Some cinematic train wrecks take glee in inflicting something aggressively wrongheaded on their audiences. Others find an accidental sort of poetry as they repeatedly stumble upon new examples of ineptitude. More still are just woefully oblivious to the crafts of filmmaking or storytelling. Old Fashioned is something else: all-too-proud of its facility with magic-hour exposures, yet so embarrassingly sure of itself in its message (essentially, that contemporary male/female relations have reached apocalyptic lows and the virtue of a considered courtship under God is the only way to restore decency to the human race) that it rarely offers the gradations of dreadfulness and downright perplexing directorial choices that constitute so-called so-bad-it’s-good cinema. Any masochistic joy that can be derived from watching it, then, owes less to moment-to-moment idiosyncrasies than to the garish spectacle of seeing the movie take its bullheaded conceit to its logical, artless extreme, meanwhile plunging deeper and deeper into a dispiritingly narrow-minded worldview.
That worldview is tethered to protagonist Clay, an antique dealer in small-town Ohio who’s played, in a spill-the-beans bit of casting, by writer-director-producer Rik Swartzwelder. Within 30 minutes, Swartzwelder’s devoted more than one considerable chunk of face time to explicitly verbalizing a set of romantic theories (“All or nothing, until the wedding bells”) that are the subject of his old college buddy Brad’s (Tyler Hollinger) scorn. The blatant foil to Clay’s born-again puritan, Brad’s a misogynistic party animal extending juvenile belligerence into the present by, no joke, running a radio show bent on massaging the alpha-male ego and dissing women. Rounding out the post-collegiate crew is token black friend David (LeJon Woods), whose love of basketball is to be taken as emblematically as Clay’s admiration for Meet John Doe. David’s an unfailingly jolly guy with an equally saintly wife (Nini Hadjis) who, retroactively and implicitly, still gets a light slap on the wrist for enjoying a physical relationship for so long prior to a formal binding agreement.
Any masochistic joy that can be derived from watching the film owes to seeing it take its bullheaded conceit to its logical, artless extreme.
As polemic, the film is obnoxiously diagrammatic, but it’s no more tolerable as a love story—the mode it settles into once recent divorcée and spunky free spirit Amber (Elizabeth Roberts) rolls into town and leases an apartment above the antique shop. It’s hard to imagine a less desirable prince charming in recent memory than Clay, a stiff prude with an undisciplined mop of dirty-blond hair and a rotating gallery of baggy sweatshirts that would have made him quite the heartthrob in seventh grade circa 2003. (His defining past indiscretion is heading up a bootleg Girls Gone Wild-esque enterprise, which squarely figures him—and Swartzwelder’s feel for the zeitgeist—as unfortunate relics from the turn of the millennium.) Combine this inelegant mope with the gratingly twee Amber, who’s not above wielding a melting marshmallow as an impromptu news-reporter microphone, and you have chemistry approaching absolute zero. Needless to say, Swartzwelder’s conceit of having the two of them spend most of their screen time together on opposite sides of screen doors (an awe-inspiringly literal-minded bit of staging that reflects Clay’s caution toward intimacy and has the telling side effect of enforcing Amber to wait outside in the cold), only exacerbates the awkwardness.
The unabashed saccharine sweetness of Swartzwelder’s screenplay might do the trick for some, and it would be unreasonable to belittle a taste for the Hallmark ideal, but there’s mean-spiritedness and deeply self-satisfied ego-stroking going on at the core of Old Fashioned that disqualifies it from harmless V-Day-heartwarmer territory. When the narrative takes on darker shades in its third act, it levels a series of low blows at modern society (such as the inclusion of a punky girl who not only, horror of horrors, dances with inebriated men at bars, but also finds Brad’s show funny), only to affirm the righteousness of Clays rigid morality. It all concludes with a new landmark in gross-out cinema: Clay’s staging of a candlelit wedding in a local market, a scene that features a disgustingly protracted face nuzzle (even at this point the film’s too chaste to show a kiss) and Swartzwelder himself deified in autumnal light. Intended to definitively convert non-believers, this final vision instead inspires an urge to blow a line of coke off a stripper’s ass.