As a showcase for Steve Guttenberg’s 52-years-young pecs, A Novel Romance might have been better served as a workout video. Guttenberg’s not even an action star, but between the numerous instances of shirtlessness throughout his filmography (Cocoon, the Police Academy films, The Boyfriend School, among others) and the recent YouTube video of him jogging without pants in Central Park, it’s clear that he keeps in shape and desires our admiration for it. That’s probably why he signed on as the star and executive producer of this film, which puts him in the complimentary role of Nate Shephard, a guy everybody likes, even when he’s just lost his job, been dumped by his girlfriend, and plagued by the privileged notion that he’s talented and interesting enough to write a publishable novel.
The clichés don’t end with A Novel Romance making Nate the least rich and therefore most likable character in its middle-to-upper-class slice of New York middle-aged life—though why other characters like him is unclear. The cocky men of money that exist in Nate’s social circle are too easily unlikeable, especially Buddy (Matthew Del Negro), the coked-up, million-dollar-bonused executive who cheats on his girlfriend. You can also be sure that Nate’s ex-girlfriend, Alie (Shannon Elizabeth), dates these suits for their money and is ultimately a reprehensible character herself. Because they suffer everyone else’s abuses, the only characters we’re made to sympathize with are Nate and Alie’s girlfriend, Jenny (Milena Govich). They meet when they both happen to pick up the same stray cigarette left on a bar, deciding who gets it by who had the worse day, an awkward and unnatural gimmick writer-director Allie Dvorin overuses to continually connect the two in a way that tries too hard to be cute and memorable but feels as forced as if Dvorin had used a Chinese finger trap.
When Jenny moves into Nate’s loft, he makes a list of 10 commandments that they agree to abide by so that they have a healthy, platonic relationship, but really seems to have been thought up in order to keep Jenny attractive enough (one rule is to keep the tampons hidden) in case they ever break the last rule of not “coveting thy roommate.” Rules, of course, are meant to be broken, and the script has Jenny break them all in a quick montage, leaving that last one for a scene at Jenny’s family’s house on Thanksgiving. Predictable as this is, it could have been made pleasing to watch with actors with the right chemistry.
For a film about writing a novel, A Novel Romance is surprisingly shallow in regard to its characters and superficial in terms of its chapter-structured façade. It doesn’t seem to be directed so much as it’s costumed and set-designed. The outfits (or lack thereof), pleasing by conventional standards, are the most conspicuous presence in a given frame, with the actors merely the posers who transport them into different settings, making the film look like an extended clothing commercial. To give his characters an inner life that rings true, next time Dvorin might want to take a page from Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, the best novelistic film of the year. That, or he should drop his pretenses and just made a Pumping Iron with Steve Guttenberg video.