I know I’ve got a well-deserved reputation as a movie and comic book curmudgeon, but believe it or not I also possess a sentimental side, and I thought I’d let you lucky readers have a rare glimpse of it here, on this most romantic of holidays.
Yes, friends, love is in the air, and while the cynical among you might think that Valentine’s Day is nothing but a twisted exercise perpetrated by florists and greeting card companies to torture single people since most couples end up forgetting about it altogether, rest assured that nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, all of us married guys damn well better not forget to buy some flowers, chocolates, a card, and a gift, or it’s gonna be a cold night out on the couch. A dinner reservation and a romantic movie might not hurt, either, fellas, so do keep that in mind. It seems that Deadpool is destined to be the big Valentine’s weekend box-office draw here in 2014, but in a simpler, more romantic age — say, back in 1981 — the meaning of this day had yet to be buried under a wave of crass commercialization and ultra-violent bluster, and the flick of choice for couples everywhere that year was Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love.
Based on the runaway best-selling novel of the same name by Scott Spencer and given the Tinseltown treatment by then-“hot” screenwriting talent Judith Rascoe, this movie would seem to have everything lovebirds in the early-’80s could hope for : a pedigreed director (he’d done Romeo And Juliet, for Christ’s sake! Who could possibly doubt his credentials?), Hollywood’s most bankable young female lead, semi-risque subject matter, and a schamltzy, over-wrought theme song courtesy of Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie. I can only imagine the pressure most folks who were paired up at the time felt to live up to the relationship standard set by Endless Love.
Or, ya know, maybe not. After all, this isn’t so much about a love affair as it is about a doomed love affair — and doomed for good reason. Well-heeled 15-year-old rich girl Jade Butterfield (played by Brooke Shields at the height of her fame and popularity) is introduced by her brother to a dashing, but somewhat mysterious, fella named David Axelrod (Martin Hewitt) who’s two years her senior, they fall madly in love instantly, and her loving but over-protective parents, Ann (Shirley Knight) and Hugh (Don Murray) disapprove either passively and with a hint of jealousy (in Mom’s case) or near-violently (in Dad’s). They conspire to do everything in their power to keep the star-crossed young lovers apart — not that their efforts are entirely successful given that David does, in fact, manage to “de-flower” their precious little rosebud — but all this meddling comes with a heavy price : when the heartbreak of not being able to see Jade gets to be too much, you see, David goes and burns their fucking house down. And you thought you had some psycho exes —
Cue a nice long stint in a mental hospital for our “hero,” but he still can’t get that jailbait out of his mind, and the minute he’s a free man he has only one objective — to win back his lady-love, despite the fact that they have both supposedly “moved on” with their lives, and to rekindle that special magic that made a forlorn pyromaniac out of him. At this point, the only thing that has any chance of keeping them apart is if one or both of them recognize what everyone in the audience already has — that maybe they’re really not all that good for each other after all, and that love and obsession are two very different things. Good luck with that, kids.
As melodramatic and frankly absurd as all this sounds, my understanding is that Spencer’s novel is even more unbelievable : set in the ’60s rather than the (then-)present, the Butterfields in their printed-page iteration are actual hippies rather than well-to-do ex– hippies, and take their “free love” pretty seriously — Jade’s mom, for instance, goes so far as to pull up a seat and watch her daughter have sex with David, and the night the house burns down the entire clan is tripping on acid together as some sort of “familial bonding” exercise administered by dear old dad. Zefirelli and Roscoe were probably wise to chuck all that, but they threw the baby out with the bathwater, since the book definitely made David out to be an unhinged, and quite dangerous, stalker (back before they were even called that) who Jade was enamored with at first, sure, but came to fear pretty quickly. In the film, all that’s been swapped out in favor of a rather milquetoast “over-enthusiatic young love” depiction of their relationship that’s hell-bent on insisting that she’s every bit as unhealthily fixated on him as he is on her. Besides, whether we’re talking about Play Misty For Me or Fatal Attraction, if there’s one thing Hollywood’s taught us it’s that the stereotypical “scorned female” is always the one you have to watch out for when it comes to the whole “stalker phenomenon” — never mind that way too many newspaper headlines and pretty much every reputable sociological study on the subject has shown us that just the opposite is usually the case.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with Endless Love that a couple of semi-believable lead performances couldn’t save, right? I mean, if Hewitt and Shields can really “sell us” on the idea of their all-consuming passion, then logic and reason can go right out the window and we’ll take their bait no questions asked. Unfortunately, they’re both ridiculously bland and one-dimensional and you get the overwhelming sense that not only were their lives somehow “incomplete” before they met each other, they literally had nothing else to do prior to their first, fateful encounter. All of Zeffirelli’s artful staging can’t change the simple fact that when two beautiful but boring people meet, all you’re gonna get is a beautiful but boring “love” story. And honestly, for all the technical bravado he brings along to the party, the director seems as coldly disengaged with the proceedings here on an emotional level as his listless young stars are (plus the talents of Richard Kiley and Beatrice Straight are wasted in throwaway roles as David’s parents — but be on the lookout for a very young James Spader and an even younger Ian Ziering as his brothers!), and it almost seems as though he feels that adapting a trashy grocery store check-out aisle “romance” novel for the screen is too big a “come-down” after Shakespeare (which, let’s be honest, it is) for him to give it much by way of effort.
So, yeah — all in all, Endless Love just isn’t all that great. But take heart, all you romantics out there — Hollywood would give the same story another go in 2014. Would it make this film look like amateur hour or Masterpiece Theater by comparison? I’m sure that you probably already know the answer, but we’ll confirm your biases for you in our next review anyway.