Addicted to Love: A Reappraisal

This article was written as a contribution to Lovefest, a series of pieces by commenters on film website The Dissolve, organized by commenter The Narrator.  The only requirement was to write about a movie you like but no one else does.

Audiences who only went by this poster had no idea what they were in for.

Audiences who only went by this poster had no idea what they were in for.

In the 1997 film Addicted to Love, astronomer Sam (Matthew Broderick) appears to live a charmed life: after successfully predicting a supernova, he turns his observatory’s telescope to see his girlfriend, schoolteacher Linda (Kelly Preston) wave at him, as he does every day at noon (which is totally not weird or creepy, why would you say that?).  He’s perfectly content with everything the way it is until Linda tells him that she’s been selected to represent her school district in New York City for two months; unwilling to give his blessing (“Stay,” he tells her bluntly) but too timid to join her, he even drives his truck next to her plane as it takes off so he can see her one last time.

Cut to Sam preparing for Linda’s return two months later; instead of Linda, he is joined by her father (Nesbit Blaisdell in an amusing turn) who is there to read her “Dear John” letter.  “I’m not finished—the best part’s coming up,” he says as Sam rushes to pack so that he can work it out with Linda in New York.  Once in New York, Sam tracks Linda to an apartment, but to his horror he hears a man’s voice through the door: Anton (La Femme Nikita’s Tcheky Karyo), a French restaurateur possessing a volcanic temper and Rabelaisian appetites.  Rather than confront his rival, Sam retreats to a conveniently abandoned building across the street and begins living there as a squatter, spying on the pair.  Borrowing a camera obscura from the observatory, he is able to project an image of the apartment onto the wall of his crumbling loft, recording and analyzing Linda’s every gesture with the same precision he uses to observe the stars, convinced that once her infatuation with Anton is over, she’ll want to continue her relationship with Sam right where it left off.

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Enter a mysterious motorcyclist in sexless black helmet and body armor; after breaking into Sam’s loft, the intruder removes its helmet, revealing it is none other than Meg Ryan, sporting a look reminiscent of Melanie Griffith’s road warrior in Cherry 2000 and with a gravelly, threatening voice she abandons after only two lines of dialogue.  Her character, Maggie, is Anton’s ex, and like Sam she wants to use the loft to keep tabs on him; unlike Sam’s passive stalking, however, she is bent on revenge.  Anton used her to get in to the United States and then dumped her, and now he is going to pay.

The contrast between Maggie’s edgy, in-your-face to-the-extremeness and Sam’s attempts to keep everything (including himself) under control at all times is the comic mainspring of Addicted to Love’s first half.  Maggie needles Sam relentlessly, challenging his certitude that Linda will return to him (“The only way that girl is coming back to you is if a blast of semen catapults her across the street and through the window,” Maggie says with the tact that marks her character), with Sam insisting that everything is going according to plan.  The pair has real chemistry, and it’s clear that they belong together in an opposites-attract way. To its credit, the film doesn’t draw out the will-they/won’t-they: they will, before the film is half over, but under circumstances that highlight their obsessions with their exes.  They have unfinished business before a happy ending is a possibility for either of them.

Maggie’s plan is to destroy Anton utterly, to reduce him to zero dignity, to make him suffer as she suffered.  She enlists Sam to plant suspicion in Linda’s mind through a series of screwball contrivances: they steal Anton’s credit card and use it to buy flowers and jewelry; they bribe a street performer to put lipstick on a monkey, which plants kisses on Anton; they pay schoolchildren to spray expensive perfume on Anton with squirt guns (as absurd as their schemes are, the comedy really pays off when Anton tries to explain these weird occurrences to an increasingly dubious Linda: it’s New York, rich school kids have nothing better to do than squirt people with perfume, right?).  Sam takes a job washing dishes at Anton’s restaurant, an opening that allows them to sabotage an important critic’s visit (warning to the squeamish: it involves cockroaches).  Maggie even has a plan to trigger Anton’s allergies so that he is unable to model (his job before he opened his restaurant).

