There is no good reason Falling in Love needs to be as thin and tiresome as it is. But a combination of forces has doomed it to a pallid and maddeningly uncompelling existence.
The plot itself, while slim, is not necessarily a washout. As the advance publicity suggested, it’s like a story out of John Cheever – or even more like one of Eric Rohmer’s movies about people who meet, fall in love, then worry themselves sick about the consequences. This love story springs up on the commuter trains rolling into New York City: Molly (Meryl Streep) is going into town to visit her sick father; Frank (Robert De Niro) works at a construction site in town (he’s a building engineer), and happens to be without a car for a few days.
They bump into each other, literally, and for the next 20 minutes or so we see scenes of them doing a tentative mating dance around each other – both are married, but they have a way of winding up on the same train, accidentally on purpose.
Counseling them on should-they-or-shouldn’t-they are two pals: Frank’s buddy (Harvey Keitel, who also played opposite De Niro in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver), who is undergoing a divorce, and Molly’s friend (Dianne Wiest ), who enjoys no-strings relationships with men.
Throughout this section, when the principals get to know each other, the film works just fine. The situation has charm, and God knows De Niro and Streep have enough presence to hold your attention.
But when things get serious and some commitments need to be made, this movie turns into a real drag. De Niro, as a family man with two sons, plays it cool, and suggests quiet anguish. Streep suffers a lot, and loses whatever spark of life that made her interesting in the first place. Both get many close-ups from the director, Ulu Grosbard (a Broadway vet who directed De Niro in True Confessions a couple of years ago ).
They both look very good in these close-ups. But there isn’t much of a movie going on around them – just a series a very civilized and eventually rather dull episodes.
This is something of a family production: Many of the principal creators had worked together before. It got started because De Niro and Streep, who were both in The Deer Hunter, wanted to do another movie together. In a way, they’re an odd combination. Both are devoted to the theater, and to styles of acting that have much to do with what might be called “Post-Method.” They might be too much alike – in terms of overly wrought acting technique – to make sparks fly.
Scriptwriter Michael Cristofer had acted with Streep on Broadway (around the time he copped a Pulitzer for writing the play The Shadow Box); David Clennon, who plays Streep’s doctor husband, acted in that same production; and Grosbard and Keitel were longtime friends.
It’s a New York production – it’s almost a New Yorker short story – with just the trace of snobbishness that implies. None of those vulgar Hollywood folk sticking their noses in here. Thing is, maybe they should have had those movie people there – because after about an hour of this enervated and tasteful production you start wishing somebody would do something really vulgar.
First published in the Herald, November 1984
Both brilliant actors, but the energy that goes on between them (combined with the film’s dreary sense of mood and place) generates zilch. And does the title itself make anybody else cringe? It’s just not happening here, nothing, nada.