Published August 1, 1999
When The Very Thought of You, directed by Nick Hamm from a screenplay by Peter Morgan, was released in Britain last year, it was called Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence. The American distributors must have thought that sounded somehow too suggestive, so they gave it one of those nondescript American titles, like Lost and Found or Forces of Nature or Living Out Loud or One True Thing that could apply to almost any movie. And what one finds that such generic titles describe is often, as it certainly is in this case, pretty generic entertainment.
I went to see it when I was in London because Chris Tookey of the Daily Mail said that it was “the funniest movie I have ever seen.” Wow! That’s pretty categorical. You’ve got to respect a superlative like that. But, having now seen it, all I can say is that Chris Tookey cannot have seen very many funny movies. He cannot have seen many movies at all, for that matter. Psycho is funnier than this movie. There’s hardly a joke in it — or at least hardly a joke worth mentioning. And now I see that John Cleese is touting it for its comedy. All I can say is that Nick Hamm must have some pretty influential friends.
But then, I don’t like “Friends” either, and this movie, in which the three male British friends are supposed to be in love with the same American woman, resembles nothing so much as an extended episode of that TV show — but without the laughs. It’s also supposed to be heartwarming, I guess, because Martha (Monica Potter), Frank (Rufus Sewell) and Laurence (Joseph Fiennes), at least, are meant to be damaged people in search of love and meaning. The trouble is that there is no particular reason for them to be regarded as damaged, and their search for love and meaning is too familiar and banal. Martha says at one point that: “Ever since I was a little girl I thought that if I worked hard and stayed out of trouble. . .my life would be a fairy tale.”
Well, if you thought that, dear, you were a pretty dumb little girl! Is this supposed to explain why Martha, as we meet her, has been driven to such a state of desperation that she has chucked her job and family and apartment and lover in Minneapolis and bought the first ticket to anywhere? True, the lover was married and the pay was low (though not as low as she says it was here, since that would be well under the minimum wage) and the apartment was in a bad neighborhood and sixteen floors up. But you’d think it would be a lot easier to find a new apartment and a new job and (for a woman who looks like this) a new lover than to run away to any place at random.
At this point she meets Daniel (Tom Hollander), a successful record company executive who is returning to London from a business trip to Minneapolis. Being an inveterate ladies’ man (as we have already been told), Daniel puts the moves on her but soon finds himself telling her about secrets he has never told anyone else. He is in love. She has no money. He has lots of money. He offers her a hotel room at a posh hotel, no strings attached, then leaves. Meanwhile, Laurence has come to the airport to meet Daniel, one of his two oldest friends (the other is of course Frank) and, the flight having been early, has missed him. He has a series of mishaps (perhaps meant to be comic) in one of which Martha is involved. This time it is Martha who realizes at once that here is her dream man, so she has the information desk page him, even though she doesn’t know his name.
Laurence, meanwhile, is outside trying not to get his car towed and does not hear the page. No matter, Martha finally spots him and takes him to the hotel room furnished by Daniel. They are on the point of a kiss when flowers sent by Daniel come. Realizing that his rival is his best friend, Laurence gallantly retires from the field. But now he too is smitten. Martha is looking for him, both Laurence and Daniel are now looking her, and whom should she meet but Frank. Realizing that this is the beloved that Daniel has told the other two about, Frank (by contrast with Laurence) determines to seduce her in revenge for what Daniel had recently done to him over a woman.
All this is told to us in flashback by Frank, who is supposedly seeing a psychiatrist (Ray Winstone) who — what a laugh! — turns out to be a building worker. He needs help because, like Martha, he has a secret sorrow. It is that, after a long period of unemployment he has lost his nerve about auditioning for acting parts. But he’s not the only one with insecurities! No, indeed. Laurence has lost his nerve (for reasons unspecified) about playing competitive bridge and even Daniel, who is otherwise successful at work and with women, is having a crisis of confidence because his decorator has put a lot of second-hand books on his shelves, and he’s never read them. He’s even lost his nerve about trying to read them.
These are people, obviously, with serious problems.
If you can get past their triviality and narcissism, you still have to cope with the romantic clichés — especially the debate as to whether there is a “perfect partner” for everybody — I mean, apart from the one that Frank mentions when he says that “my perfect partner is me — me with breasts.” But Martha is alleged to be more romantic than that. As the winner of the contest for her favors emulates the act of recklessness of their inamorata and buys a ticket to anywhere as a way of starting a new life (now he has courage; now he isn’t “freezing up” !) the other two guys have a fist-fight which seems to leave them both as happy and fulfilled as they would have been at having won her. They have joined “some kind of men’s club,” says one. “This is how women feel when they give birth,” says the other.
I think this is supposed to be funny.