Inspired by the 1959 hit song, Dale Launer’s “Love Potion No. 9” is a light-hearted one-joke romantic comedy that tries too hard to be cute. Glib humor and emphasis on “feel good” values aim squarely at the dating crowd and twentysomething couples. But lack of real wit and comic vitality, absence of star names and sluggish pace make pic less appealing than it might have been.
Shot two years ago, good-natured tale embraces a hopeful, optimistic Capraesque belief: Under the right circumstances, every ordinary human being can gain confidence and transform into a beautiful, resourceful individual. Blessed with a familiar high concept, it’s a mildly entertaining, one-layer comedy that might strike a responsive chord with the very young and very romantic.
This variation on the Cinderella and ugly-duckling fairytales focuses on Paul Matthews (Tate Donovan), a shy biochemist terrified of women, and Diane Farrow (Sandra Bullock), a repressed and lonely comparative psychobiologist.
The plain and mousy Donovan and Bullock are very similar: They live in unadorned apartments with posters of Einstein on their walls, listen to the same kind of music, and so on.
But their quiet and boring lives are turned upside-down when gypsy Anne Bancroft gives Donovan a love potion that suddenly makes them physically attractive and sexually alluring.
There are, of course, complications and disastrous brushes with the potion that the protagonists need to overcome before their blissful union. Bullock has a manipulative b.f., and she is also courted by a British prince who, along with other men, falls under the spell of her magical charm.
Unfortunately, Launer’s writing is not as rude and energetic as it was in “Ruthless People,” and it lacks the clever one-liners that punctuated “My Cousin Vinny,” two of the scripter’s hit comedies.
He points the action toward a big, explosive climax that is regrettably lame and disappointing. Patter is too coy and reassuring, but is pleasantly performed in a fresh, natural manner by the leads.
In his directorial debut, Launer exhibits a draggy, unmodulated style. He’s not playful or loose enough to cash in on the potentially hilarious situations and stereotypical characters. Construction feels contrived and artificial, with isolated good pranks that seldom build into an intricate cluster, a crucial ingredient of good comedies. Launer’s orchestration of sight gags is too leisurely and deliberate, his pacing a bit monotonous.
Linda Pearl’s production design and Thomas D’Arcy’s costumes are specifically detailed and deftly executed, underlining the progression of the leads’ lifestyles as reflected in their hairdos, makeup and wardrobe.
But William Wages’ camera set-ups are too straightforward and uninventive, and Susan Pettit’s editing is inconsistent and not swift enough, as many scenes run too long and don’t flow together.