October 21, 2017

Posted April 26, 2014 by D. K. Holm

Who knew that Joss Whedon aspired to the status of Nicholas Sparks? Or for that matter, Audrey Niffenegger, the novelist of The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Both Mr. Sparks an Ms. Niffeneggeris are two among many authors of semi-supernatural romances such as The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, and Message in a Bottle, a genre of romantic yearning that even Stephen King succumbed to (or invented?) in The Green Mile. What has evolved is a massive genre of psychic romances little heard of by the lit-fiction crowd and their reading groups, and the Sparks books especially lend themselves easily to movie adaptation. Mr. Whedon on the other hand is the current movie superhero god after his hit The Avengers. He is also the inventor of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, famous for its insight into articulate teen angst, though Mr. Whedon’s smart mouthed teens were never as ravishingly cynical as those of Rob Thomas, the YA mind behind Veronica Mars. And in Mr. Whedon’s spin-off program, Marvels’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which – granted – he has but a supervisory role, the Brechtian, fourth-wall-crumbling patter is lukewarm, like the dregs in yesterday’s Rockstar tin.

In psychic romance novels, potential lovers are connected by mystical paths slicing through the cosmos. Often they can travel through time. Upending Carl Sagan, these books posit a universe of erased distances, while the cosmos of the late Sagan is one of cold and distant isolation interrupted by statistical anomalies such as planet Earth. In his new film, In Your Eyes, written by Mr. Whedon but directed by Brin Hill (Won’t Back Down), Mr. Whedon tries on the magic cloak of the sparky psychic romance genre with a story about a New Mexico youth named Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) and a New Hampshire gal named Rebecca (Zoe Kazan, who, like her relative, director Nicholas Kazan, seems intent on cornering the romance market), who are inexplicably connected psychically and have been since childhood, though they only start “talking” to each other as adults. By that time, she is trapped in a marriage to a hovering, sleeping-with-the-enemy type doctor whose assumption that she is fragile and ill only feeds on itself, especially when she goes flying across the room when someone in NM bashes Dylan across the back with a bar stool. Dylan, on the other hand, works in a car wash, a sad decline from his days as an auto mechanic, a career itself derailed by an arrest and prison sentence, the result of which now making him attractive to childhood friends-turned career criminals.

The film takes an amiable amount of time doing the rounds, ticking off its list of must dos, such as the psychic “meet cute,” the getting-to-know-you roundelay, the “first look” via mirrors fueled by their eye-power, the dating advice, the marital advice, the realization of destined love, the enforced separation, the race slo-mo race through the field of lilies to reunion … well, not that last, exactly, but the modern equivalent, including brains, trains, and automobiles. To its credit, the script makes no effort to explain the phenomenon, it just is, perhaps like the monsters under the cabin in the woods, though one wonders how a psychic force or wave handles the curvature of the Earth. But the film ends just when the story gets interesting: finally united and fleeing on a train like hobos, the couple face a future like Benjamin and Elaine, and they should be staring ahead with equal blankness and wonderment about what they have got themselves into. What will the sex be like? Can a marriage survive when there are no secrets possible!

Slightly more interesting is its business model. In Your Eyes was screened at the Tribeca film Festival where it was announced the film would be available on VOD almost immediately. Others have experimented with VOD and theatrical release, most notably Magnolia Pictures, but this is the first film by a billion dollar filmmaker to stray into that area, outside of Stephen Soderbergh. Mr. Whedon has already displayed a yo-yo style attitude towards mass media, alternating between Buffy and as a show and as a comic book, and shooting a low-budget version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing during weekends off from The Avengers. This is laudable and notable as an experiment. Indeed, In Your Eyes is an interesting cinematic achievement, a blend of the predictable and the outlandish within a low-budget drive-in-movie level of technical accomplishment (occasional tinny sound, occasionally hysterical or uncertain acting). It’s a bid for the romantic-hungering half of the audience, in contrast to the costumed-avengers-seeking half of the audience, and Mr. Whedon maybe striving to conquer both.