My feelings are somewhat difficult to gauge after watching the 2014 romantic film “5 to 7” from Victor Levin, starring Anton Yelchin and Bérénice Marlohe, with Lambert Wilson, Olivia Thirlby, Glen Close, Frank Langella and some New York cameos. A young male aspiring writer begins an affair with an older French woman and learns lessons about love and life. (Can you already guess how it ends?!?!) As I watched it, I was pleasingly diverted. Sure, there were a few quibbles and questions that arose, but for the most part, I stayed tuned in to the story and finished it feeling satisfied, if not particularly strong about it one way or another. It was alright, ya know? There were a few highs and lows. It was a nice way to spend a few hours, and certainly no worse than other things I watch (helloooo, PLL). Before I really had time to reflect on my thoughts, I started reading reviews (and then even more reviews), which have added another layer to my reception of this movie.
The reviews are fascinating to me, however, because there are some seriously negative ones! And, yet, the film’s collective scores and ratings are decent. Rotten Tomatoes, with 50 reviews, has it at 70%, which is mirrored by IMDb’s almost 7k ratings averaging to 7.1/10. So, it’s also a film that a lot of people enjoyed! I think it’s harder to get a handle on it because it’s not as easily dismissed as other romances that are given absolutely dismal reviews. It doesn’t really surprise most of us “average” viewers when a Nicholas Sparks movie is completely panned, though many of us will watch it and enjoy watching it for a variety of reasons both genuine and mocking. But this is a different type of film, seemingly attempting to be serious, or worthy of a certain class of film.
Maybe that is where a lot of the vitriolic commentary stems from—the sense of expectations, lost promise, or something. Or, perhaps its because its yet another film about a privileged white guy who makes it big without all that much effort. And there is truth to these criticisms, particularly those that ridicule the trials and tribulations of a young, affluent, white, male, aspiring writer. The criticism of the underdeveloped female love interest is also appropriate, as she remains two dimensional and serves to advance the male character’s development and, of course, his personal and professional success. Those two issues are significant but, sadly, not that unusual. A different, though oft-repeated, criticism concerns the lack of chemistry between the two main characters and the overall tepid nature of the affair, which was somewhat surprising to me.
Anyways, because I found the reviews almost as interesting as watching the movie, I’ve included several quotes from a bunch of reviewers. The reviewers were working hard for their adjectives and comparisons after watching this one. Here, for
your my delight, are excerpts from eleven reviews.
Nostalgia, wishful thinking, wish-fulfillment, fantasy, fairy tale: these are all descriptions used by a variety of reviews, though it’s split as to whether or not that aspect of the film is grating or charming (or even intentional). Manohla Dargis’ review in the NYT began, “Boy meets woman in “5 to 7,” a New York romance set at the intersection of nostalgia and wishful thinking.“ Amy Nicholson at the Village Voice also referred to its fantastical narrative, along with the criticism of the central romance: “[It] could be a superhero flick if its leading man wore tights. It’s as much a triumph of boyish wish fulfillment… [Brian] is one of those suffering artists whose great tragedy is that at 24 he’s yet to be published by the New Yorker…” Indeed, somewhat like the hubris of Lena Dunham’s character in Girls thinking she is the, or at least a, voice of her generation, there is a sort of disconnect and lack of awareness with regard to Brian’s assessment of his writing career and life. David Ehrlich at timeout.com described it thusly: “Adapted from the masturbatory fantasy shared by every struggling, straight male writer in Manhattan, 5 to 7 tells the wistful story of a nebbishy freelancer named Brian (Anton Yelchin) who stumbles into a torrid affair with a gorgeous, married French woman.” Scott Tobias at thedissolve.com was more even-handed, though pointing out the flaws, and the near misses: “But it also couches the romance in fantasy, which helps the film’s broad, self-serving caricature of French values come across with the lightness and sweetness Levin intends. Otherwise, it would be the tale of a magical Frenchwoman who validated Brian as a great person, a great writer, and a great lover, before floating off into the ether.” I think this is a great point to acknowledge, though I am still torn about whether or not the film actually transcends simply using the female as the object of desire, the plot device, the “magical Frenchwoman who validated Brian.
