"Readers of a certain age will find much to empathize with in this amusing, poignant, and compelling story," Maria Hatton wrote in her American Library Association review of Jane Porter's second "chick lit" book, "Flirting with Forty." Now it's a made-for-TV movie on DVD, and what was said of the book applies to the movie as well.
That audience, as you might guess from the title, is middle-aged women who know what it's like to have a man you care about dump you or divorce just when you thought things were going along fine, or when you're in a relationship that isn't going well and you're not so sure what to do about it. It's a second-chance-at-love story, where what's good for the gander is what's good for the goose. Or, as one character tells her friend, "Like my grandmother always said, the only way to get over a man is to get under another."
While Porter's book may be all that the reviewer says, it's also coincidentally a lot like Terry McMillan's 1996 novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. And, of course, so is the film version, which changes the name and ethnicity of the "hunk" but otherwise sticks to the script.
Instead of Jamaica--the location of McMillan's novel--the "Flirting with Forty" heroine vacations in Hawaii. And instead of a 40-year-old black single mom who has a fling with a 20-year-old buff local and wonders if anything can come of it, given their age difference, it's a recently divorced white woman with two kids who's attracted to a hunk of a surf instructor. And wondering if anything can come of it.
The teleplay comes via Julia Dahl, who wrote several episodes for "Party of Five" and "The West Wing," and the writing isn't bad at all. For the TV-movie equivalent of a romance novel, the dialogue rings surprisingly true most of the time and the scenes themselves are tightly constructed. Director Mikael Salomon, a former director of photography who moved on to directing occasional TV show episodes, does a nice job with the formula and pacing in his second made-for-TV outing. And of course the Hawaiian scenery does as much for this film as it did for shows like "Magnum, P.I." It adds an air of exotica, a level of paradise that fits in nicely with the emotional paradise that the title character is in search of.
Heather Locklear ("Spin City," "Melrose Place") holds her own in swimsuits and close-ups with co-star Robert Buckley, who is indeed 20 years her junior. The only time you can tell that she's middle-aged is in a close-up of her finger getting a dash of nail polish, of all things. Otherwise, she's as Robert's character describes her: "beautiful." These two look good together, and they look natural together, and with a premise and plot like this it's probably the most important element of the entire film. The great chemistry the two have doesn't just enable viewers to believe . . . it carries the film.
Locklear plays interior designer Jackie Laurens, whose "Sex and the City" circle of sisterhood is comprised of friends Kristine (Vanessa Williams), Nicole (Stefanie von Pfetten), and Annie (Chelah Horsdal). It's no coincidence that there are four of them, as that seems to be the TV and cinematic magic number for female friends hanging out together, talking love and life together, and when one of them hits a desperate patch, downing shots together at a local restaurant bar.
It's Jackie's first Christmas since her sudden divorce. Her ex-husband Daniel (Cameron Bancroft) is dating a "12 year old," as the circle of sisterhood dubs Melinda (Christy Greene), and poor down-in-the-mouth Jackie is staring at her first holiday as a newly single woman. And as if Christmas weren't enough to make us feel sorry for her, it turns out that her birthday is also just a few days away, but she'll be all alone while the kids go off on a skiing trip with Dad and Melinda. There are more than a few spots where the script gets a little too heavy-handed, as when Melinda gives Jackie a birthday present and a unintentional insult when she reminds her that she mostly wears sweatshirts and comfortable clothes. Right. And when she's having a big dinner party that looks as perfect as anything Martha Stewart would throw together, she still has that sweatshirt on as guests arrive, and she makes it through the evening saying, "I didn't have time to change?" Oh please. When she's an on-call designer who caters to best-client Clare (Anne Hawthorne), she dresses professionally. This was just a device to establish ground zero for Jackie's transformation, which is made possible when Kristine gives her a birthday present of a Hawaii vacation (we're not supposed to ask how middle-class Kristine can afford such a lavish gift).
