If you come away from Shana Feste’s Endless Love with nothing else, you’ll have seen two beautiful people with beautiful bodies in beautiful settings and, for a brief time at the beginning of the picture, some beautiful moments of falling into first love.
In a nicely photographed and capably acted misfire, co-writer and director Shana Feste (The Greatest, Country Strong) adapts Scott Spencer’s graphic 1979 novel thirty-three years after Franco Zeffirelli gave us his 1981 Brooke Shields starrer, itself a melodramatic morass but one that at least faithfully captured the earth-moving amour fou of the novel.
Charting the extremities of an obsession that rocked two families but remained rock solid through separation, death, madness and even incarceration, in its corny, maudlin way, the 1981 version seems better when viewing this new interpretation, which largely jettisons the obsession—the point of the story—in favor of a fairly typical star-crossed teen love affair told through music videos, and one that never really seems to have much at stake. The pathos, desperation and erotic pull are all missing.
Right off the bat the film asks us to swallow a whopper—that lovely graduating senior Jade Butterfield (Gabriella Wilde, who looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model in the way so many twig-like starlet waifs do in the movies today), is a friendless wallflower. Except that she’s the best-looking girl in school from the best family and the most likely to succeed, enrolled at Brown pre-med and with a fancy internship waiting. Nothing to like there!
Enter hunky country club valet, working-class David Axelrod (Alex Pettyfer), who has been in love with the comely and virginal Jade throughout high school but too shy to tell her (whopper number two, given his looks). When he barges into the Butterfield mansion to stage an impromptu graduation bash, he raises the ire of her tight assed, doctor father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), and the delight of her more practical and emotionally neglected mother, Anne (Joely Richardson in a terrific turn).
Why does dad dislike David? Well, because, you know, David’s father, Harry (Robert Patrick, solid) is an auto mechanic, because David doesn’t have college plans (even though he’s scored through the roof on his SATs, ‘natch), and it turns out the Butterfields are nursing a decade-old wound from the death of an older brother.
What does this have to do with David and Jade falling in love? Well, Hugh’s modus operandi is to tighten the vise on his favorite daughter and shepherd her through med school, preserving the remaining smart one and instilling her with the dreams not realized in his deceased son. There’s also another son, Keith (Rhys Wakefield), who isn’t favored by pop because the story says so, though he seems a lovely chap scene-for-scene. Hugh and Anne’s marriage is also on the rocks—you didn’t see that one coming—so as one love is born, another is about to end.
On the plus side, Feste vividly captures the tingling euphoria of falling in love, and both Pettyfer and Wilde adeptly play these notes together—their budding relationship is initially enchanting and their scenes frolicking together in lakes, clandestine closets, the back of a pick-up and, as was famously done in the 1981 version, on a large rug in front of a roaring fire, really do work.
But once the lovers are thwarted, Endless Love runs out of gas—and Feste fails to muster the requisite grand passion necessary for us to care whether they reunite. Consequently, the film becomes all about Greenwood as an increasingly cardboard villain in a series of overwrought confrontations that go nowhere.
Pettyfer is, indeed, both tender and handsome in strong, silent ways, his last notable performance as the fledgling stripper in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. He uncorks real feeling, particularly in a late confession scene with Patrick, dispensing just the right fatherly advice. Wilde (Carrie) doesn’t fare as well, her principal contribution being her looks, which are estimable, perfectly believable as a young teen but not so much when required to pine.
Tamed for the PG-13 set and therefore missing an opportunity for sensuality, which is a critical element of this now sanitized story, Feste’s new version is mostly a glossy, breezy and well-acted collection of clichés, which Feste, bless her heart, actually believes in.
And while Feste and co-writer Joshua Safran have retained characters names and a few plot elements, however repurposed, from Spencer’s novel, they’ve not one-upped Zeffirelli’s much-maligned original. And that’s because Zeffirelli caught lightning in sixteen-year-old Brooke Shields (and in that of co-star Martin Hewitt), and delivered a soap opera of abandon, totally missing from this version, which seems aimed squarely at Directioners, and no one else.
Certain elements remain—the lovemaking in front of the fire (much less here), a house that burns as a key plot point—and others have been discarded in favor of less interesting stuff. Perhaps most notably, the Butterfields are now an upscale, 1% Banana Republic family, a vision of wealth, beauty and privilege. Yet in the source and first picture, the Butterfields were a bohemian, artsy, hippie family throwing pot and live music parties for local teens in their messy American four-square, very open to the teens’ budding affair until they no longer were—and Shirley Knight, in the mother role, excelled at the tenuous dance between counselor/mother to Shields and her own attraction to her daughter’s beau. In today’s knee-jerk climate there would have been an uproar at even a hint of such open-minded parenting, an unfortunate reality that robs the movie of much interest.
Watching the parental roundelays here between Greenwood, Richardson and Patrick, I couldn’t help but remember Don Murray and Knight in the 1981 picture, whose libertine permissiveness in allowing teen sex under their roof opened a Pandora’s box that unraveled their family. What have we done, they wondered, as the dominoes fell in lockstep, stretching years into the future.
But in the rarified, elitist world of Feste’s Butterfields, no such complexities are present—we’re given an upscale family in a beautiful home, patriarch worried about a lower-class boy who might turn out to be—uh-oh—a grease monkey, albeit one who truly seems to care for their daughter. And that class issue is presented straight-faced, as if for the first time. Yet like Feste’s The Greatest and Country Strong, both better films than this one (and Country Strong much better), there’s something endearing in how the director propagates unabashed sentiment, Endless Love treating shopworn plot devices with the seriousness of a heart attack.
The final sequence appropriates a crisis from the source material but misuses its point of existence by forcing Greenwood, saddled with a sadistic father routine driven by Ordinary People-lite grief destroying his family, to undergo a sudden change of heart, without irony. It’s hard to believe that when Feste watched the dailies she didn’t call bullshit on its hokum.
Endless Love most of all is about the gorgeousness of its young lovers, and both have ship-launching faces. Pettyfer, especially, will command a much better film, one day. And he deserves one.