The ingredients seem familiar. Faith (Marisa Tomei), a schoolteacher, has dreamt since early childhood of finding her perfect, true love. Crystal ball readings, Ouija board predictions, and handy quotes from Plato and Goethe all back up her idealistic conviction. Yet something has gone wrong in Faith's adult life. She has settled for impending marriage to Dwayne (John Benjamin Hickey), a dour podiatrist.
But, one day, while fitting out her wedding dress, Faith hears over the phone that name spelt out so long ago on the Ouija board: Damon Bradley. So it's off to Venice with her best pal Kate (Bonnie Hunt) – who smilingly puts the tab for this wild jaunt on her Visa card – to find the mysterious Damon. And there, amid the familiar tourist monuments, the perfect soul mate appears almost instantly for Faith: a witty, handsome, hopelessly romantic Robert Downey, Jr (always a wonderful screen presence).
By the time Faith and Damon start recreating a famous scene from William Wyler's classic Roman Holiday (1953) – they both take turns imitating Gregory Peck – viewers know perfectly well where Only You is coming from. It is a modern romantic comedy in the vein of Sleepless in Seattle (1993) or When Harry Met Sally ... (1989), complete with sappy old love songs performed in the easy-listening manner, fey jokes about modern lifestyles and a slightly more realistic marital relationship lurking in a sub-plot for dramatic counterpoint.
Yet while some contemporary romantic comedies (such as Made in Heaven [1987) end with the moment of the lovers' first, predestined meeting, Only You still has a long way to go after this. Faith's bliss crumbles when her dream man turns out to be a fake – just a guy named Peter who figured the best way to fool his way into her heart. So then it's four for the road – Faith, Peter, Kate and her lugubrious Italian admirer Giovanni (Joaquim De Almeida) – on an increasingly frenzied search for the real Damon Bradley.
Such narrative games of masquerade and mistaken identity are nothing new in this genre, either. That's the aspect of Hollywood romantic comedy inherited from Shakespeare and Mozart, among much else. But these surprises devised by writer Diane Drake provide the only real moments of fun in an otherwise drearily formulaic movie. Billy Zane's brief appearance as yet another possible Bradley, this time a disconcertingly Californian dude, is a highlight.
Director Norman Jewison brings little style or insight to this assignment. Clearly coasting on the memory of his own neo-romantic comedy success Moonstruck (1987), he includes a dash of multicultural colour, an occasional touch of hip irony, a gregarious celebration of life's hedonistic pleasures (food, wine, music) and a large dollop of nostalgic sentiment.
All throughout Only You, however, something beyond the dull facts of the film nagged at me. Something to do with the themes of destiny and coincidence, the jokey references to the characters leading "another life in a parallel universe", the light philosophising about soul connections. Then it hit me: Marisa Tomei's performance bears a resemblance to Irene Jacob's roles in Krzystof Kieslowski's mystical love stories The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and Three Colours: Red (1994).
The association is not so far fetched. After all, Red is virtually an art-house remake of Sleepless in Seattle, with its pervasive telecommunication devices and deferred (predestined?) meeting between a man and a woman. Furthermore, Downey's furtive spying and relentless scheming in the name of amour in Only You recalls the obsessive male behaviour in Kieslowski's tragic romances-gone-wrong, A Short Film About Love (1988) and Three Colours: White (1993).
I'm not suggesting that Jewison and Kieslowski are necessarily studying each other's movies. But the affinity between their films can serve to indicate that romantic comedy is still a rich, living tradition open to many variations and interpretations. Only You doesn't do much with the available possibilities, but at least it sends you back to other, better films wrestling with the dreams and traumas of romantic love.
© Adrian Martin January 1995