Regarding the romance itself, Dargis’ NYT review pithily observed, “…because neither character works for a pay check, they run off to begin the 5 to 7 p.m. assignations that give the movie its title.” There is a complete lack of acknowledgement to how this aspiring writer supports himself, or more appropriately, is supported by his wealthy, endearing parents. The whole “diplomat” angle at least fits with my Hollywood views on the financial security that apparently comes with being a diplomat. Nicholson’s Village Voice review also honed in on the problems with the romance: “The larger issue is that there’s no credibility to Arielle and Brian’s romance. We get why he likes her — who wouldn’t? But what does she see in this nine-years-younger naif she treats like a slow child?” Similarly, David Ehrlich also questioned their sexual dynamic, writing, “Though it’s understandable that the melancholy Arielle is moved by Brian’s passion for her, the contrasts between them always makes her seem like more of a babysitter than a paramour.” Ann Hornaday’s WaPo review also comments on its cloying nature and the problem that is its female muse: “There’s a fine line between winsome charm and grating too-cuteness, and the Manhattan-set romance “5 to 7” flirts with and finally crosses it once too often… More problematically, Arielle never comes suitably into focus, remaining instead a maddeningly obscure object of desire.” Peter Keough’s review in the Boston Globe wondered, rightly so: “What would young, aspiring writers in movies do without kooky women to serve as their muse?” And yet he acknowledged that, “the film at times genuinely touches on the bittersweet magic of first love.” Philippa Hawker’s review in the Sydney Morning Herald also focused on the way in which Brian (and thus the film’s writer) fails to fully realize Arielle: “His voice controls the narrative, but he never brings his central female character to life: Arielle remains to the last a beautiful, mysterious fantasy figure, about whom we learn very little… She’s more like a fairy godmother to Brian’s Cinderella — a kindly, beautiful enabler for a bumbling young man whose Holy Grail is The New Yorker. And the fairytale aura is nourished by outdated yet timeless notions of Frenchness and Americanness, grand romantic fantasies in themselves.” I like Hawker’s description of the ostensible love interest as a fairy godmother because it not only echoes the fantastic, fairy-tale nature, but also engages with the critique that theirs does not convey a truly passionate affair.
What makes it a difficult movie to describe, however, is that it at times comes together, as these same critics acknowledge. Dargis’ NYT review concluded, “Although Mr. Levin tends to embrace clichés and overstatement…he can also surprise you with delicate touches, a pained look, a wince of recognition.” Jordan Hoffman’s 4 out or 5 stars review in The Guardian might be the best of the lot, acknowledging flaws but ultimately succumbing to them as well: “5 to 7 is a full carafe of cliche but nonetheless intoxicating.” Ehrlich’s timeout review concluded, “At its best, 5 to 7 is refreshingly sentimental in an age ruled by caustic irony, and the obvious fact that its romance is doomed from the start doesn’t make the film any less fantastical.”
At the other end of the spectrum, writing for rogerebert.com, Glenn Kenny gave the film a solitary 1 star and summarized it with snark: “One afternoon while out maybe trying to acquire Life Experience to feed his fiction, Brian meets a most enchanting French woman… But somewhere before the halfway point the movie crosses a line, and its fantasy version of New York, not to mention of French women, gets to looking kind of hoary and inadvertently adolescent. Eventually, the fact that the characters are all aware of the multiple clichés they’re uttering…doesn’t redeem or excuse the clichés.” Andy Crump at paste.com leveled this critique: “Mercy should only extend so far, because 5 to 7 is too damn winsome for its own good. Worse than that, it’s disingenuous. Watching Levin’s movie is the equivalent of reading a collection of pre-workshopped, college-level short stories, each scene or bit of dialogue in as desperate need of vision and individual style as the last.” Pre-workshopped, college-level?!?! Yikes.
By far the harshest review I read, Daniel Walber at filmschoolrejects.com gave it an “F” and his review is quite quotable (though the review is worth reading in its entirety for its sheer disgust with the movie). Of the character Brian, Walber wrote: “The hero is Brian, a young man without any sense of his own enormous privilege… Brian is the most inherently irritating protagonist of the year, but neither he nor his creator has any inkling thereof…this insufferable wet dream of a protagonist…As it turns out, the young man is a natural between the sheets. Arielle tells him so in no uncertain terms because Levin’s script will waste no opportunity to fawn over its hero. No positive development in the entire film comes as a surprise, least of all the inevitable arrival of literary success for Brian…” Ouch. And, yet, despite my primary enjoyment of the film, I can see the validity of this negative reaction.
Walber continued, “There’s a certain irony inherent in a script about a writer of short stories that lacks even the slightest suggestion of subtext. That old Creative Writing 101 aphorism, ‘show don’t tell,’ is apparently well-beyond Levin’s purview. Characters constantly, insistently tell each other exactly what they are feeling. The audience is not allowed a single moment of contemplation… A few things are certain. It’s an extravagant male fantasy, complete with celebrity endorsements and beautiful women with very little emotional depth. Buttressed by an exasperatingly emotional musical score and a phobia of even the most subtly ambiguous of images and edits, Levin has produced a marvel of blissfully exuberant stupidity. It’s a cataclysm of nauseatingly blunt sentimentalism and persistent incompetence on a grand scale.”
Hard to come back from that.
And, yet, fuck it all, I still say you should watch it!
(It’s available to watch online if you have access to a Showtime account.)