Save the Date, a slim but likeable little romantic comedy that feels like a sweeter cousin of HBO’s Girls, opens in very limited release this week. The timing positions Save the Date not so much an underdog as an underkitten, mewing around the ankles of The Hobbit and destined to be kicked aside by the likes of Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen and their Guilt Trip even before the stampede for Les Miserables. Thus the quality of mercy may be somewhat strained in this review; I feel sorry for Save the Date, which really should have been saved for another date.
It stars Bachelorette’s Lizzy Caplan as Sarah, a bookstore manager in Los Angeles who didn’t quite make it through college and doesn’t quite know what to do with her life. She likes her cat, doodling—in a style that seems to be aspiring toward Lisa Hanawalt and/or Alison Bechdel but not as good as either—and sex, perhaps in that order. Her more together sister Beth (the deft Alison Brie from Community and Mad Men) is getting married to the amiable Andrew (Martin Starr, playing the non-goofy, almost mature guy for a change, and doing it well), who plays drums for a band called Wolfbird. Sarah is with the band too, in a manner of speaking; the movie opens with her packing up her belongings to move in with Andrew’s Wolfbird bandmate and best buddy Kevin. Kevin is played by Gregory Arend, who has an expressive, naturally hangdog face that would have been perfect for silent film.
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These cute couples can just double date forever. Or so it seems until Sarah, standing in the middle of the crowd at a Wolfbird concert, slaps aside Kevin’s outstretched hand—along with the engagement ring in it—and runs off into the night. Is Kevin that bad? Their sex looks kind of one-sided, but she liked him enough to move in with him. Sure Beth and Andrew both thought the proposal wouldn’t go over too well, but Sarah’s vehement response doesn’t immediately make sense.
But the movie won me over during a classic post break-up scene, that moment when sex with the ex is on the table. Through a misunderstanding, Sarah ends up drunk at Kevin’s apartment and decides, like Goldilocks, to take a nap there, assuming he’s away on tour. Instead she finds him on the couch, mournfully pecking at a laptop in his underwear and he comes onto her, reminding her of how great they were together. In that awkward few seconds, you can see from the look on Caplan’s face that Sarah has always been the girl who doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and so tends to get pulled along to places she doesn’t want to be. Plenty of us have caved at this moment, and Sarah, the one who feels guilty about not having her act together professionally, seems likely to. But this is when it becomes clear that for Sarah, her response to that proposal was the first piece of clarity she’d had in ages and she’s going to stick with it.
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I don’t know quite what to make of the rest of the movie, which features a rebound romance with another sweet hipster Jonathan (Mark Webber, hidden under dreary facial hair), who doesn’t seem any more interesting than Kevin—although in terms of the sex, he’s is an apparent slam dunk for Sarah. There are tidbits to savor, like the scene where Jonathan and Kevin both show up, hopeful, to Sarah’s first art opening, and each sees how she’s represented them in her artwork and the one where Andrew shows wonderful depths in telling Beth off for treating her sister poorly.
Like September’s Bachelorette, which also featured Caplan as a bit of a screw-up, Save the Date is romantic comedy with aspirations to do something new. That’s admirable but it isn’t enough. In the case of Bachelorette, much of the freshness revolved around raunchiness and with Save the Date, the result is a sort of vague second act and a third that ultimately ties things up by quite traditional means. It’s great to see Caplan (Party Down), a slightly less sparkly version of Amanda Peet, coming into her own after years in the comic trenches. It would be even better to see her tested by a part that’s more than just The Girl.
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