Mars Callahan isn’t exactly treading unexplored territory in “What Love Is,” a stagy, guy-oriented rom-com in which five men and five women argue the unvarnished pros and cons of love. Shot on HD over the course of a week, calling-card pic looks and sounds like an Off Off Broadway play, although Callahan’s constant “Swingers”-style banter could earn more work for the underemployed “Poolhall Junkies” writer-director. Boasting everything from an Oscar winner (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) to an ex-Hobbit (Sean Astin), quickie pic should be an easy sell on DVD. Theatrically, outlook not so good.
With the exception of a short opener at the bar down the street, “What Love Is” unfolds entirely in Tom’s (Gooding) apartment, and though Callahan covers the rat-a-tat repartee with multiple cameras, energetically cutting between them, he can’t seem to shake the proscenium-style staging. It doesn’t help that Tom’s living room (where the boys hang) is decorated like a funeral parlor, while the cramped bathroom (where the ladies do their thing) looks like Barbie’s dreamhouse.
Though a gooey, chocolate-centered sentimentalist at heart, Callahan conceives “What Love Is” as an outrageous three-round battle of the sexes. Pic opens with a giant blue Mars symbol, announcing that the males will be the first to fight. It’s Valentine’s Day, and happy-go-lucky Tom has just been dumped by three-year girlfriend Sara (Victoria Pratt). She’s on her way over to pick up her bags when Tom’s boys drop by, all too eager to share their Neil LaBute-worthy one-liners on the deficiencies of women.
Between player/poser Sal (Matthew Lillard), happily married Ken (Callahan), touchy “tree-hugger” George (Astin) and flamboyantly gay Wayne (Andrew Daly), the men are supposed to represent the full range of opinions on the subject. Instead, they’re variations on the same voice, a sad suburban Rat Pack drawn as broad caricatures: George comes equipped with his own box of Raisin Bran, while Wayne prances about in a lavender sweater.
The men carry on their politically incorrect routine for a while, then the doorbell rings. A pole descends from the ceiling and five scorching-hot “chicks” walk in, stripping off their tops and gyrating like hookers. Cue round two, with its big Venus symbol: Now it’s the ladies’ time to do their worst. “Did you see the looks on those guys’ faces when we walked in?” asks Laura (Anne Heche). “I felt like a steak dinner in a sea of piranha.”
Rather than mixing with the men, the women — Gina Gershon, Heche, Tamala Jones, Shiri Appleby and Judy Tylor — congregate in the bathroom, fixing their hair and makeup while they riff on sex and relationships from their side of the fence. Though amusing, Callahan’s take on women is only slightly less out-of-touch than his portrayal of Wayne. Why should Lillard get the line, “Nowadays, most women think monogamy is a kind of wood,” in a movie that feigns to give equal time? (Except that he plays the pic’s most watchable character, matched only by Gershon’s teeth-gnashing carnivore.)
Eventually, the women emerge, but just when auds might expect the sparks to start flying, “What Love Is” goes soft, pairing up the rivals like awkward teens at a seventh-grade dance. In the end, despite all the attitude, it’s as if Callahan (who looks and sounds like a young Kevin Spacey) wants to announce that he doesn’t really believe any of that nasty stuff that came out of his mouth. Sorry, boys: Love is possible after all.