lucky new bride of Heck (short for Hector, played by Matthew Goode from Match Point), a charming twit in the Hugh Grant mode. It’s her perfect day, every girl’s dream and all that, but as she walks down the aisle Rachel locks eyes with Luce (Lena Headey), the florist who supplied the flowers for the wedding, and they supposedly fall in love at first sight. And here, five minutes in, writer/director Ol Parker makes his first mistake: We can’t see that anything special passes between them; it just seems like they’re checking each other out. They pause, smile a little, and move on, like people do a dozen times a day, but we’re supposed to believe that it’s fate. Parker shows them both in medium-long shots, so we can’t search their faces for signs of epiphany, and he doesn’t employ the usual slo-mo or put little twinkles in their eyes or do anything else to highlight the moment. (Not that those techniques are especially honorable, but they at least get the point across.) There’s no magic, no feeling of destiny, just lust (if that), but then we’re expected to believe it was kismet. To make us trust in a notion like preordained true love — which is what love at first sight must be, since there’s no other way to justify such intuition — the film needs some zippy stylization, a sense of enchantment, but its texture is realistic, even a little dour. The film’s London, unsurprisingly, often looks grey and rainy.
Shortly after the wedding, Rachel shows up unannounced at Luce’s flower shop and invites her to dinner — ostensibly to fix her up with Heck’s friend Coop. (The names are so cute you just want to pinch them, but what do you expect from a guy named Ol?) Sparks are flying left and right, so we forgive the earlier kismetless stares and move on. We’ve seen that Rachel and Heck’s relationship is based on friendship and companionability, not passion. They’re already like an old married couple, or maybe siblings; he pees right in front of her and neither of them thinks anything of it. At dinner, when Rachel talks about growing to love a friend, transparently describing her relationship with Heck, Luce talks about the magic of love at first sight, how getting to know each other only verifies what you intuitively knew, and Rachel swoons.
So what’s the deal here? Luce is pushing 30; how could she still harbor these delusions? By the time we’re her age, most of us have learned by painful experience that it just ain’t so. Outside of romantic comedies, is there any reasonable person above the age of 20 who actually believes in love (not just lust) at first sight? Well, apparently Parker does; he says he fell in love with his wife, the actress Thandie Newton, upon their first meeting. What Parker doesn’t take into account is that thousands of men (and more than a few women) fell for Thandie Newton at first sight; she’s ethereally gorgeous — the woman who, in The Truth About Charlie, actually seemed a plausible heir to Audrey Hepburn’s swanlike grace. He just happens to be the guy who hit the jackpot and got her to love him back. Congratulations, Ol, but I fear your own good fortune may have skewed your perception of reality.
Of course, falling in love at first sight is a romantic-comedy standard, and we can often surrender our disbelief and play along even if we know it’s nonsense, but the film stacks the deck against its own intentions — it works hard to make us disbelieve it. We’re not given any real reason for Rachel to prefer Luce to Heck; we never see her verifying her intuition about Luce’s inherent wonderfulness. We learn hardly anything about Luce, and neither does Rachel. Their passion is simply treated as a given. But since we’re not shown what — apart from her being a delusional romantic — makes Luce so special, the only way the movie makes any sense is if one assumes that being with a woman is automatically better than being with a man. That ought to get Pat Robertson into a snit.
Then there’s Heck, who is smart, funny, cute, self-deprecating, thoughtful, generous, open-minded, fun to be around, too noble for his job (as a stockbroker? it’s unclear) where he has to lie to people, and concerned about how his caddish boss cheats on his fiancée. Heck is a prince among men, and Goode is so damn adorable you want to put him in your pocket. Rachel may leave Heck, but it’s hard to imagine many other women who wouldn’t want him.
Is Goode miscast, or is the problem in the way the role was written — and how much of the role was written? I think it’s all three. Goode has such presence and wit that he tends to wipe everyone else off the screen. Was Parker himself so charmed by Goode that he couldn’t resist turning the movie over to him? At first I thought, Look at Goode, stealing every scene he’s in — that’s getting in the way of us understanding what’s going on between Rachel and Luce, but then there were more and more scenes that he didn’t just steal but that were written about him and not the women, even scenes that were about nothing else but what a wonderful, loveable, decent fellow he was. It seems almost like deliberate sabotage. The movie would work a lot better if Parker had doubled Luce’s scenes with Rachel and halved Heck’s, or at least given him a single bloody flaw. His perfection would be a bit much even if the movie’s goal were just to make us love Heck, but when we’re expected to empathize with a woman who dumps him for someone she barely knows, it’s creative suicide. If Luce had been a man, there would be no sympathy for her or Rachel. She would just be a homewrecker and Rachel a slut. But Rachel’s too adorable to really do anything wrong. The movie doesn’t quite play fair with the issue of infidelity; it lets her off the hook without giving her either a justification to cheat on Heck or the moral wherewithal to restrain herself. She betrays Heck in her heart but without really cheating. In one scene, she’s just about to get down to some serious sapphicity when Heck coincidentally appears on an errand of marital kindness, and she calls off the assignation just in time.
The movie says follow your heart, but how can it justify Rachel’s doing so? She’s never done more than kiss a woman — barely that — so how do we know she won’t freak out when Luce gets her into the bedroom, and why are we supposed to get all jazzed about her throwing away her marriage for an infatuation? Maybe she’s turned off of heterosexual marriage by the dim view of it in the film — her mother Tessa (Celia Imrie from Nanny McPhee) is verbally abusive to her father Ned (Anthony Head — Giles to “Buffy” fans), who tells Rachel he had second thoughts on his wedding day and has always suspected that Tessa would leave him in a second if she met someone she really wanted to be with. But is Ned’s situation — living in constant fear of abandonment — better or worse than that of Luce’s mother, whose husband actually did leave her for another woman, turning her into a depressive shut-in?
We know that Rachel’s impetuous — she stands up and yells out “Four hundred!” at an auction where she and Heck have set themselves a limit of £200 — so we understand that she could act without thinking, but Parker sets her impulsive choice above reproach. He doesn’t suggest that Heck deserves to be left, but he’s convinced Rachel’s making the right decision for everyone. The way she’s written, though, Rachel seems like exactly the kind of girl who decides she’s a lesbian, goes off and has a fling with a woman, can’t hack it, and winds up married and pregnant six months later. But her flighty decision is the right one, and it has no repercussions — everyone’s happy at the end. Let me be perfectly clear, because in other films I’ve empathized with characters who betrayed their spouses to be with someone else, but in those stories we saw feelings grow over time; we saw that the infidelity grew out of something deeper than mere infatuation and that it had moral consequences. To follow the logic of Imagine Me & You to its deeply illogical conclusion, it would seem that anyone in a committed but less than flaming-hot relationship who spots a cutie and feels a connection should jump ship — and that if they do, they’ll find eternal happiness. And given that it’s a woman leaving her husband for another woman, the film seems to inadvertently revive the 1950s notion that homosexuality was a dangerous addiction and anyone who gave it a whirl would abandon his or her spouse and fall into a pit of iniquity. Now there’s an idea I’m nostalgic for.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 10, 2006 | Comments ()