' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Pimm's Cup: Dater's Handbook (2016)

Friday, May 18, 2018

Friday's Pimm's Cup: Dater's Handbook (2016)

Even if the Hallmark non-seasonal romance “Dater’s Handbook” is principally about one women, Cass (Meghan Markle), it is nevertheless a story that comes in twos, as Cass is made to date two guys at once, trying to decide between both, while two family members, her mother and her sister, give counsel and keep score. And director James Head underscores this idea, so to speak, with emphatic, if emphatically artless, cuts between dates and situations. Like, if Cass is getting ready for one date in a white dress, then suddenly we see her getting ready for another date in a green dress.. Do not presume, however, that all these twos are “Sliding Doors”-esque. This is not a movie about parallel dimensions, or even about What Could Be? as much as What Is. Then again, even as it all takes place in the here and now, “Dater’s Handbook” finds duality in both accepting the conventions of these sorts of movies and moving a few inches past them. If these movies typically refuse to let women have it all, “Dater’s Handbook”, while nevertheless still sometimes dated (peddling cringe-worthy Jewish jokes), never exactly forces Cass to give up who she is for what she wants. She does, in a sense, get to have it all, even if she has to navigate a minefield of bad advice that nearly undermines so much goodwill.

As “Dater’s Handbook” opens, Cass’s life doesn’t look half-bad, taking her dog Duke (great dog performance) for a hike in the scenic Denver mountains, which is lingered over with a little too much rear projection. Quickly, however, we ascertain that she is Married to Her Job because we see her purposely striding through a work hallway with a to-go cup of coffee, the universal emblem of Hard-Charging Career Gal. Thing is, though, while a lot of Hallmark leading ladies play these moments with an air of I-Want-Something-More-I-Just-Don’t-Know-It, Markle does not; she lets her character like this life. It reminded me a little of Jennifer Aniston in “Wanderlust” explaining she dug her Blackberry, sleeping pill and latte to Malin Akerman’s nouveau hippie. And so even if Cass’s beau is obviously a lunkhead who does not deserve her, taking her to the batting cages for a date, there is an air of credibility to the idea that she would be in a relationship that does not require her true emotional presence.

The plot instigator here, frankly, is less Cass than her sister, Nadia (Christine Chatelain), as obnoxious a movie character as I have encountered though I am unconvinced the movie creators were mindful of this obnoxiousness. It is Nadia who urges her sister utilize the coaching of Dr. Susie (Teryl Rothery), author of self-help romance books that gives the film its title, in the hopes that this self-proclaimed guru’s belief that it is generally you, not him, at fault for relationships going bust will help flip a switch in Cass. And so, after Cass splits with her lunkhead and then meets cute at a wedding with Robert (Kristoffer Polaha), rather than letting fate chart her course, Cass lets Nadia, with the aid of Dr. Susie, guide her instead.

This is the only reason why Cass even starts seeing George (Jonathan Scarfe), a client, at the same time she is seeing Robert, meaning that each time she has a date with one, she reports back to Nadia and her mom Gloria (Lynda Boyd), with the latter taking Robert’s side and the former taking George’s. Nadia likes George because he seems to check key un-amorous boxes on Dr. Susie’s checklist regardless of Cass’s clear hesitation, and despite Cass’s clear-cut chemistry with Robert. Markle lends great credibility to that chemistry, flirtatiously giving shit with great aplomb, effusing a detectable glow in his presence. (Markle could have played the Cody Horn part in “Magic Mike.”) And in scenes with George, quietly, she mutes that glow by aiming to please rather than being herself, as if she is tip-toeing around that one room in the house your parents forbade you from entering.

Granted, George is not as blatant a dolt as you usually get in these situations. If nothing else, he is entirely respectful of Cass even if he does not seem to be all that interested in what she’s like as a person. And even if Markle evinces the idea that cosmically she is just blundering into the wrong relationship all over again, the obvious strings that Nadia, anti-matchmaker, pulls are enough to make you (that is to say, me), utterly partial viewer, Meghan Markle fan, want to scream at the television. Seriously, Nadia seems to operate from a place of knowing next to nothing about Cass’s actual wants and emotional failings which is ridiculous because, obviously, this should not be about what Nadia wants.

It made me think a little about Harry – you know, Harry, Prince of Wales. Monarchies, of course, are insider-exclusive, but Harry, bless his heart, chose an outsider to wed, one Meghan Markle. Why you can practically imagine the Queen consulting her own Dr. Susie and being inspired to point the young Prince toward a more suitable George-ish Duchess. Ah, but like Markle’s Cass eventually allowed herself to see the light, so did Prince Harry, adhering not to some Royals-Only Search Committee but to the desires of his own heart. Perhaps it’s not an exact match, but still. Hallmark Channel movies are, rightfully, respectfully, televised clotted cream; they are also, occasionally, rarely, really rarely, emotionally true.

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