But a funny thing happens as Sam gets closer to Anton: he gets to know him, and Anton (not knowing who Sam is, of course) takes him under his wing.  As Anton, Karyo gives the film’s biggest performance: he absolutely is the intimidating, smooth-talking continental horndog Sam takes him to be, with a habit of threatening to rape people’s skulls (“He says that to everybody,” Maggie tells Sam), but he has positive qualities as well, and tries to share his wisdom with Sam.  As much a perfectionist as Sam, Anton is otherwise everything that Sam isn’t: a driven alpha male who isn’t afraid to go after what he wants.  In a scene set in the restaurant, Anton explains that France is like the planet Krypton—everyone there can do what he does—but when he came to America with his charming accent and culinary skill, he became Superman (one nice touch: Anton’s other employees echo and respond to his story as he tells it; it’s obvious they’ve heard it many times).  (The same concept would resurface in Love, Actually, but in fairness, Addicted to Love isn’t the first film by any stretch to point out that Americans are entranced by foreign accents.)

As Anton’s life falls apart (Linda does leave him, but not because of Maggie and Sam’s frame-up job: it turns out he really was sleeping with someone else), he holds Sam closer, believing him to be his only friend.  He drags Sam back to the apartment with him, plying him with wine and food (to Maggie’s disgust: she’s still watching them through the camera obscura).  When Sam finally confronts Anton about the women he’s wronged and reveals his identity as Linda’s ex, Anton surprises him—and Maggie—by confessing that he knows he used Maggie terribly, that he tried to love her after she helped him come to America (“I thought if I could just love her, then . . . the shame would go away”) but found it impossible.  “You can’t choose who you love. . . . Who the hell do you think you are you to judge?” Anton asks the man who punched him in the face, broke into his apartment, destroyed his restaurant, and pushed him down an elevator shaft (the last was an accident, but still).  While Maggie goes to comfort Anton (“Just say we’re even,” she says as she scratches the itchy rash that she herself caused), Sam goes to Linda and confesses.  At least, that’s implied: just as we have through much of the movie, we only see Linda’s angry reaction through a window, and we later see her return to Anton.

As for Sam and Maggie, they’ve discovered their true feelings for each other through everything they’ve done together, right?  Not quite.  Sam is ready to have a relationship, but Maggie insists she has no feelings for him and that he should just move on.  Sam leaves, but on the plane ride home he finds two last symbolic images: an envelope of photos of him and Maggie together, and an in-flight showing of Lassie.  As he tells Maggie upon his return to New York, Lassie helped him realize that Maggie was just pushing him away for his own good, that she didn’t want him to be hurt again.  One last joke, a kiss, and—after a Fincheresque trip through the camera obscura itself—we’re on to Neneh Cherry’s terrible rendition of the title song over the end credits.  It’s a bit weak after the whiz-bang climax, but the meaning is clear: Sam and Maggie are through the looking glass and back in the real world, no longer trapped by their illusions.

Even this summary of the plot skims over many details: Addicted to Love is a ribald farce, packed with incident, that nevertheless makes time to simply hang out with its lead characters.  It’s light and frothy, except when it isn’t, when surprising shadows darken the mood and the snappy dialogue gives way to yearnings that words can’t convey.  The long takes of Sam and Maggie simply watching, the camera centered on their faces as they react to what they see, suggests that despite its billing as a film about revenge, Addicted to Love is at its core a film about loneliness.

MegRyan2

In fact, Addicted to Love might as well be called Gaze: the Movie for its frequent scenes of men and women (but mostly men) looking at each other and themselves through telescopes, cameras, mirrors and other devices.  Sam and Maggie (an astronomer and a photographer, respectively) see the world literally refracted through lenses and mediated metaphorically through their ideas of what love is and how their lovers should respond to them.

