There is a brilliant 30-second iPhone commercial hidden in the 95-minute movie The Romantics. In writer-director Galt Niederhoffer’s adaptation of her own novel, Laura (Katie Holmes) is reunited with her college boyfriend, Tom (Josh Duhamel), at his wedding to her best friend, Lila (Anna Paquin). Laura spends the movie trying to get Tom to admit he’s marrying the wrong L, to which end she recites snippets of a Keats poem they both liked in college that Tom now claims not to remember. In a fit of passionate frustration, Laura looks up the poem on her iPhone, then sets out in search of Tom, holding her phone’s lit screen like a beacon. And there, across the massive lawn, is Tom, striding toward her with his own outstretched iPhone, Heathcliff by way of the Apple Store. Isn’t it romantic? Doesn’t it just make you want to … text someone?
As the iPhone scene suggests, The Romantics is a very pretty movie that has no idea how silly it is. As a portrait of a group of Ivy League pals coming together for a wedding straight out of WASP heaven, it could not be more appealing: the clothes, the sets, and even the mist-shrouded landscape are J.Crew-perfect (in fact, the brand created a mini Web site for the film and sponsored the premiere). The opening scene, of Lila and her equally blonde, preppy mother and sister anxiously awaiting the delivery of her wedding dress, inspires you to hope for a tart, Whit Stillman–esque satire of the lawn-party set. Unfortunately, once the characters begin speaking, you realize Niederhoffer takes these people completely seriously.
College is a time when people do take themselves extremely seriously, forming incestuous, pretentiously named cliques and assuming their actions have the import of Greek drama. “We called ourselves The Romantics,” Laura says during her rehearsal-dinner toast, oblivious to the comic absurdity of this vapid, gelled-hair and miniskirted group comparing themselves to 200-year-old British poets. But it’s one thing for Laura (Jewish in the novel but in the movie merely a writer, which apparently amounts to the same thing) to lack the self-awareness of how ridiculous she sounds, and another thing for Niederhoffer to assume we’ll find the characters nearly as deep and interesting as they find themselves.
Books like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and movies like Stillman’s Metropolitan handle similar themes far more deftly, proving that it is possible to make snotty, self-deluded rich people sympathetic without letting the characters off the hook. The pathos of their work derives, in part, from the disconnect between how exquisitely well educated the characters are and how little they know about themselves or the world. Niederhoffer’s characters, in contrast, are not only dumb about themselves, they’re also just dumb.