What do women's pictures have against women? So often recently, romantic comedies create a female lead who's successful in business but a nag, a ditz or klutz at human relationships. And when it comes to men, she's myopic: she can't see Andy Adorable right in front of her. These afflictions beset the career gals played by Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Katherine Heigl in The Ugly Truth and Sarah Jessica Parker in Did You Hear About the Morgans?. All were obliged to take a course in sensitivity training, at feature-film length, to nudge them into the arms of, respectively, Ryan Reynolds, Gerard Butler and Hugh Grant guys whose job was to wait around attractively until the leading lady comes to her senses. In each case, she's uptight because she can't love herself / get out of herself / trust her instincts / spot her costar.
Now it's Amy Adams' turn to get hazed. In the mostly awful Leap Year she's Anna, a beautifier of apartments about to be sold, and she's nearly engaged to the smarmy Jeremy (another thankless role for Adam Scott, who also exuded essence de smarm as Will Ferrell's real brother in Step Brothers). She thinks Jeremy's going to give her The Ring at dinner this evening, but he gives her earrings instead. Impatient to tie a comfortable knot, she resolves to follow him to a business trip to Dublin, where, as Irish tradition supposedly has it, a woman may propose to a man on Leap Year Day Feb. 29, once every four years. But the plane she takes is rerouted to Wales, and she must travel by turbulent boat, crowded bus, creaky old Renault, unpredictable train and occasionally on foot to reach her beau. Meanwhile she discovers true love in the form of Declan (Matthew Goode), an Irish innkeeper she hates at first sight.
Anna's means of transportation to Dublin are way more varied and imaginative than the route that the screenwriting team of Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont has Anna take from the dry comfort of Jeremy to the drenched adventure of Declan. You don't have to have seen the 1945 Brit film I Know Where I'm Going!, with Wendy Hiller as the prissy traveler who finds improbable love, to know that Leap Year is a simple ransacking of older, better movie romances. And of bad ones too: the scene in which Anna and Declan, barely on speaking terms, are forced to have a big smooch in public, got an airing in The Proposal; and the local dance where the warring parties start to fall in love was in... The Morgans? Doesn't matter; they're all the same deficient movie.
Anna needs all these mandatory intimacies because she can't read her heart nearly as well as the dullest member of the audience can. And that's because, in this sort of rom-com, smart working women are real-world idiots, and need infusions of soul by moving to a different culture where people know how to live. Girls they're stupid! Now of course, the guys in modern movie comedies are often dense or boorish, but the men in the audience cheerfully identify with them. They look at the jerks in The Hangover and, smilingly, say, Yep, that's us. I suspect that women, looking at someone like Anna, are less empathetic than mortified. I was.
In Junebug, Enchanted and Sunshine Cleaning, Adams radiated a warm, perky presence, and she works hard to do so here. But she's defeated by the indignities in the script (Anna plops in the Irish mud about 63 times) and by director Anand Tucker and director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel. Why do the cinematographers of romantic comedies so often make their leading ladies look like that Nick Nolte mug shot? (In Leathernecks, Sigel cast Renee Zellweger in a similarly unflattering light.) Adams is 35, and all we see are her crow's feet. Which at least gives you something to count when you tire of checking your watch.
Observing the critic's code of scrupulous fairness, I have to say that Leap Year becomes very nearly bearable in the last reel, when the two leads can finally radiate a little mutual charisma. That's mostly thanks to Goode, who had what we'll call the Jeremy Irons role in the 2008 Brideshead Revisited remake, and who is Colin Firth's lover in A Single Man. Here he agreeably inhabits his character even as he somehow stands outside the film, fixing it with the same skeptical eye Declan focuses on Anna. "The countryside's pretty and the pay's OK," Goode's attitude seems to say, "and it's not my disaster." Welcome another gentleman Brit to possible leading-man status in Hollywood. Everyone else involved should redact Leap Year from his or her résumé.
Mind you, the early part of the year is always a dumping ground for crappy movies. In January 2009 we had My Bloody Valentine, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Chandni Chowk to China and the implausibly popular Taken. Later this month we'll be treated to the spectacles of Jackie Chan as a babysitter in The Spy Next Door and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a brutal hockey player who's forced to become The Tooth Fairy. But in February there's the new Martin Scorsese, plus a fine French thriller A Prophet and the sequel to the parkour classic District 13. So there's reason for optimism at the movie houses, long before the next Leap Year Day.