The theme of seeing and being seen is further developed in dialogue: Linda was “imprinted” on Sam’s psyche as the perfect woman when they were in grade school together; Maggie predicts that Anton will make Linda feel like she’s “really been seen” for the first time, remembering her own experience with him.  The power of looking isn’t subtext: it’s right on the surface.  Even the concluding revelation, in which Sam realizes that Maggie—despite her protests—actually loves him, arrives in the form of pictures of Sam and Maggie together.  It suggests that people might lie, but cameras don’t.

Screenwriter Robert Gordon would go on to write Galaxy Quest, a connection of which I was unaware until I started researching this film.  In retrospect, it makes perfect sense, and although Addicted to Love isn’t as tight as Galaxy Quest (a hilarious and perfectly cast tribute to Star Trek and its fans), both films take a familiar genre (the romantic comedy and the science fiction adventure) and turn its tropes inside-out, looking for the human reality beneath the clichés.  You can call it “deconstruction” if you like, although I don’t think that acknowledges the degree of self-awareness that was already a big part of the 1990s romantic comedy boom.  Rom-com characters are constantly comparing their experiences to fairy tales and romance novels—what is Sleepless in Seattle but a movie-length tribute to An Affair to Remember?—and finding their own lives lacking.  (The current fascination with Jane Austen takes a similarly layered view of romantic expectations.)

Both films also walk a fine line between satirizing and fulfilling the pleasures of genre, in Addicted to Love’s case through casting against type and a deliberate rejection of the gauzy, soft-focus refinement associated with romantic wish-fulfillment: Addicted to Love puts the “com” front and center, the better for the “rom” to sneak up on the audience.   With its cartoonish cruelty and overreaction, baroque schemes and contraptions, and setting in a decaying old building, Addicted to Love bears comparison to Gore Verbinski’s feature debut, Mouse Hunt (or possibly David Fincher’s Fight Club: it wouldn’t take much editing to suggest that Maggie is a figment of Sam’s imagination, representing the aggressive side of his personality).  Like Verbinski, Dunne is clearly enamored of old-school slapstick, but unlike him Dunne, along with Gordon, is interested in plumbing the psychological depths beneath the Rube Goldberg surface.

As far as romantic comedies go, one of my least favorite conventions is the “wrong” man or woman with whom the heroine or hero is involved (possibly engaged), and with whom the relationship must be broken off before they can be united with their soulmate.  This thankless character is usually handled in one of two ways: sometimes they are so mild-mannered and understanding that they meekly step out of the way (think of Bill Pullman in Sleepless), making the breakup relatively painless (for the leads, at least).  On the other hand, sometimes they are so transparently awful that it’s easy for the audience to root against them.  Either way, it turns a potentially nuanced character into just another obstacle for true love to overcome on its way to the inevitable happy ending.  Addicted to Love takes two of those types—a bland “nice guy” and a possessive psycho—and puts them at the center, revealing that they have more in common than is apparent on the surface.

Obviously, the likeability of the stars is a key factor in Addicted to Love, which asks us to sympathize with characters way outside the bounds of accepted behavior.  If you don’t share my fondness for Broderick and Ryan, it may not work for you. The casting alone is meant to put us on their side, however: as I alluded to above, Ryan is not at all convincing as the vengeful badass she at first portrays, but it’s essential to the comedy that we know and recognize the vulnerable and kind-hearted Ryan of other films beneath the black leather and “Project Mayhem” exterior.  We need to see Maggie as wounded rather than evil: if she were played by Angelina Jolie, Anton would be dead before the movie even started.  (For that matter, consider a gender-reversed take on the story: if it was Karyo playing the angry, resourceful ex, enacting revenge on Ryan, we would be looking at an Enough-style suspense thriller or a cautionary Lifetime movie.)

AddictedtoLove

Maggie is a Hollywood costumer’s idea of a punky, bohemian “bad girl,” adding accessories such as oversized aviator goggles and a feather boa to her ensemble.  It never feels like more than playing dress-up, but where some may see that as a failure I think it matches the heightened tone of the film, and it’s great fun to see Ryan cut loose.  Despite her “mousy” or “pixieish” public image, Meg Ryan has actually taken on some surprising roles; however, her onscreen persona is dominated by When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, and the success of her films has largely depended on her adherence to the “Meg Ryan” character type.

