It would seem more appropriate for Jill Andresevic’s documentary “Love Etc.” to open nearer to another holiday, but I guess romance can and does occur during the 4th of July weekend. After all, cinema regularly reminds us that fireworks are a metaphor for, or at least accompaniment to, love. Then again, “Love Etc.” also isn’t the rom-doc you might expect based on the title, anyway. Not to spoil too much, but some of the people in the doc are out of love by film’s end. Might disappoint some people who later check it out as a Valentine’s Day rental. However, those few of you craving a non-fiction version of the rom-com “Valentine’s Day,” this might be right up your alley. It’s also in part the movie I wanted “New York, I Love You” to be.
“Love Etc.” begins with an old couple, married for almost fifty years, as they talk about how they met. It’s right out of my favorite part of “When Harry Met Sally,” those faux-doc testimonials from elderly pairs with terrific love stories that I always wished weren’t fake. I could probably watch a feature documentary solely presenting interviews of that sort, even if nowadays they’d be met with more comparisons to online dating commercials. So I definitely appreciate the start of this film, which in addition to the old couple features four other preliminary testimonials of love or lack thereof.
These other stories include two couples and two singles, all ranging in age and location around the Big Apple (well, no Bronx or Staten Island represented). There’s Danielle and Gabriel, high school seniors from Manhattan experiencing their first major relationship, and Chitra and Mehandra, an Indian couple from Jamaica Hills, Queens, who are marrying as their narrative arc kicks off. Ethan is a hot but seemingly alcoholic divorced father of two attempting to find a new mate in Forest Hills. Perhaps his son’s friend’s mom? And then there is Broadway and TV director Scott Ellis (“Weeds”), who isn’t looking for a romantic match. His love story is with the kid(s) he’s having through a surrogate.
Yes, “Love Etc.” is clearly the “cute” sort of doc that in the grand scheme of non-fiction film is rather trivial. But they’re typically more crowd-pleasing nevertheless. Especially if they have babies (see “Babies”) or old people (see “Young@Heart” or the recent Silverdocs premiere “Age of Champions”). This doc has both, and the two most enjoyable stories are indeed those of Scott and the first couple, Albert and Marion (79 and 89, respectively), Canarsie-based songwriters with a new tune in contention to be Brooklyn’s official theme song.
They do work best because of their endearing lives and how likable they are as characters, not necessarily because of those cute factors, not anymore than because they also feature the best cameos (for Scott’s story there’s his “The Understudy” cast, including Justin Kirk and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and his good friend, actress Debrah Monk, and other familiar faces from the stage and small screen; Albert and Marion’s story has Marty Markowitz, who at least New York audiences will appreciate).
The younger couples shouldn’t be dismissed as great documentary subjects simply because they involve individuals who are less likable — even to the point where you might root against them staying with their partners — just as we can’t help but still be interested in Ethan’s pursuits in spite of his bad choices, maybe because it’s rare we get to see real characters like him without someone like Dr. Drew showing up to offer help (Ethan might be perfect for a reality series that combines “Intervention” and “The Bachelor,” though I certainly wouldn’t wish that upon him).
For such a small crop of persons meant to cover a very large ground regarding love in NYC, a place millions know to be hard for single folk, the eight primary subjects of “Love Etc.” are fairly capable of representing the most basic of romantic plots. And maybe it’s that I watched the doc with my new wife the evening we returned from our honeymoon, but I enjoyed it quite a bit and mostly appreciate that it actually has more unhappily ever afters than expected. It also helps that I’m a sucker for nearly anything regarding New York in film.
The one issue I might have with the doc is its structure. The five stories are intercut, as is the norm for documentaries of this sort, which does give it that feel of an intertwining-narrative ensemble-based rom-com that’s popular in Hollywood right now. But the characters never actually intertwine, so I don’t really see the point in their stories being weaved together this way. While most follow romantic relationships over time, none are actually that comparable, there are no parallels or any significant measure of them occurring simultaneously. They somewhat seem to play out over the same twelve-month time-frame, but it wouldn’t really matter if they took place years apart.
Like how “New York, I Love You” problematically attempts to mix up some of its stories when it should stick to the shorts-compilation ordered format of a true omnibus film, I think “Love Etc.” also could work better as an anthology rather than the multi-narrative feature it tries to be. With most documentaries following numerous stories and subjects, those characters and their arcs tend to wind up meeting up in the same place, be it a competition or event of some sort.
I’m glad Andresevic never forces a collision of narratives, at least, for the sake of making her chosen structure more applicable. I just wish she and other documentarians wouldn’t be afraid to go with a different formula for once. “Love Etc.” has good enough characters and narratives that they can stand on their own, just as they do in real life, so why not let them?
“Love Etc.” opens in NYC this Friday and then hits L.A., Philadelphia, San Diego and Boston later in the month (see theater bookings here).
Recommended If You Like: “When Harry Met Sally”; “Love Actually”; “Babies”