Til There Was You (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Most romantic comedies make it known early in the proceedings that they intend to follow all the time-honored, tried-and-true conventions of the genre by leading us down a well-trodden path littered with formulaic plots and overused character types. For the most part, 'Til There Was You, 1997's April romance movie, manages to avoid this trap, and, in the process, has the dubious distinction of making us wonder if by-the-numbers familiarity is necessarily a bad thing. In trying to be different by using the Sleepless in Seattle approach of keeping the main characters apart until the finale, 'Til There Was You feels like a joke without a punchline. The payoff, such as it is, is distressingly anticlimactic, and results in frustration.

Comparisons with Sleepless are unavoidable. Nora Ephron's 1993 summer splash, which has inexplicably become something of a recent classic of the genre, takes the risk of keeping Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks a continent away from each other for the entire movie. Nevertheless, because the actors are charismatic and their characters are likable, the picture never loses its way. We look forward to the inevitable moment when the two will meet, but the script doesn't seem to be dragging its feet getting to that point.

That's not the case with 'Til There Was You. Although many of the details are different from those in Sleepless, the approach and intent are the same. Sadly, the rhythm is all wrong. Jeanne Tripplehorn, best known to this point as Michael Douglas' wife from Basic Instinct, is Gwen, an incurable romantic who has waited her entire life for the right person. Now in her early thirties, she's beginning to lose faith in life and love. Every time she meets a man, there are problems. Little does she know that Mr. Right is nearby, only she keeps missing him.

Mr. Right is actually Nick (Dylan McDermott), an architect who is charitably described as "emotionally unavailable." Nick is involved with Francesca (Sarah Jessica Parker), the childhood TV star of a Brady Bunch knockoff who grew up to become a wealthy, materialistic, insecure ex-drug addict. These two live together, rather unhappily, while Gwen floats around the periphery of their lives, occasionally coming into contact with Francesca, but never meeting Nick. Until the end, that is, when fate finally intervenes.

Part of the problem with 'Til There Was You is that the characters aren't all that compelling. Just because they have arcs (Gwen gaining confidence in her ability to write; Nick learning the value of truth) doesn't mean that they're well-developed. And let's face it: McDermott and Tripplehorn aren't Hanks and Ryan. They don't light up the screen in such a way that their mere presence can save an otherwise-stillborn scene. And 'Til There Was You has many stagnant moments. At one-hundred twelve minutes, it runs too long and becomes unnecessarily involved in poorly-developed, uninteresting subplots (like the one to save an "historically important" housing complex). Instead of waiting expectantly for Nick and Gwen to meet, we become impatient for the encounter. The movie fails to divert us along the long and twisting road to their rendezvous.

And, when that meeting finally takes place, it's disappointing. By playing a song over their first significant conversation, 'Til There Was You robs us of the chance to hear Nick and Gwen getting to know each other. After that, the film hurries to the "happily ever after" conclusion without giving us the opportunity to care whether the relationship works. First time feature director Scott Winant and screenwriter Winnie Holzman have apparently forgotten why people go to romantic comedies.

As disappointing as much of 'Til There Was You is, there are some high points. Certain individual scenes -- Gwen's revealing heart-to-heart with her father (Michael Tucker), Gwen and Francesca's lively bathroom chat, and Nick's final attempt to be truly honest with Francesca -- work extremely well. I also appreciated the manner in which coincidence is woven throughout the script without the characters ever making mention of it (for example, it's up to us to figure out that Nick's father's uncle was Gwen's grandmother's long lost love).

Unfortunately, the good parts of 'Til There Was You are oases in a desert. They can't save the whole thing, which, in the end, seems like nothing more ambitious than a Sleepless in Seattle wannabe. By definition, romantic comedies are supposed to be "feel good" experiences, but, rather than leaving its audience enchanted, 'Til There Was You trails dissatisfaction in its wake.

Til There Was You (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1997-04-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1