As for Ryan’s costar, in the 1990s Matthew Broderick was an actor in transition, no longer a boy but retaining much of his boyish charm.  He spent the latter half of the decade alternating between lead roles in junk like Godzilla (1998) and Inspector Gadget and parts that made his boyishness seem wimpy (as in The Cable Guy), or revealed less appealing sides of that quality (such as 1999’s Election). Addicted to Love falls square in the middle of those years: Sam’s can-do attitude (and the way he puts just as much effort into sneaking around and spying on his ex as he does into his work as an astronomer) anticipates Broderick’s similar fall from grace as Jim McAllister in Election.

Like Jimmy Stewart, Broderick specializes in characters who are likeable, but who often put that likeability to the test.  Mr. Potter’s words to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life could equally apply to many of Broderick’s adult roles: “Look at you.  You used to be so cocky.  You were going to go out and conquer the world. . . . What are you but a warped, frustrated . . . miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands and knees?” (After last seeing Broderick in Tower Heist, I was shocked to see how buff he is in Addicted to Love: he looks like a leading man, even if his character doesn’t act like one.)  There is still much of Ferris Bueller in Sam, the world just starting to slip from his grasp.

And speaking of Stewart, although the situation is superficially similar to Rear Window, Addicted to Love leans closer to Vertigo in its examination of Sam’s obsession (this is very much a script by a writer just out of film school): the audience’s first view of Linda is through Sam’s telescope, through which he gazes at her every day at noon; later, the comedy slows down for us to just look at her through Sam’s camera obscura.  There are notes of real longing in Broderick’s performance that make his actions understandable, if not excusable.  There is an obvious metaphor of moviegoing that runs through all of the surveillance Sam and Maggie undertake in the film, and Dunne is honest enough to acknowledge its appeal: Kelly Preston is as radiant as a silent film star in these moments, and the scene of Sam standing next to her projected image, trying to will himself into the frame—back into a relationship with her—isn’t played for laughs.  It’s telling, however, that not only is he unable to hear what goes on in the apartment between Linda and her new lover, he doesn’t want to hear it.  “I just want to be with her,” he says of the image, but clearly he prefers the fantasy to the whole person.  Only after his curiosity gets the better of him and he avails himself of Maggie’s bugging equipment does he listen in, and the sound of Linda and Anton’s lovemaking convinces him to join forces with Maggie.

Linda

It’s likely that Addicted to Love fell between two stools in 1997: too gross and weird for audiences expecting another Sleepless in Seattle, but not acidic enough for fans of black comedies like The War of the Roses.  Still, its mixture of slapstick and psychodrama has its charms for those on its wavelength.  It’s no Galaxy Quest—not everything works, and as I said it depends greatly on the viewer’s appreciation of some very specific elements—and there’s no question that Addicted to Love is off-putting: while not as dark as Helena Bonham Carter saying “I want to have your abortion,” this is a movie in which America’s sweetheart delivers a monologue about her father picking maggots from a dog’s anus and cites it as an example of love. As with Meg Ryan’s character, however, it’s all an act, a deliberately abrasive exterior that conceals a squishy, pulsating heart.

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3 Comments

  1. Addicted to Love may not have ascended to the lofty box office heights of When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, but it’s very enjoyable to watch Meg Ryan suppressing her usual mannerisms to immerse herself in a bizarre romantic comedy featuring voyeurism, mouldy strawberries, and monkeys wearing lipstick.
    Rest assured, you’re not the only one who likes this movie.

    • While doing research for this article, I was surprised to find that it actually outperformed several other Meg Ryan movies that I thought had been better received. My main memory of seeing it is that my wife and I enjoyed it a lot, but had trouble finding anyone who a) had seen it, and b) liked it.
      Thanks for reading!

  2. Pingback: Addicted To Love, AKA: The cutest movie about two obsessive stalkers who try to ruin a man’s life, ever. | Lucynka Reviews Shit She Read As a Kid

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