As she's getting ready to take that trip, Kristine shows up and announces that her grandmother fell and broke her hip, which conveniently gets her out of the way so that she's single AND available. Sitting on the beach she's hit on by a boor and rescued by the local surf instructor, Kyle (Buckley). It's time for your lesson, he says, and they walk off. Then he offers her a real lesson and she backs down--but of course you know she'll relent and begin learning things from him.
In a way, this type of movie has it both ways. It's both as comfortable as that old sweatshirt of Jackie's, and a little exotic. The comfort comes, of course, from familiarity. There are no BIG surprises in this film, and what viewers are set up to experience emotionally, what they're prodded to hope for, actually comes about. The plot may tease a bit, or withhold a bit, but it eventually gives viewers exactly what they want. And that's comforting. I mean, on this couple's first "date" in Hawaii, the minute she says to him, "I haven't been with anyone but my husband since I was 26," you know they're going to be making love in short order. Make that a quick cut to a passionate scene between them in the surf shop, which is nicely undercut by someone shouting, "Get a room!" That's the have-it-both-ways element. Before things can get too sappy, writer Porter and screenwriter Dahl pull back a bit or throw humor into the mix. But, of course, this is a romance, and there are still a number of cheesy lines. When the two of them do make love, she says to him, "Feels like it's the first time." And he responds, "Because it is . . . with me." Later, when they're walking the beach and they come upon a panic-stricken French woman and her son, who was stung by a jellyfish, Kyle comes to the rescue and they both speak a phrase of French to the woman at the same time. It's like that unintended touch of the hand that's so familiar. It's still fresh in your mind when she's talking on the phone to her kids and in the next scene she's with him and says "You were really good with that boy today," you know we're all supposed to think of him as a legitimate possibility. We won't even get into the heavy-handed symbolism of the bikini he gives her, which she wears outside in Denver in the snow and ceremoniously throws away her beloved sweatshirt.
As is common for genre films like this, too many things happen for the sake of moving the plot along. Need to get Jackie to Hawaii alone? Friend's grandma breaks her hip. Need to get Jackie back to Denver? Daughter has an accident. But some of the plot contrivances also add a level of realism. Almost immediately after they have sex, Kyle announces, "I gotta run." And so Jackie spends the rest of her birthday eve crying her eyes out until three in the morning. Typical guy, right? Except this down point was needed in order to have her beam with surprise the next morning when he calls on her.
As for the performances, Locklear has never been a great actress, and it's because she only seems capable of a few facial expressions and emotions. In this film, she either looks serenely beautiful and satisfied, pouty, or partially numb. Buckley ("Fashion House," "American Heiress," "Lipstick Jungle") has a little more range. But Locklear's limits work to her advantage this film, because she's the reticent one, and he's the one who is sure of what he wants. Is it a fling? Can anything happen between a woman who's turning 40 and seems like a type-A small businessman and a 27-year-old surf instructor who prefers the simple life? And is there any more poetic justice than to have the wife whose husband left her for a 28 year old find love with someone a year younger?
In the end, it's not a weepy romance or tragedy. It's a feel-good film that, yes, will appeal especially to viewers of a certain age.
For a DVD, the level of detail is very, very good. Even in aerial shots of Hawaii there's minimal grain and bright, vivid, lush colors. Black levels are also strong. What's more, "Flirting with Forty" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, so the scenery can feel as expansive visually as it's meant to be emotionally.
The audio is a standard English Dolby Digital 5.1, with closed captions and English subtitles. The quality is pretty standard, too. The film is mostly dialogue (unless the mood music cues in) but when the music plays there's a nice purity of tone and decent balance of treble and bass. The front spread could have been a little wider, but for a TV movie the production values are quite good.
There are no bonus features.
Locklear has never been a great actress and this is a formula romance, with all the comfortable familiarity of a pair of old shoes . . . or sweatshirt. But for a formula flick it's well written, well directed, well paced, and well structured . . . if you like contrived romances. "Flirting with Forty" is a female fantasy, with Buckley providing the eye candy.