Unlike Franco Zeffirelli’s notoriously over-the-top 1981 filmization of Scott Spencer’s novel, Shana Feste’s “Endless Love” seems less a misguided adaptation than a deliberate, flat-out rewrite. Feste and co-scripter Joshua Safran turn a dark tale of self-destructive romantic obsession into an innocuous fairy tale about the shining power of puppy love, set in an insulated universe where head-on collisions result in a few artfully placed bruises, and class differences arise merely to test the resilience of youthful affection. Universal is wisely opening this sugary confection on Valentine’s Day, probably the only occasion on which tweens could persuade their dates to swallow it, though it may prove too bland even for its target audience.
Unlike Spencer’s troubled adolescent, whose uncontrollable passion landed him in mental and penal institutions, David (Alex Pettyfer) may be the politest, kindest, most well-adjusted yet non-nerdy teen in cinema history. Of course, he’s also ruggedly handsome, highly intelligent and extremely popular. He’s secretly carried a torch for blonde upper-class beauty Jade Butterfield (Gabriella Wilde), but has never spoken to her; nor, for that matter, has anyone else, as her grief for her beloved dead brother, Chris, and her drive to excel in school are generally mistaken for icy snobbishness.
Once the ice is melted, though, things proceed apace and the two are soon inseparable, tastefully and quasi-chastely consummating their love in front of a blazing fireplace. Yet one major obstacle threatens their love’s endlessness: Jade’s doctor dad, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), looks down on working-class, non-college-bound David and deeply resents any attempt to distract Jade from assuming her late brother’s place in a long line of Butterfield cardiologists. Jade’s mother, Ann (Joely Richardson), on the other hand, takes an immediate shine to the young man, encouraging her daughter’s newfound liberation.
For finally, “Endless Love” is less about the hand-holding pair and their music-driven montages of carefree bliss amid Georgia’s verdant greenery than it is about Family. David not only restores Jade’s stolen childhood and her relationships with her peers (the Butterfield residence knee-deep in partying teenagers), but also heals the deep wounds that Chris’ death has inflicted on the upper-crust clan. Here it is not young David but father Hugh who is obsessed, turning Chris’ room into a shrine, constantly dissing younger son Keith (Rhys Wakefield) for not living up to his sibling’s promise, and distancing his wife with polite civility.
A fire at the Butterfields’ — which, in both the novel and 1981 film, was set by David and provided the primal act that precipitated tragedy — here ignites by accident and sets Hugh on the road to redemption. He is merely the last of the Butterfields to tell David how wonderfully his love has illuminated his life.
In “The Greatest” (2009) and “Country Strong” (2010), Feste proved herself quite skilled, if not especially innovative, at limning her characters’ emotional travails. But subtlety, complexity and even the slightest modicum of realism elude her here. Her teenagers come off as eerily well behaved; the speak of getting drunk or high but show no signs of rowdiness. Their idea of lawlessness is to break into a zoo at night to ride the merry-go-round. And the speed and thoroughness with which all psychological problems are solved, once exposed to David’s beneficence, defy analysis.
Thesping is as good as the premise allows. Pettyfer incarnates the chivalrous hunk with a surprising degree of believability, and if Wilde’s Jade proves rather one-note in her overnight socialization, her flawless complexion and rapturous runs through the shrubbery sufficiently establish her princess stature. Greenwood, so brilliantly nuanced as another grieving father in Atom Egoyan’s “Exotica,” here injects his grief-mad doctor with a wealth of evil energy.
Airbrushed-looking lensing by Andrew Dunn and a sweepingly romantic score by “Frozen” composer Christophe Beck round out the saccharine bill.