Saturday, February 14, 2015

‘Imagine’ Another Guilty Pleasure

You know what I hate?  A movie that’s nothing but a bundle of contrivances but that wins me over anyway.  Such describes the contemporary gay-themed British romantic comedy Imagine Me and You (2005), written and directed by veteran scribe Ol Parker.  From beginning to end, Imagine Me and You is chock-full of far-fetched confabulations and coincidences that beggar belief.  Still, the film’s story creates such a fanciful “what-if?” that I find myself putting my better critical instincts into hibernation

Let’s start with the premise: The lead character, Rachel (Piper Perabo), has, for all intents and purposes, never really been in love until she’s struck by Cupid’s arrow on her wedding day, a bolt from the blue brought about by someone other than her groom — namely, her female florist.  A woman in her 20s, Rachel is very fond of her betrothed, Heck (Matthew Goode), but she has never really been passionately in love with him.  However, precisely when she’s walking down the aisle, Rachel’s brief glimpse of her lesbian florist, Luce (Lena Heady), brings down a disorienting (in more ways than one) coup de foudre that calls the bride’s life into question.  “Unlikely” doesn’t begin to describe this outlandish set-up, especially in the less homophobic 21st century, but non-fictional stories of late-in-life team-changers (such as Meredith Baxter) tell us that this kind of situation is not outside the realm of possibility. 
Lena Heady as Luce (left) and Piper Perabo as Rachel
Set in contemporary middle-class London, Imagine Me and You — with gentle, underplayed humor — tells the story of Rachel growing away from Heck and giving herself over to her unexpected romantic feelings for Luce.  But director Parker challenged himself with a task that layers this improbable premise with another level of artifice: he didn’t want any of the leads to be the bad guy of the piece.  If one were to imagine a real-world scenario of a bride who inopportunely discovers her lesbianism on the day of her “traditional” wedding, the mind would visualize scenes of deception, cheating, and flagrant lies that would likely lead to an unhappy ending (something closer to the solemn Jenny-Marina-Tim plot in The L Word).  But because Imagine Me and You wants to narrate a sunny comedy with likeable leads, Parker devises some convoluted scenes, such as Heck — via a perfect storm of circumstances — unwittingly setting up Rachel and Luce’s very innocent first “date.”  Other improbabilities include Rachel being clueless as to Luce’s lesbianism until a coincidental encounter in a supermarket, Luce helping Rachel’s primary-school-age sister with a class project without anyone knowing (serendipitously enabling Rachel and Luce to get together again), and Heck having a best friend, Cooper (Darren Boyd), utterly unlike himself in every respect. 

After they acknowledge their love for each other, the very considerate Rachel and Luce agree not to see each other again in order to spare Heck’s feelings.  But good-guy Heck realizes he’s in the way and willingly leaves so that the two women can have a de rigueur (for a rom-com) race to the airport in the third act, a mannered girl-gets-girl climax, and a happy ending.  Not to worry, the closing credits (set, as one might expect, to the Turtles’ “Happy Together”) extend a potential love interest to Heck, so that story thread is neatly tied up.  (Moreover, none of these contemporary Londoners smokes.  What kind of alternate universe is this?) 
Luce symbolically “marries” Rachel by placing
her lost wedding ring on her finger.
So, why do I (a heterosexual male viewer) like Imagine Me and You?  Well, for all its improbabilities, the screenplay is put together with a healthy dollop of wit.  The characters are fleshed out well enough to make their unlikely actions credible.  And the underplayed performances by the cast prevent these relatable characters from devolving into stock figures.  Therefore, simply in terms of filmmaking craftsmanship, Imagine Me and You makes for an enjoyable, elating example of the romantic comedy.  But even though it sometimes strains credibility, Rachel’s story of discovering her heart’s desire at the most infelicitous moment, but eventually overcoming herself to get what she wants, is so intriguing — and sets up a fantastical premise that I like seeing played out — that I can easily forgive its occasional artificial-feeling moments.

Darren Boyd as Cooper (left) and Matthew Goode as Heck
Although the character of Cooper, the single-minded (and somewhat simpleminded) Lothario, comes the closest to being a one-dimensional stereotype — and we wonder why the more thoughtful and considerate Heck would bother hanging around such a rake, never mind wanting him for best man — the film surprises us by showing his other side. Throughout Imagine Me and You, Cooper makes clear that he frequently hits on married women and gets them to cheat on their husbands.  But once he gets wind of his best friend being possibly cuckolded, Cooper suddenly and unexpectedly becomes a font of morality and chews out Luce for driving a wedge between Rachel and Heck.  There’s more than one side to Cooper after all: cheating spouses are acceptable to him as long as it’s not the wife of his best friend.  Also (and teasingly) the end credits show us Cooper acting all paternal with a baby.  Whose baby is it?  I’m left to guess that Cooper is the father to the baby of the pregnant Irishwoman (Sharon Horgan) who buys a bouquet from Luce and awkwardly hugs her and tearfully tells her that the boyfriend (Cooper?) will “hate” this unplanned gravidity.  But the film never makes clear whether Cooper is the father or not.

However (and I’m not the horse’s mouth on this subject), some gay critics have blasted Imagine Me and You as a make-believe palliative that assuages any heterosexual discomfort over real-life gay people and their real-life issues.  Writer-director Ol Parker is heterosexual (he’s married to actress Thandie Newton), and he chose as his romantic couple the gay configuration easiest for a mass audience to accept: two conventionally beautiful women (played by heterosexual actresses), a tactic not dissimilar to girl-on-girl porn for straight men.  Imagine Me and You is a film by heterosexual artists primarily intended for a heterosexual-dominant audience, so one can easily think of it (like The Crying Game or Brokeback Mountain) as a heterosexual film about the trendy topic of gay people, not as a gay film in any politically progressive sense of the term.

At the same time, the very fact that gay characters can be the unproblematic protagonists of a feel-good romantic movie intended for a popular audience demonstrates the enormous political strides by real-world gay people in recent decades.  If Rachel and Luce had fallen in love two or three generations earlier, their story would have likely been a Children’s Hour-style tragedy.  Instead, Imagine Me and You is the exact opposite of a “problem” play.  No individual film is going to boast a “complete” picture of a complex and multifaceted subject like homosexuality, and none should try.  The very existence of a frothy gay-themed romantic comedy like Imagine Me and You proves how malleable and accommodating the mainstream can be, despite some predictable resistance.  Popular culture must be enlarged, not overthrown.

So, to what extent does Imagine Me and You distort and misrepresent homosexuality by catering to a mainstream audience, and to what extent does it acknowledge the equality of gay people by welcoming them as fellow human beings who can populate a popular genre like the feel-good romantic comedy?  Not being gay, I can’t say for sure.  But this modest, well-crafted movie of someone who reinvents her sense of self in order to find her true love tells a hopeful story that can inspire us all — no matter how frivolous and awkward it can be in some spots.  Imagine Me and You isn’t an example of great filmmaking, but that doesn’t stop me from revisiting it over and over again. 

This European trailer for ‘Imagine Me and You’ makes the film seem more like an Éric Rohmer-style la ronde (with the four principal characters chasing after each other), instead of the romantic triangle between Luce and Rachel and Heck that it is.

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