I'll be the first to admit that when I first heard about Save the Date, I groaned at the prospect of yet another matrimony-inspired romantic comedy on the marquee. But Michael Mohan's Save the Date is a mature, refreshingly honest portrait of relationships - between lovers, family members and friends - that never fails to deliver humor and insight. Trust me when I say that this is not a wedding movie; it's something else entirely. Something special, unconventional, forthright. Save the Date might actually be something important, and in a film that could be called a rom-com, that is incredibly rare.
The focus of the film is the relationship between sisters Beth (Alison Brie) and Sarah (Lizzy Caplan), and the two actresses are perfectly cast, playing wonderfully off each other. There are few attachments as comfortably smothering as that shared by close adult sisters, and we're sold on the bond between Beth and Sarah by the end of the opening scene. Goal-oriented Beth is engaged to Andrew (Martin Starr), and she's thrilled to help Sarah move in with her boyfriend, Andrew's roommate Kevin (Geoffrey Arend). Sarah gazes longingly at a couch she's leaving on the sidewalk as she packs up her belongings - a heinous old thing to which she's attached a sign reading "Free couch. Slightly haunted." Sarah's looking to escape from the moment she moves in with Kevin, and when he makes an ill-advised public proposal to her during his band's gig, she's done with him. Beth scolds, Kevin pines, Andrew tries to stay out of it - and Sarah dives happily into a new relationship with a marine biology student named Jonathan (Mark Webber).
Caplan is astonishingly good in the film. She's always been a tremendous performer, but she transcends something here. Her performance is so legitimate, so tangible. Sarah is independent, she's selfish, she's incredibly talented and free-spirited. She's an unknown artist and she works in a bookstore, and she is perfectly content with her life as it is. She's convinced she has it all figured out. Brie shines in the more thankless role of Beth, who is overtaken with wedding plans and who views Sarah's break-up with Kevin as a nuptial inconvenience. Beth gets some harsh lines, but Brie has no trouble demonstrating that her character is a very good person in a weird place in her life. Sarah and Beth are sisters, for good or ill, and sisters are sometimes awful to each other. But one never doubts the love between these two; Brie and Caplan's chemistry is really quite marvelous.
Starr, Webber and Arend are also all terrific as the luckless fellas drifting in the wake of these two powerhouse sisters. Arend spends much of the movie absolutely devastated, but he manages to give color to a character that could easily be blanched. And I've never seen Starr in a role like this. He's been sweet and clueless (Bill on Freaks and Geeks), he's been sexist and cynical (Roman on Party Down), but Andrew is kind, intelligent, romantic. Starr is swoon-worthy here; he makes a believable partner to Alison Brie, however unlikely that may sound. Webber is absolutely charming in the film. I've always loved this actor, and he nails it in his first big role as a romantic lead. Jonathan's a dreamboat, sure, but he's a realistic dream. A dream that could actually exist.
Save the Date is made up of moments of warm realism. So rarely have I seen a film that interprets relationships in such an honest, believable manner. There's no "the one" in Save the Date. There are just people and there's attraction and there's timing, and everything else is random chance, just like in life. The meet's are pretty cute but not meet cutes. The dialogue is impossibly clever but the emotions are plain and real. If we were all absurdly gorgeous, Save the Date could be us.
The film is written by director Mohan along with Egan Reich and comic artist Jeffrey Brown. Brown did all of the artwork for the film - the credits, and all of the art sketched by Sarah. The art adds so much to the heart of the film, as well as to the story. It's lovely to see one beautifully composed shot, such as Sarah and Jonathan connecting in front of a massive, breathtaking aquarium, later translated into Sarah's strong, simple, arresting hand.
The story is further assisted by a righteous soundtrack that Mohan hinted might become available on vinyl. Andrew and Kevin are in a band called Wolf Bird; the original music is by Hrishikesh Hirway of The One AM Radio, and it's all really great and fun. Jonathan actually makes his way to a Wolf Bird gig because he's made it his goal in life to see every "Wolf band" - you know, Wolf Parade, We Are Wolves, Wolfmother, AIDS Wolf, Patrick Wolf - and it's just one of the many little, endearing details that make Save the Date stick.
Save the Date is that rarest of things - a film that is charming and bright but substantial. So few romantic comedies these days offer substance; even fewer offer actual laughs. Or truth. Or romance on a human level to which we can all relate. Save the Date feels important because it is. It hearkens back to those days when rom-com wasn't a dirty word. The days of Harold and Maude, Breakfast at Tiffany's, When Harry Met Sally. It's a small story honestly told, beautifully shot and tremendously acted. And that is something special, indeed.
Tune in tomorrow for my interview with director/co-writer Michael Mohan. It's a good one!