In the summer of 1981, the movie Endless Love was two things at once, and they meshed together not at all, which is one reason the film was such a glumly gauzy and unsatisfying concoction. It was pitched to audiences as a steamy Brooke Shields heart-tugger, a movie that piggybacked on her brand following the outrageous success of The Blue Lagoon the summer before. (I say outrageous because that movie was such a cheesy-porny piece of teen-pinup kitsch — and also because it was shot when Shields was only 14.) At the same time, Endless Love was also an earnest adaptation of a deeply serious and acclaimed novel by Scott Spencer (it’s his only great book, and he’s essentially rewritten it more than once). Published in 1979, it’s a novel that posed a vital and even dangerous question, namely: If a boy falls in love with a girl, and they have an idyllic romance, and then he isn’t allowed to see her, and he loves her so much that he can’t deal with it, so he stalks her, and burns her house down, and gets sent to a mental institution — does all of that add up to an unstable obsession? Or is it what love really is?
The new version of Endless Love neatly dispenses with the darker side of the novel, and that’s one reason, I suspect, that a lot of critics won’t have much patience for it. It’s less faithful than the Brooke Shields version, but for what it is, it’s a much better movie. In the hands of director and co-writer Shana Feste (Country Strong), Endless Love has become a solidly engaging neo-’50s romantic melodrama, a movie in which love may be endless but unstable obsession lies less in the heart of the lover than in the man who would stand in love’s way.
David Elliot (Alex Pettyfer) and Jade Butterfield (Gabriella Wilde) are opposite-sides-of-the-tracks classmates who have just graduated from high school. He’s a smart, sensitive grease-monkey hunk, with longish hair and a soft-spoken chivalrous manner. He works in his dad’s auto shop and intends to keep doing so, with no plans to go to college. Given his sterling SAT scores, that marks him, in 2014, as the kind of unstressed noble prole you tend to encounter in the movies a lot more than in life. She’s his opposite number: a privileged, sheltered rich girl who’s been hiding in the bosom of her family’s stone mansion, lost in mourning after the death of her brother, from cancer, two years before. The British actress Gabriella Wilde at first looks too unformed to be interesting, but she makes Jade a winsome and delicate pre-Raphaelite flower — a girl who needs to wake up, and does, once she meets David, who lights her fire. The problem is her father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), an imperious physician who thinks that he’s trying to protect her but, in reality, doesn’t want her to grow up. Jade’s intense attraction to David represents the end of Daddy’s control over her, and the bad news is that he isn’t planning to let that go.
The central situation comes right out of the novel, but the movie plays up the father as the heavy, which might have been off-puttingly reductive, except that the superb Bruce Greenwood plays Hugh with an elegant, chiseled malevolence and a drive for power that comes off as all too human; the character clearly isn’t aware of how neurotically possessive he is. Greenwood, who was brilliant as JFK in the Cuban missile crisis thriller Thirteen Days (2000), plays Hugh with a steadfast manner and a quick, cutting mind that dances with secret glee whenever he’s scored a point. When David, in their verbal confrontations, hits back, Hugh looks quietly stunned, as if he can’t believe this kid would dare to take him on, and the tension in their conflict is what sustains the movie. In Hugh’s mind, he’s on a mission to save the daughter he loves; David is his sworn enemy to war with. There’s also a snob factor at work — the wealthy doctor doesn’t think that the auto-repair guy is good enough for his daughter — and while I’ve rolled my eyes at these kinds of conflicts in movies for decades now, I have to admit that the slow-motion collapse of the middle class has given a new urgency to this sort of how-deep-is-your-love vs. how-deep-are-your-pockets class-war rivalry.
Alex Pettyfer, who was one of the dancers in Magic Mike, knows how to smolder and be cool at the same time, and how to communicate what he’s thinking without making a big show of it — a gift that can take you far in the movies. In Endless Love, he’s like the young James Spader in the body of Hart Bochner. The film makes a token stab at giving David a murky hidden past, but even here he’s really a saint, and the glossy, 1950s, overly-clean-moral-lines side of Endless Love only grows quainter as the picture goes on. If the movie works at all (and I think it does), it’s as a swoony love story threatened by a basic, cornball Oedipal drama. But for a film that’s coming out on Valentine’s Day, that more than passes as respectable. B