Tribeca has a fetish for American movies that billboard their origins, and, in helmer-scripter Jonathan Hawley's debut outing the lover of the title is pic's city of origin, Los Angeles. Hero meets perfect woman on eve of his departure from West Coast. Might attract theatrical auds before pic snuggles comfortably onto cable.

A correction was made to this review on June 2, 2004.

Tribeca Film Fest has a fetish for American movies that billboard their origins, and, in helmer-scripter Jordan Hawley’s debut outing, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” the lover of the title is pic’s city of origin, Los Angeles. Determined to abandon West Coast glitz for East Coast intellectual fulfillment, hero meets the perfect woman on the eve of his departure. A cuddlier, more cutesy clone of Woody Allen/Albert Brooks school of anxiety-ridden romantic comedy, “50 Ways” executes its clever premise with journeyman competence instead of true wit. Still, fine cast and likable premise might attract theatrical auds before pic snuggles comfortably onto cable.

Questioning his career and life choices after a small earthquake shakes the house he shares with two friends, Owen (Paul Schneider), a successful writer of trashy pop biographies, decides to sever all ties with L.A. Some attachments pose no problem, such as dropping his current literary project — the life of a drunken philandering ex-astronaut (Fred Willard, furnishing yet another magnificently crude if somewhat less oblivious characterization).

Other connections, however, prove more painful to break. Knowing he will sorely miss familiar people and places in the City of Angels, Owen burns his bridges by telling friends uncomfortable truths, successfully alienating almost everyone he knows.

Owen makes it all the way to the airport and is all set to escape when he runs into Val (Jennifer Westfeldt), to whom he is immediately and fatally attracted. Unable to leave behind an unexplored possibility, he embarks on an accelerated courtship, frontloading all the speed bumps on the rocky road to romance.

He arranges to meet Val’s parents on their first date, plunks her down (unprepared) at a bar in the midst of his still-hostile friends, sets her up with a philandering rival, and, last but not least, refuses to lie, letting her see him as he truly is. Much to his consternation, she passes all tests with flying colors.

Meanwhile, in his now re-rented house, another romance is in bloom, between cool blond Allison (Poppy Montgomery), the one friend/roommate/confidante Owen hasn’t entirely turned off, and her sexy aggressive-kittenish new girlfriend Stephanie (Tori Spelling).

Hawley, a TV writer, tends to pull his punches, playing to pat rhythms and within comfortable limits. The multiple friendship-ending revelations Owen liberally doles out at film’s outset, for instance, come off as vaguely nasty — neither cathartic, funny nor self-deprecating enough to pass as genuinely character-defining.

Lead thesp Schneider graces the role with enough sexual presence to alibi a viable personality, but fails to completely internalize the twists and turns of the character’s generically neurotic imagination.

Westfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein”), by contrast, manages to make Val likable but just a mite too worthy, leaving a sufficient number of annoying qualities to justify the ending. Spelling shines as a streetwise yet slightly vulnerable g.f., and Montgomery effortlessly conveys her attraction for Owen.

Hawley wisely refrains from overplaying his hand; ending is well seeded but with enough subtlety to provide a pleasing jolt of surprise.

Photog Dino Parks delivers a paean to the lights and vistas of Tinseltown (along with a puzzling predilection for the Capitol Records building). Tech credits are pro.

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

Production

A Thalia Picture production in association with Davis Entertainment Filmworks and J. Todd Harris Prods. Produced by Jordan Hawley, J. Todd Harris. Executive producers, Claire Best, Tim Schaffner. Co-producers, Charles Arthur Berg, Craig Davis Roth. Directed, written by Jordan Hawley.

Crew

Camera (color), Dino Parks; editor, James Witker; music, Stephen Trask; music supervisor, Rochelle Sharpe; production designer, Shannon Kemp; costume designer, Shana Weissman-Mintz; casting, Anya Coloff, Jennifer Fishman Pate. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Showcase), May 5, 2004. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Paul Schneider, Jennifer Westfeldt, Poppy Montgomery, Tori Spelling, Fred Willard, Dorian Missick.
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