'Til There Was You rehashes the plot of Alan Rudolph's 1987 Tim Hutton-Kelly McGillis weeper Made in Heaven: Two lovers destined for each other don't actually meet till half a lifetime, or two hours, has passed. But Winant and Holzman ground the film in, you know, real life; Made in Heaven was set in paradise, while this one takes place in Los Angeles. The two lovers in this case are Nick, a troubled loner from a broken home (Dad was a drunken musician, Mom a waitress who footed all the bills), and Gwen, who idealized love as a young girl only to find out as an adult that her parents were living a lie. He, like, ran away from love his whole life. She, ya know, rushed toward it blindly.
Nick is Dylan McDermott, Holly Hunter's love interest in Home for the Holidays; Gwen is Jeanne Tripplehorn, who played opposite Kevin Costner in Waterworld. Growing up, the pair met once in second grade: He knocked her down as he ran from a bully. But they never again laid eyes on each other, even though they wound up working for the same person -- Francesca Linfield (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former child TV star whose bout in rehab prompted everyone to figure she was dead. Gwen is ghostwriting Francesca's autobiography; Nick's designing a newfangled apartment complex that will replace a legendary residence owned by Francesca -- which is the very same apartment building Gwen lives in and is trying to save from being destroyed ... by Nick! Whose architecture professor designed the building decades ago! Wowee!
'Til There Was You plays like nothing more than thirtysomething redux -- only this time out, Holzman and Winant are more bald-faced about their fantasies. Even Gwen's apartment building (the Hollywood landmark El Cabrillo) is awash in whimsy: Pink roses fall from nonexistent trees, neighbors sit in soft-focus light on front porch stoops and while away empty hours, and silent stars of the '20s haunt residents' dreams.
Nick and Gwen are perfect fixtures in the thirtysomething universe, a place where people wear emotions like Hugo Boss. They're just slight variations on Michael and Hope Steadman: He's a tortured architect who works in a way cool office (much like Michael's ad firm) with a boss who at once admires his genius and resents it. Gwen, on the same hand, is a writer turned community activist. (Okay, so maybe they're the exact same people!) They're blank slates living in an all-white world (a honkified Los Angeles, in this case), moping around in their successful universe, and they can't keep a goddamn emotion to themselves: "Why haven't I found someone?" Gwen complains to her father, played by Michael Tucker. "Am I so misshapen? Am I so repellent?" They're like walking James Taylor songs, crying because they've lost the keys to the Volvo.
Zwick and Herskovitz thought of the thirtysomething universe as an imperfect world populated by flawed characters who were, nonetheless, somehow irreproachable. The men exorcised their own fears and fantasies through such characters as Michael and Hope (the tortured Jewish ad man and the shiksa ice-queen writer/ housewife), Elliott and Nancy Weston (would-be adulterer and cancer-stricken saint), Ellyn Warren (ambitious single girl) and Gary Shepherd (college teacher battling his inner child). The creators exaggerated real life until it became the stuff of real drama, every episode a crisis adding up to a season of misery adding up to a lifetime (or is that Lifetime: Television for Women?) of sentiment.
"We're interested in the stuff of real life," the two men wrote in the introduction to a book of thirtysomething scripts. "Small moments examined closely showing the way people really talk, and dream, and even fantasize." But thirtysomething only pretended to be genuine: It pushed the hot buttons (divorce, illness, miscarriages, extramarital affairs, children), but they never really burned. There were virtually no sad endings. And Holzman, as story editor and writer, ensured there were no rips in the silk fabric that held these people together; she made the female characters a little tougher, perhaps, but in the end, Hope still didn't take that job in Washington because Michael didn't want her to. (Holzman had her shot at greatness with My So-Called Life -- but, finally, it was no more an honest depiction of high school life than Square Pegs.)
But with 'Til There Was You, Winant and Holzman have merely refined the Herskovitz-Zwick model by, inevitably, turning "the stuff of real life" into the stink of whimsy. McDermott and Tripplehorn never have a chance to act; they merely react. They stumble toward each other and the irrevocable conclusion -- the two of them finding perfect love in a tidy ending we know is headed our way before we even buy the tickets.
McDermott has perfect small-screen charisma, as evidenced by his turn in ABC's The Practice, but here he seems merely small-scale. He's a solo guy in leather who can't connect with women because of a horrible childhood; but for a guy built to brood, he's also damned sensitive, doe-eyed and perfect underneath skin-deep angst. Tripplehorn doesn't fare much better: She's a bungling bore, a klutz tripping through a life in search of the perfect man.
When Gwen finally finds Nick, they hardly create sparks -- she merely lights Nick's cigarette, and they live happily ever blahblahblah. The filmmakers would have been wise to have cast Jennifer Aniston or the manic, scrappy Parker as Gwen; indeed, McDermott and Parker have more chemistry between them, while Tripplehorn has all the charisma of rock. That's hardly what you want from romantic fantasy -- or, for that matter, from real life.
'Til There Was You.
Directed by Scott Winant. With Jeanne Tripplehorn, Dylan McDermott, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Aniston, Craig Bierko, Alice Drummond and Karen Allen.